Belfast Telegraph

Bill White: 'Liberal lobby' just don't get opposition to same-sex marriage

By Bill White

Hopefully you may have seen the results from our September NI-Wide Tracker poll – full results report on the LT web site.

Topics included a Northern Ireland Irish language act, same-sex marriage, Stormont institutions, and MLA salaries.

The poll results received wide coverage via local and social media. One key conclusion from the poll was that both sides in the current political impasse were pretty entrenched. Most DUP supporters rejected an Irish language act and Most Sinn Fein supporters said no Stormont unless a free-standing Irish language act. It still remains to be seen if the local politicians can bridge across this divide.

However, it was noticeable that what perhaps should be called the ‘liberal lobby’ which also could be said to include a section of the mainstream Northern Ireland media, were particularly strong (again!) about their views regarding the poll results on same-sex marriage issue.

This most recent LT poll showed that although a majority of NI still favoured same-sex marriage, that majority has dropped (65% in favour in 2016, now down to 61% in this recent poll). This drop has come nearly entirely from an increase in the numbers of unionists now against (56%, up from 52%).

However, going by the reaction to these recent poll results there seems to be a section of Northern Ireland people who just can’t understand, indeed can’t believe, that there is anyone in Northern Ireland who could possibly be against same-sex marriage!?

Ironically, at the same time as the publication of our recent poll, top US polling guru Nate Silver published an analysis of the US election polling and the US media coverage saying "probably the most important problem with 2016 coverage was confirmation bias — coupled with what you might call good old-fashioned liberal media bias".

"Journalists just didn’t believe that someone like Trump could become president, running a populist and at times also nationalist, racist and misogynistic campaign in a country that had twice elected Obama and whose demographics supposedly favoured Democrats. So they cherry-picked their way through the data to support their belief, ignoring the polling evidence — that didn’t fit the narrative they wanted."

I found this commentary erringly applicable to the reporting of, and reaction to, our own polls here in NI. Like the US media and their non-acceptance of Trump, there seems to be an element in Northern Ireland who just can’t get their heads around the idea that someone could be against same-sex marriage.

Nate Silver went on: "Just about all of the major analysts were against Trump, and were basically situated like the British analysts were when looking at the Brexit election. Good opposing arguments and opposing poll data were quickly dismissed, while bad arguments slipped through all too easily."

Another major US news anchor summed it up: "With the US election my media colleagues came to their own personal conclusion of the result that they wanted to happen, ie a Clinton win, and then looked for, and only reported evidence, to support that conclusion. That’s not journalism."

With this (probably unintentional) bias in the media, this increases the chances that things that might have otherwise been seen, will be missed, and journalists and commentators will latch on to, and over emphasise things, that they shouldn’t.

For example, during the EU Referendum there was far too much emphasis within the media (and the Remain campaign) on economic arguments, ignoring all the polling evidence which showed that the big issue with the public was immigration. This also applied in Northern Ireland.

So back to our first point, and based on our own polling evidence it shows that if a referendum were held in NI on the same-sex marriage issue – Yes, it would probably pass, but the vote could be a lot closer than expected.

Indeed, like the UK EU Referendum it may even be too close to call, and it could easily end up a ‘No’. Particularly if the DUP ran all of their impressive election machine at full blast. The local media should reflect this situation a bit better.

As we’ve said before, polling isn’t an exact science and the world isn’t one where things always turn out exactly as we want them to or expect them to. But it’s the world we live in.

Bill White, is Managing Director of Belfast based LucidTalk Polling and Market Research. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter at @LucidTalk.

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