Lies, Damned Lies, and Headlines

A new opinion poll shows a big rise in support for Fianna Fáil, with the party gaining 5% since the last Sunday Business Post poll a month ago.

Which is all well and good for Fianna Fáil, but here’s the thing – I don’t buy it.

The poll results break down like this: Fianna Fáil 38% [up 5%], Fine Gael 23% [down 2%], Labour 11% [no change], Sinn Féin 8% [down 3%], Greens 8% [no change] and PDs 4% [no change].

The poll is one of a series conducted by the Sunday Business Post, and the margin of error on the polls, buried in the small print in their reportage, is 3%.

In the last three monthly SBP polls (covering February, March, and April 2006) Fianna Fáil have scored 38%, 33% and 35%.

Observant readers will note that the oldest poll result in February, 35%, plus a 3% margin of error, gives the current poll result of 38%.

And of course a 2% dip in the opposite direction gives the March result of 33%.

The other party votes are even more tightly grouped. Sinn Féin’s three results are all within 3% of each other, and Fine Gael and the Greens within 2%. Labour has moved only 1% in the last three months, and the PDs are stable at 4%.

A Google search brought up further results form SBP/RedC polls in January 2006, and the months of March, September and December 2005. In no case is the difference between the highest and lowest value for any of the parties greater than 6%. In other words, pick a mid value, and every single party is within the critical 3% margin of error.

So I don’t buy it. Every few weeks, someone publishes a poll, and the headlines trumpet it as showing a gain or loss for one or more of the parties. But as far as I can tell, none of the parties are shifting outside the margin of error. Far from the fortunes of our prospective leaders shifting with every change in the electoral mood, I think what we’re seeing is a very stable picture.

Trouble is, ‘No Change’ makes for a boring headline.