Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Westminster election forecast 2015

LucidTalk opinion panel (March 2015)

Following our February Opinion Panel poll, we now present the results of our March Panel poll.

This is part of our program of monthly Panel polls building-up to the Westminster election on 7th May. The data from each monthly Opinion Panel poll is entered into our prediction models, which then forecast the results for each of Northern Ireland's 18 Westminster constituencies, and track any trends up and down.

This is similar to the prediction models we ran for last May's European election when three weeks before the election day we (in the Belfast Telegraph) predicted Sinn Fein for a 26.2% vote share with the actual result coming in at 25.5%; and the DUP for a 20.8% share with the actual result turning out to be 20.9%. So (in our humble opinion!) our Euro election prediction models weren't that bad!

In terms of our Westminster election prediction model this is how it works:

On a monthly basis, from now until election day on May 7th, we will be polling the LucidTalk Northern Ireland (NI) Opinion Panel which has 440 participants and is carefully constructed to provide an accurate representation of Northern Ireland opinion - via gender, area of residence, age-group, community background, socio-economic group, and employment group. The opinion panel has a pool of approximately 1,200 members who regularly take part in LucidTalk poll projects, and for this project a representative sample of 440 opinions has been collated.

Our Opinion Panel members were asked, and will be asked:

(a) Likelihood of voting in May 2015, and

(b) What party they currently plan to vote for, and

(c) Their current opinion regarding who would win in each of the 'non-100%' certainty seats (see table).  

Results are presented as a % likelihood of the named political parties winning in each of the 18 Westminster Parliamentary seats. Our forecasts will not predict vote share, size of vote, and/or size of majority etc., as to do this would require a much higher sample and more comprehensive poll. In this context, it should be noted that if the % scores go up or down for the main prediction, then it's the alternative party or parties (right-hand column in the table) that is retreating or advancing by that same score.

Just to provide a comparison of trends and changes moving forward, we show any changes from the February poll in our March Opinion Panel results table, shown here. Similarly we will be able to track any changes and trends with our next Opinion Panel poll which will be published a few days before election day on May 7th. NB All our March Opinion panel poll participants knew, and were aware of, the Unionist election pact announcement.

We can see from our Forecast table that out of the eighteen Westminster seats there are only eight that are 'in play' i.e. have wining probabilities for a particular party at less than 100%. There were nine of these 'in play' constituencies in our February poll but Newry and Armagh which was 90% Sinn Fein has gone back to 100% as a result of the Unionist pact. In our February poll, Opinion Panel members from that area, and others, noted that the SDLP candidate ex-GAA star Justin McNulty may put in a strong performance. However our Opinion panel now seem to think the unionist election pact will force nationalists/ republicans back into the Sinn Fein camp as way of counteracting Danny Kennedy who will now be the sole Unionist candidate for Newry and Armagh. As such the new Sinn Fein candidate Mickey Brady is now back on a 100% probability score, and is the strong favourite to hold this seat formerly held by Conor Murphy. It's ironic that a Unionist electoral pact should have this affect! 

In a similar situation to Newry and Armagh, our February Opinion Panel had shown that the UUP candidate in Upper Bann Jo-Anne Dobson was making an impact causing the DUP score for holding this seat to drop 5% from 80% to 75%. However, this seat has now returned to an 80% probability for the DUP, perhaps as a result of the unionist pact. Although ominously for the Unionists our models now also list Sinn Fein as an equal alternative for the seat with the UUP, showing the dangers of a near equal split unionist vote in Upper Bann. However, as with all these analyses, it should be noted that 80% probability is still a strong score for the incumbent DUP MP David Simpson, and as such, he currently remains favourite to hold this seat on May 7th.

As expected the unionist pact has altered North Belfast with Nigel Dodds the sitting DUP MP jumping 10% to 95%, in terms of his probability of holding that seat. Our main predictions for Foyle - SDLP, and South Antrim - DUP, have both slipped by 5% when compared with our February poll, though both the SDLP and DUP still remain firm favourites to hold those seats on 7th May. 

With the 'in play' seats, there are only three that currently have winning probabilities of less than 75% i.e. South Belfast, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and East Belfast.

You will see that from February the SDLP have advanced slightly in South Belfast going from 60% probability of holding that seat to 65%. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the unionist pact didn't end up involving this constituency. However, although the sitting South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell is a 65% favourite to hold his seat, in terms of our models, 65% isn't a certainty.

