Skating on Thin Ice. The lurking cracks that could open beneath the DUP…

A close examination of the wealth of data in the recent Ashford poll reveals how the DUP could be facing the very real threat of political oblivion. Please suspend for a few minutes your instant reaction that this is either hysterical scaremongering or fanciful wishful thinking – depending on your political point of view.

Before we look at the evidence it’s important to consider the Rule of Two. With only 5 seats available in each constituency, two highly adversarial voting blocks (and a growing centre block putting pressure on both), any block with a vote share of between 40% and 45% can support no more than two major parties.

In the short term, an Assembly election could produce three similar sized unionist parties sharing 35 to 40 seats between them, but that situation would be inherently unstable. (As soon as one gained an edge on the others, voters would cut them back to two main ones, with possibly a residual micro-party.)

It is precisely that unstable outcome that polls have consistently been pointing to for the whole of the last year – and Ashford is no different. But Ashford also gives us a great deal more detail. It did not ask voters who they would vote for but invited them to say how likely they were to give a first preference to each party – so we can see which voters could change their vote and how; it asked what policy issues are important to each voter – so we can see to what extent each party has carved out an appeal which is distinctive from its nearest competitors and might attract votes from other parties. It asked about non-policy factors which could have a significant impact on voter choice.

And the answers must make the DUP very uncomfortable.

First a word of explanation about how Ashford worked. It asked each person on a scale of 0 to 100 how likely they were to give a first preference vote to each party and how they voted at the last Assembly election. It reported the responses to the policy questions for those voters who rated their chances at 50% or above of voting for a party. We can see how this works in some of the results for the TUV.

12% of voters said that there was a 90% to 100% likelihood that they would make the TUV their top choice. These are the largely ‘Committed’ TUV voters. A further 10% said that there was a 50% to 89% chance. These I have christened the ‘Well Disposed’. Together these are the voters most attracted to the TUV. They might be thought of as the TUV’s ‘Fishing Pool’ – high potential TUV voters.

Ashford then asks these Fishing Pool voters to select their top three priorities from a list of 13 alternatives. Voters could substitute a choice of their own if they wanted to – but it is unusual for many voters to do so in this type of question. Here are the results for the TUV:

Top 3 Priorities per voter TUV Policy Priority Category Share TUV
1 Union with the UK 94% Constitutional & Sectional 66%
2 Standing up for my community 51% Party & Leader 18%
3 NI Protocol and the EU single market 39% Socio Economic & Managerial 15%
4 Party shares my values 37% Candidate 1%
5 Health, education, and public services 22% Community Relations 0%
6 The party leader 13%
7 Overall competence 12%
8 Economy and jobs 10% The Northern Ireland Protocol: TUV
9 Stop my least favourite party winning 5% Should be scrapped 96%
10 The best local candidate 2% Needs serious reform 3%
11 Good relations between different communities 1% Acceptable with some adjustments 0%
12 Union with Ireland 0% There are no problems 0%
13 Early border poll 0% DK/Not Sure/No Opinion 1%
Other issues nominated by individuals None

I have grouped the policy priorities into categories with a colour code to give an overview of the priorities for the TUV’s Fishing Pool. This will make comparisons with other parties easier. The Northern Ireland Protocol and EU Single Market is included in the Constitutional category since this is how most voters appear from the results to be treating it. Otherwise it would have been included under Socio Economic.

Two things to note at this stage are that only 1 of the 22% of voters most favourable to the TUV places a high priority on stopping their least favourite party from winning, and almost none place much weight on the abilities of their local candidate. It had been thought that a “Stop Sinn Féin” campaign would prove a potent weapon for the DUP, but this suggests that it might fall flat with TUV supporters. There have also been suggestions that the TUV would be hampered by running little known candidates – again this appears unlikely.

Interesting also is that 13% cited Party and Leader as very important – but for all Jim Allister’s prominence this is precisely the same as the average result within all parties’ supporters. This says that it is what the party stands for – not simply the personality of the messenger – that attracts potential TUV voters.

It takes just a glance at the UUP results to see that its potential voters have very different concerns.

  Top 3 Priorities UUP Policy Priorities Share UUP
1 Health, education, and public services 64% Socio Economic & Managerial 45%
2 Union with the UK 53% Constitutional & Sectional 28%
3 Economy and jobs 34% Party & Leader 14%
4 Overall competence 30% Community Relations 7%
5 The party leader 23% Candidate 6%
6 Good relations between different communities 19%
7 Party shares my values 18%
8 The best local candidate 17% The Northern Ireland Protocol: UUP
9 NI Protocol and the EU single market 11% Needs serious reform 36%
10 Stop my least favourite party winning 8% Should be scrapped 34%
11 Standing up for my community 8% Acceptable with some adjustments 30%
12 Union with Ireland 0% There are no problems 0%
13 Early border poll 0% DK/Not Sure/No Opinion 0%
Other issues nominated by individuals None

While potential TUV voters rated Constitutional and Sectional interests as four times more important to them than Social Policy matters, those attracted to the UUP have a totally different set of priorities. Indeed the Northern Ireland Protocol is relegated to number 9 out of the 11 which hold any interest for prospective UUP voters; and two-thirds want to see it amended, against the virtually unanimous desire of the TUV Fishing Pool to see it scrapped altogether.

