Is there a political party anywhere polling as consistently as the SDLP? The party’s percentage scores since the last Assembly performance, 12% of the vote, have been 13, 13, 12, 13, 12 and now 11 in Saturday’s Lucid Talk survey.
Colum Eastwood’s party is neither floundering nor forging ahead.
The SDLP’s performance matters because it and Alliance are the only parties probably capable of stopping a Sinn Fein First Ministership.
That might sound an odd claim. Yet Sinn Fein’s polling lead over the DUP is of such magnitude that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson can only hope that the parties of Eastwood and Naomi Long can win enough seats when going head-to-head with republicans to prevent Michelle O’Neill’s party striding to success.
But where can such seats be found? For the SDLP, West Belfast, where the SDLP lost representation when Alex Attwood was ousted in 2017, is one. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is another. Add South Antrim, South Down and Upper Bann into the mix. But they are all long-shots on an 11% polling level.
Alliance has a very outside chance of a second seat in South Belfast.
But the party needs a Mid-Ulster miracle to deprive Sinn Fein of a seat there. Ditto Newry and Armagh, surely. North Antrim looks more interesting and might see Alliance stay deep into the counts, up against Sinn Fein.
Yet it still looks like a late second-day exit, an exhausting tenth count elimination from a near-deserted hall sometime on post-election Saturday, witnessed only by bleary-eyed television studio commentators and fatigued journalists desperate to get home.
Alliance could make a gain in South Down and possibly also in Upper Bann, but such triumphs are more likely to be at the expense of the SDLP than Sinn Fein. West Tyrone is a rare example of a constituency where Alliance could conceivably take a seat from Sinn Fein although I would keep any punt to very low stakes.
In short, Alliance can make strides but not assist the DUP by knocking Michelle O’Neill out of hers.
Alliance’s Lucid Talk poll rating of 14% is decent enough to potentially net a couple more seats and take the party into double figures in the Assembly, as a minimum. Shrewd party stalwarts know that 2019 was a perfect storm for Alliance: Brexit plus no Assembly.
The dizzy height of an almost 19% vote share reached that year (in the farewell European Parliament contest) is unlikely to be replicated.
Alliance is up against a rejuvenated UUP under Doug Beattie, whose positive personal net rating of +12 makes him almost a candidate for canonisation. Given its pro-Protocol views,
Alliance will struggle to capture unionist waverers this time, given how the poll shows the widespread hostility to the Irish Sea border within unionism.
This election is more about consolidating Alliance as the clear third party, representing a third tradition, although second place is not impossible.
And the good news for Alliance is that the non-unionist, non-nationalist community is the only one growing.
Unionist identification is down nearly 10% since the first Assembly election, with nationalist identification ebbing slightly.
Only the “neithers” have grown, the plentiful reservoir for Alliance to fish. The other good news for Alliance is that Naomi Long is relatively popular, her net rating being only -3.
In these days of cynicism towards political leaders, that is tantamount to adulation. And Alliance is no longer short of resources or youthful keen candidates.
The SDLP is well-led. Eastwood is at Long’s level in the popular/unpopular stakes and is an asset to his party.
He has made very few bad calls and even his recent obsession with vaccine passports, an idea that came and went even faster than NI21, will not have cost the party anything.
But the SDLP’s biggest talents are marooned at Westminster, Eastwood and Claire Hanna howling bleakly at a Conservative 80 seat majority.
In that respect, the last general election was bittersweet. Back in business but the business lying elsewhere. Sinn Fein looks on, content in the knowledge that abstention does no harm to its electoral base.
And for all that Eastwood has got his party off the deck, the SDLP enters its seventh Assembly election campaign at half the polling level it achieved in its first.
Just over 100 days to go now. Not much time to shift the dial although we are still some distance from reaching the settled will of the electorate.
There is time for a major gaffe or outrageous comment to affect the outcome.
This latest Lucid Talk poll is the least dramatic so far in terms of shifts in party fortunes though.
The DUP will be wondering why they got involved in a double-jobbing row. If this poll turns out to be accurate, many of their MLAs will be grateful to hold onto one. The glimmer of hope for Donaldson’s party is that his call for unionist unity might find a receptive audience given the extent of anger towards the Protocol. This could yet benefit the party in terms of improved intra-unionist party transfers. But if the party does make good — or bad — on its threat to quit the institutions, these Assembly seat previews might all be redundant anyway.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and Director of the last four Northern Ireland general election studies