Confident predictions about upcoming elections are worthless

The choice confronting voters will be whether the attraction of change outweighs the stability and general prosperity offered by the Government parties

All of the political parties are gearing up for an election some time in the next 12 months. Whether it will be early or later in the year is anyone’s guess but one thing is certain: nobody has any idea how it will turn out.

Confident predictions about what will happen, based on opinion polls since the last general election four years ago, are entirely worthless. Political history here and in other western democracies is littered with examples of how the mood changes once the starting bell for an election goes off.

Morgan McSweeney, a Cork man who is one of UK Labour leader Keir Starmer’s key advisers, gave a presentation to the shadow cabinet recently in which he warned that the party’s large poll lead could vanish when the election campaign gets under way.

“Polls do not predict the future; nobody has voted in the general election; change won’t happen unless people vote for it,” he is reported as telling them.


McSweeney pointed to a range of elections from around the world, including the Australian election of 2019, the German election of 2021 and the Spanish election of last summer, as examples of how one party went into the campaign with a significant poll lead, only for it to crumble in the final stages of the campaign.

In Australia, the opposition Labour Party was ahead in the polls for well over two years before the May 2019 general election, with a seven-point lead at the beginning of the election year. That lead evaporated in the course of the campaign and the ruling Liberal-National Coalition pulled off an unexpected victory.

The consensus after the election was that Labour lost because it came up with a manifesto promising radical change. That prompted a sufficient number of voters to accept the government’s argument that the risks of change outweighed any possible advantages.

In the German election of 2021, the story was how the Christian Democrats threw away a poll lead of 24 points over their then coalition partners, the Social Democrats, following the decision of Angela Merkel to step down as leader. Two years before the election the Social Democrats, led by Olaf Scholz, were only the fourth most popular party in the polls on a miserable 13 per cent of the vote.

There were widespread predictions that the Greens were going to replace the Social Democrats as the second biggest party in the country but by the time the election came around all had changed and when the votes were counted the uncharismatic Scholz led his party to first place. He subsequently formed a government including the Greens and the Free Democrats in a Coalition that has squabbled incessantly in office.

McSweeney cited a range of other countries including the United States, Norway, the UK in 2017 and most recently Spain, where the political picture changed dramatically when election campaigns got under way.

Closer to home, the last Irish election provides an example of how conventional political wisdom was upended when the real campaign started. In the local and European elections of June 2019, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both did reasonably well while Sinn Féin suffered significant losses.

As late as October 2019, just four months before the contest, an Ipsos Irish Times poll put Fine Gael on 29 per cent, Fianna Fáil on 26 per cent and Sinn Féin on 14 per cent. When it came to the actual election, Fine Gael had dropped nine points, Fianna Fáil dropped three and Sinn Féin gained a whopping 11 points to become the biggest party in terms of the popular vote.

Since then, Sinn Féin has consolidated its position in the opinion polls as the leading party with over 30 per cent of the vote, while the two big parties of Government have struggled to stay around 20 per cent each.

The clear lesson from all of this is that opinion polls outside an election are no guide as to what will happen when the voters cast their ballots. It doesn’t mean that the polls don’t reflect public opinion at the time they are taken. The point is that when voters are focused on politics during election campaigns, opinions can change quite dramatically.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar got the timing of the last election here all wrong and Fine Gael waged an abysmal campaign. Fianna Fáil didn’t do much better, while Sinn Féin seized control of the narrative and made the election all about housing, meaning the government’s successes on the economy or Brexit were ignored by most voters.

The question going into the forthcoming election is whether Sinn Féin’s lead will hold in the heat of the campaign. The party is likely to be asked some serious questions for the first time about what it plans to do in office and will not be able to rely on blaming others for all the real and perceived ills of society.

The choice confronting voters will be whether the attraction of change outweighs the stability and general prosperity presided over by the parties in Government. How all of them present their case to the electorate will be crucial in deciding the outcome.