The Alliance Party has nosed ahead of the Ulster Unionist Party for the first time in polling or election history, according to the latest Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk opinion poll.
Overall, though, the DUP and Sinn Fein have consolidated the dominant position they established in the last year’s Assembly election.
And there is scant evidence of the cross-community voting which DUP leader Peter Robinson hoped for in his recent speech to the DUP conference. Just one per cent of Catholics vote for his party, while two per cent of Protestants vote Sinn Fein.
In our LucidTalk poll, 1,130 adults were surveyed between November 6 and 23.
Respondents were asked if an Assembly election was to be held tomorrow, which party would they give a first preference vote to.
The race between Alliance and the UUP will be of interest given the UUP’s once dominant position. Now the two parties are very tightly bunched, well within the margin of error for polling.
However, we found that Alliance is just ahead with 11.6% of support amongst those intending to vote, with the UUP scoring 11.4% — a sobering message for Mike Nesbitt, the party’s leader.
In the Assembly election last year the comparable figures were Alliance 7.7% and UUP 13.2%. That UUP result was already the lowest in the history of a party that was the largest political force in the province until 2003, but has been in steady decline since.
Within months of last year’s election, the party leader Tom Elliott resigned saying that he had not been allowed an opportunity to develop new policy initiatives.
Mr Nesbitt took over with a huge majority in March 2012.
In May, our last opinion poll indicated that he had been unable to halt the party’s long running decline and that Alliance was now drawing level, with both parties on 11% each.
That result was dismissed by UUP strategists as a “blip”, but the position appears to be confirmed as the party’s baseline.
The UUP, a considerable organisation which still has 1,800 members, is comfortably holding its own in the west of the province.
The slippage is occurring in Belfast and the doughnut of constituencies in the city’s travel-to-work commuter belt.
Alliance is gaining support in this same area, but is also gaining in parts of Upper Bann and the north coast.
Alliance’s support is strongest in the younger age ranges.
Once regarded as a middle-class Protestant party, its support is now split in a 4/3 ratio between Catholics and Protestants, with Catholics in the majority.
On the nationalist side, the SDLP is up by 1% to 13.5% since our last poll, mirroring a 1.5% fall for Sinn Fein which now stands at 26.4%.
Despite overtly feminist policies and eight female MLAs, Sinn Fein is still less attractive to female voters than male. The ratio is 20/11 in favour of men.
Looking to the future, the party shows greater support amongst voters under 44 than above this age, a healthy position to be in.
The DUP has retained its position as the largest party in the province, with support holding steady at around 30% — the same as in the last Assembly election.
Unlike Sinn Fein, DUP support is evenly spread between men and women.
More worryingly for the party, the DUP vote is higher amongst the over-44s than younger voters and is highest of all amongst those over 65.
By Liam Clarke
One reason why Alliance and the SDLP got a slight surge in this poll compared to the last may be that more people gave a voting intention.
These are traditionally considered more moderate parties and conventional wisdom has it that some people who support them are harder to motivate on polling day.
There is no way of definitively proving this theory, but it is a possible explanation.
In other polls which ask party preference rather than firm voting intention, parties like Alliance, SDLP and UUP tend to do better than in our LucidTalk polls.
In our May poll, 48% of people said they didn’t intend to vote, but this time the proportion had fallen to 40%. Higher turnout is a variable in results.
Some 40% intending to stay at home on polling day is still high by historic and international standards.
Back in 1970 the turnout here was 76.6%. That was at the height of the Troubles when feeling ran high and we were considered one of the most politically active regions in the UK.
But who are the voters the parties are failing to reach? On the abortion question we found that support for a woman’s right to choose was 47% amongst those intending to vote and 53% amongst those who didn’t. All the other options, which correspond more closely to the policies of the big parties, were most strongly supported by those who intend to vote.
The most restrictive option, abortion is murder, got 85% of its support from voters and 15% from non-voters.
This suggests that there may be a more liberal and permissive constituency whose support the Stormont parties haven’t attracted.