Battle On to Repeal the 8th

Much as I prophesised two months ago in my article in January about the Repeal the 8th Referendum, todays poll shows the first signs that the race to repeal is tightening.  Despite a very positive start for the Repeal camp, with much of the Oireachtas supporting their cause, this referendum is certainly not won yet.  Instead indications from this poll suggest they have a real fight on their hands, and that they will need a really good campaign to ensure it isn’t lost.

Our poll today does continue to show a clear lead for the Yes camp in terms of the straight repeal of the 8th Amendment.  Over half of all adults (56%) suggest at this stage that they support the repeal of the 8th Amendment, while 26% say they would not support Repeal and 18% either refused to answer or remain undecided.  On the face of those numbers you might imagine that it suggests the referendum to repeal should be won quite easily.  When undecided voters are removed, the Yes side are clearly ahead with 69% supporting repeal and 31% not supporting a repeal.

It is when we start to look behind these numbers, review what has happened in past referendums in Ireland and more importantly look at the trends in support that doubts start to creep in.

As you may recall from my article in January there are a number of factors that influence voters and the result as we move closer, not least of which is the fact that undecided voters are far more likely to vote for the “status quo” or in other words vote No, compared to those that do express an opinion at this stage.  It is also the case that it is far easier to put doubt in people minds as to the decision to repeal, than it is to persuade people that change is required.

Historically, these types of factors tend to see the yes side in any referendum squeezed as we move closer to the referendum itself.  In many cases this has been quite a severe swing, with examples like the Oireachtas Enquiries referendum moving from clear support among the public in polls some time before the election, but eventually the referendum being lost as undecided voters and wavering Yes voters, move to oppose change.

The concern for the Yes campaign, will be that we are already starting to see some signs of this creep to No in today’s poll.  Back in January 60% of all adults supported Repeal, now two months later that has fallen back to 56%, as those less certain voters listen to the arguments from both sides.  But even more important is the gains for the No side, rising from 20% in January to 26% in March.

This suggests two things.  Firstly, that some Yes voters have moved to No, but also that a chunk of previously undecided voters are now prepared to voice their opposition to repeal.  It is clear that the No campaigners have managed to put doubt in the minds of some voters, and in so doing have also emboldened those “shy” No voters to feel they can more openly support opposing repeal.

It also reinforces the theory that undecided voters are more likely to vote No than those that have made up their mind, and that is where the real danger lies for the repeal campaign.  Were the majority of the undecided voters to eventually move to vote No, while some waverers on the Yes side also changed their mind, this referendum could be lost.

As with any election this campaign is not about appealing or persuading the die hard Yes or die hard No voters, it is about talking to the middle ground.  Campaigners should be mindful that these people do not want to be preached to, they do not have strong views either way. These middle ground voters want to hear reasoned and sensible argument.  They want to better understand from the Yes camp why the Citizens Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee reached their conclusions that led to them overwhelmingly support Repeal, or from the No camp what reasonable concerns there are to such a repeal.

This is further underlined by the question we also ask about legislation to replace the 8th Amendment.  While support for Repeal overall has declined, the underlying support for legislation to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy has been retained at 52% this month, vs 51% in January.  At the same time the opposition to 12 week abortion has grown to 33% up 6% since January.  It appears that these 52% of voters supporting the 12 week proposal, are pretty solid in support for repeal overall; but these figures also suggest that the rest are possibly not so sure, and that makes it a much tighter race than the topline numbers suggest.  It is also the case that those supporting No or those more undecided tend to be older, and as a result far more likely to turn out to vote.

The Yes campaign has a fight on its hands.  It must talk to the middle ground, not preach or shout, persuade them with the clear and reasoned arguments that helped persuade the Citizens Assembly and the Oireachtas committee, and ensure its core younger voters know just how important it is to turn out.

For the No campaign the fight is perhaps easier.  Sow doubts in the minds of the undecided voter of what will replace the 8th Amendment, underline the benefits of the status quo.  But again, do so with a reasonable voice rather than an angry one, in order to provide credence to uncover shy voters, and give people permission for people to vote No.  As ever the campaign will win or lose this referendum.

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March 2018 Poll