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David McCann: When one-in-five are undecided there's still plenty to play for

David McCann

FOR a political anorak like me, it can be hard to imagine that the majority of my fellow citizens don’t spend their days thinking about and engaging in the political process. They don’t hold strong views on every issue and feel the need to express them on a daily basis.

This poll is showing that there is still a huge 20 per cent of voters who are still shopping around our political parties, looking to see where they can place their first preference vote.

]This significant finding really will give credence to that hackneyed phrase “the only poll that counts is on election day”, but why does this matter? Moreover, what do the results tell us about where the parties are with the public?

This should not be understated. Twenty per cent of the electorate can move more than 12 assembly seats across Northern Ireland. At the last election in 2017, eight seats were decided by less than 1,000 votes.

So many people think that our elections are done deals before the polls even open but this survey shows that is not the case. Moreover, our politicians still have not sealed the deal with vast swathes of the electorate.

But what do these numbers actually mean for the parties?

For Sinn Féin, they would undoubtedly be on course to return as the largest party but in a diminished position, losing at least two to three seats if this is repeated on election day.

Due to the huge success the party enjoyed in 2017, they would expect to fall back in some places, but the achievement of becoming the largest party will likely take the sting out of returning as a smaller force in the assembly.

Then we have the DUP, who are registering yet another poll showing them in the high teens and far off the 28 per cent they achieved in 2017.

To put this poll in context, this would represent the biggest swing within unionism since the near UUP wipe-out of 2005 that solidified the DUP as the unquestioned leader of unionism.

In this race, big names who bring experience to the party such as Peter Weir and Edwin Poots would lose out, but more importantly part of the party’s future such as Gary Middleton would also be in the firing line if that poor result becomes reality.

The DUP would see losses that would knock them out of first place and become a much-diminished force.

Significantly this would only be the second time in the party’s history that they would have gone backwards in seats at an assembly election.

A big winner in this is Alliance. The party’s surge in support in 2019 remains solid as they score 15 per cent. This would bank a swag of new seats for the party if repeated on election day.

The momentum of 2019's Alliance surge looks set to be maintained. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Gains in places such as North Belfast, South Down and Upper Bann would be locked in. They would be hopeful of two or three other seats moving into their column.

We often focus on who will be the first minister after the election, but for the Good Friday Agreement, the longer-term renegotiation will come when the “other” designation is not just a small number of MLAs.

For the UUP, Doug Beattie will be happy that his recent troubles don’t seem to have hurt the party with a solid 14 per cent.

Remaining competitive going into campaigns is challenging for the party and Doug will need to figure out some ways to keep the pressure on the DUP and keep his voice being heard above the “enough is enough” mantra that will be repeated by his unionist rivals.

The SDLP will be disappointed in this. They have a strong leadership team and are underpinned by a good assembly team, but this doesn’t seem to be cutting through to the public at this stage.

Eastwood will need to find a dynamic moment in this campaign, otherwise, his party will lose key seats such as Upper Bann and the second in South Down on these numbers and miss out on potential gains in places like Strangford and Foyle, which should be competitive for the party.

Each of the main parties has challenges and opportunities going into this race. How they connect with voters and get those undecideds over to their column will make a critical difference.

For all of them, that 20 per cent waiting to be wooed will be the bridge between triumph and disappointment.

Whatever party can build it will march to victory on May 5.

David McCann is deputy editor of the political website Slugger O'Toole

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