Not surprisingly our models for Fermanagh and South Tyrone have been impacted by the Unionist election pact, with the probability of Sinn Fein holding this seat dropping from 85% to 75% when compared to our February poll. However, what should worry the Unionists is that the pact hasn't had more effect with our Opinion Panel, in that for the UUP candidate Tom Elliott to have a chance of winning he really needs to get Sinn Fein down to a 65% or less win probability - perhaps this will change again in our April poll.

Then we have the seat that everyone is, well was, talking about - East Belfast. We carried out a full constituency poll here in January, with the results published in the Belfast Telegraph in February. This showed that the DUP were narrowly ahead in terms of re-taking this seat from the Alliance party's Naomi Long, and this was confirmed in our February Opinion panel poll. However, not surprisingly the Unionist pact has had a big impact within our models with the DUP jumping from our narrow 55% lead in February to a 75% probability of winning this seat now. However, because of the Unionist pact we would have expected this DUP score to be higher and perhaps this shows that Naomi Long may attract additional support from other parties and from non-voters, as a reaction to the pact? In fact two of our opinion panel from that area said they would now vote Alliance because of the pact! So perhaps it's still game-on in East Belfast?  

We would be very surprised if any of the other ten '100%' predictions were to change between now and 7th May. All of these ten seem nailed-on certainties as the saying goes. However, there were ten of these 'certainties' following our January poll, and then Newry and Armagh changed in our February poll, so who knows!

As far as our predictions are concerned, it should always be remembered that the Westminster election is a winner take all, first-past-the-post, type election. For example, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson had an approx. 10,000 majority in Lagan Valley at the 2010 General Election. However, even if it had only been a majority of 1000, or 100, it would still have been the same result - Jeffrey Donaldson MP.

Taking this into account, when looking at our forecast it is probably fair to say that the 'Alternative Parties' need to get their opponents (i.e. our main prediction) down to a 65-60% (or less) probability score, in order for these 'Alternative Parties' to be in with a realistic chance of winning. Likewise our 'main prediction' candidates need to be hitting 75%+ to start feeling safe, and confident that they'll be able to put MP after their name on May 8th!

For your diary our April Opinion Panel results will be published at the start of May. So our last NI General Election Opinion Panel forecast, will be only a few days before election day on 7th May, and so we'll be able to see how accurate this turns out to be when compared to the actual election results!  

Methodology and Background

The LucidTalk Northern Ireland (NI) Opinion Panel is made-up of 440 members and is carefully constructed to provide an accurate representation of Northern Ireland opinion - via gender, area of residence, age-group, community background, socio-economic group, and employment group. The opinion panel has a pool of approximately 1,200 hundred members who regularly take part in LucidTalk poll projects, and for this project a representative sample of 440 opinions was collated. NB The LucidTalk Northern Ireland Opinion Panel is constructed and managed to British Polling Council (BPC) standards.

For each monthly Opinion Panel poll participants were, and will be asked:

(a) Likelihood of voting at the 7th May 2015 Westminster election?, and

(b) What party they currently plan to vote for?, and

(c) Their current opinion regarding who would win in each of the 'non-100%' certainty seats as detailed in the previous monthly Opinion Panel Poll.. 

Notes:

- Alternative forecast for seats is only provided were the probability of the main forecast is less than 100%.

- All % probabilities are shown in '5%' blocks, e.g. 50%, 55%, 60% etc..

- % forecast is calculated via LucidTalk computer-based prediction models, taking into account:

Weighting

- Current LucidTalk 'Opinion Panel' poll (440 participants): March 2015. 80%

- Current and recent LucidTalk polls for 2015 and 2014 (September): both results and trends. 10%

- Election results and patterns from 2010 - 2014 (European, UK, NI Assembly): both results and trends. 10%

- Above forecast table is representative of NI opinion, and specific constituency opinion, to an error of +/-5%.

- It should be noted that the forecast table provides the % likelihood of the named political parties winning the specific parliamentary seat. It does not predict vote share, size of vote, and/or size of majority etc.

- Re. the one independent MP as included in the forecast table - In North Down it is assumed that Sylvia Hermon will run again, and hold that seat.

This forecast was collated using a UK general election prediction model based on a blend of the traditional uniform national Northern Ireland Swing, and proportional loss forecasting techniques. It also takes into account recent LucidTalk local constituency opinion polls. All the results and data were then analysed using multiple iterations to achieve the correct forecast percentages.

Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk. 

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