For potential UUP voters the bread and butter issues of government are three times more important than for potential TUV voters.

This degree of divergence will come as a shock to those who rate all Unionist parties as fundamentally the same. Its extent may even surprise some at senior levels in the UUP, which has tended over recent years to lurch inelegantly between unionist unity and striking out on a path of its own.

So both the UUP and the TUV serve distinct sectors of the unionist voting electorate. What of the DUP?

Not surprisingly, as we can see, their potential voters fall somewhere in between. This can be a very comfortable and electorally rewarding place to be so long as the force of political gravity holds within your orbit those supporters who also feel some pull towards one or other of your two rivals. But when events shift some of your gravitational pull to a rival, you can quickly shed support in both directions.

  Top 3 Priorities DUP Policy Priorities Share DUP
1 Union with the UK 79% Constitutional & Sectional 54%
2 Health, education, and public services 37% Socio Economic & Managerial 29%
3 Party shares my values 32% Party & Leader 15%
4 Standing up for my community 31% Candidate 1%
5 Economy and jobs 29% Community Relations 1%
6 NI Protocol and the EU single market 26%
7 Stop my least favourite party winning 21%
8 Overall competence 18% The Northern Ireland Protocol: DUP
9 The party leader 13% Should be scrapped 85%
10 The best local candidate 3% Needs serious reform 12%
11 Good relations between different communities 2% Acceptable with some adjustments 3%
12 Union with Ireland 0% There are no problems 0%
13 Early border poll 0% DK/Not Sure/No Opinion 0%
Other issues nominated by individuals None

Like the TUV’s potential voters, the DUP’s place the highest emphasis on Constitutional and Sectional concerns, just not quite as heavily; they rate bread and butter issues twice highly as the TUV’s, but still a very long way behind the UUP’s.

Like TUV potential voters – and unlike UUP potential voters – they mostly want to see the Northern Ireland Protocol scrapped, but put that desire three places lower on their list of priorities.

Unlike both the TUV’s and UUP’s potential backers, they contain an unusually high proportion who are motivated by stopping their least favourite party from winning – 21% to the TUV’s 5%. Historically that has been a strength for the DUP. But what happens to those voters if the DUP fails to deliver?

Let’s look more deeply at each party’s support, where it came from, and where it might go.

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A lot of voters switch their votes from one election to another – pollsters call this “voter churn” – but most of it cancels itself out in the headline figures. But not in this case. In 2017 28% voted DUP, now only 16% are largely committed to doing so now. 9% have gone to the TUV and 3% to the UUP. An additional 6% more are toying with the idea of switching to TUV and a further 6% to the UUP.

There is little inclination for further switching to the DUP from previous UUP and Other PLU voters – although 7% more from 2017 DUP voters would consider doing so.

A large part of the DUP coalition of unionist voters has already unravelled – and there is a real risk that much of the rest could do so.

Of course that is not a prediction. Nothing is inevitable in politics. It is possible that the DUP could succeed in stemming the drift of voters to their rivals and even win some back. However, they face an uphill task. In addition to the challenges already noted – the loss of the commanding DUP lead within unionism, the lack of traction of the Stop Sinn Féin message with TUV supporters, the vulnerability of the coalition of Constitution and Socio Economic prioritising voters against the more clearly differentiated offerings of the TUV and the UUP – they could be running out of options to defend and regain support. They are certainly painfully short of time.

Should they double-down on Constitutional and Sectional issues such as the NI Protocol and the Irish Language Act? But will raising the temperature further on the issues, which are those strongest for the TUV, just encourage those of their supporters most concerned with these issues towards Allister’s party? And would a DUP pre-occupation with Constitutional issues leave the field free for the UUP to make hay with those DUP supporters who are more interested in matters of Health, Jobs and Schools?

On the other hand would an attempt to promote both Constitutional and Socio Economic issues equally, run the risk of presenting an insufficiently clear message to satisfy either set of unionist voters?

It’s little wonder that the option of trying to collapse the Assembly – over the Protocol, over a Language Act, or over anything else that might present itself – seems to hold such attractions for Jeffrey Donaldson.

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