The big story from the LucidTalk (LT) Winter 2021 NI 'Tracker' poll is obvious - the DUP movement to TUV. Well, we assume most of the TUV surge is coming from the DUP drop.
This comes as we see that Sinn Fein have steadied the ship from their drop in the LT Autumn 2020 poll, and are now NI's leading party on 24%, - a lead over the DUP of 5%. The Alliance party seem to be consolidating their position as NI's third party (up two points), and frankly are now not that far behind the first 'Big two' parties i.e. DUP and Sinn Fein.
Of course, we always get the question, how can you tell this from a poll of just two thousand? Well, as always, we ensured that a good representative mix of all NI groups and demographics took part in the poll, and this included several hundred (actually 600+) DUP voters - rural/urban, young/old, middle class/working class etc, and from all over NI.
So we can say that if we find that a chunk of this group is switching to the TUV, then it's reasonable to assume that the same proportion of other similar background DUP voters could be thinking the same way. This is the basis of how polls work, and why they're usually reasonably accurate.
Undoubtedly the DUP drop is reflecting the annoyance and worry in the DUP voter base, and in the wider unionist community, about the NI protocol, NI sea border, and Brexit in general etc., and that annoyance may be even worse now, as this poll was conducted before the recent EU article 16 debacle. Though whether this recent EU incident produces a sort of 'rally around the leader' effect with the average DUP voter, we just don't know!
Interestingly, the DUP drop hasn't impacted the UUP very much, with most of the disaffected DUP voters seemingly going straight to the TUV.
Now, of course, this could just be the hard-core members of the DUP voter base firing a warning shot across Arlene Foster's bows. Polls are like this -there were times when Labour under Jeremy Corbyn were ahead of the Conservatives (under Theresa May) in the polls, but that wasn't 'pro-Corbyn', that was because of Theresa May.
May had annoyed the Conservative voter base - and the polls at that point in time reflected this. Mid-term between elections, voters can 'let off steam' in polls.
Digging into the poll figures we find that the DUP have held onto only 60% of their vote from the 2017 NI Assembly election i.e. they've lost 40% - they've gone elsewhere. Indeed, 23% (nearly 1 in 4) of the DUP voters at the last NI Assembly election, now say they would vote TUV. Mind you, although the DUP have lost these votes at the moment, they could of course win many of them back before the next NI Assembly election.
Indeed, I'm sure some in the DUP will be thinking 'they'll all come back to us'. This could be true, especially with the DUP using their favourite line 'you have to vote for us (DUP) to stop Michelle O'Neill becoming First Minister', and this could now be even more effective with Sinn Fein five points ahead in the polls.
But this is what's known in business as marketing a negative, and it's difficult to keep such a message fresh, and to sustain it over the longer term. It's akin to going into your local retailer and suggesting to the store manager that his bacon isn't up to scratch - the reply 'Yes, our bacon is bad, but if you go to the other shop down the road, their bacon is even worse'. That's not an answer, and doesn't help the shopper very much!
So, the DUP need to be careful just relying on this one negative strategy come election time.
Mind you, one point helping the DUP is that they (plus Sinn Fein and Alliance) have big organisations, and resources, to throw into an election campaign.
The DUP have been around a long time, and they have people who know how to run effective campaigns. The TUV don't have this type of party organisation, or indeed candidates (at the moment), to be able to capitalise on their high and growing poll score.
But on the wider point, this sort of movement in a poll should be worrying for the DUP, and they should take some notice of it. They can't afford this poll score to settle, and to fester. They need to get their poll score up, to at least the mid 20s again, by this time next year, to give them a good base (in Jan 2022) going into the May 2022 NI Assembly election. But of course, a lot can happen in a year - remember on this day last year very few people had heard of the word coronavirus (or Zoom)!
Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk