The SSM referendum can still easily be lost, because of the realities of referendum campaigns. Polls that have been thus far released are deceptive, for a lot of reasons.
Red C have broken down the results of their latest polling on the issue pretty well, and the numbers are stark when you look beyond the initial results. 77% say they either support the proposed change strongly or a little bit more loosely. The core is around 59%, which is still a very strong amount of the electorate.
But when you look at the results generated by some additional questions, you start to realise how quickly all of this could unravel. On a question about the possibility of gay couples adopting, asked to those who had already expressed support for SSM generally, a troubling 29% stated that they had reservations. On another question, 33% stated that they had general reservations about the idea of SSM. These are the kind of statistical results that should start alarm bells ringing for the “Yes” camp. A third of that “Yes” vote isn’t solid.
The long and short of it then, is that the actual core vote for SSM approval is actually less than 50% as it stands, and the more loose “Yes” vote is all that’s putting it over the top. And that portion of the affirmative are the ones expressing reservations about parts of SSM, and the possibility of gay couples adopting children. How much of the Ronan Mullen school of panic spreading do you think it is going to take to turn those people against the idea, under the dreadfully convincing banner of ‘If you’re not sure, vote “No”’?
And then there are the other problems, namely that opinion polling for things like this – that is, referendums – tend to not be quite as reliable as other polls, as the government has found to its cost on several occasions already. The earliest polls for the Seanad referendum gave the “Yes” position a hearty lead, but this was then eaten away by a bulging proportion of “Don’t Know’s”, who rapidly became “Not bothered to vote”. Same story for the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum in 2011, where polling showed the “Yes” side with a sizable advantage only days before the vote. Now, months before the vote and before the “Yes” and “No” campaigns have gone into full swing, is a time when a large portion of the Irish electorate has yet to actually reach a firm opinion on the matter, and may just be giving their proposed assent without really having much conviction in the statement.
A month out, when the debates and the door knocking and the posters are all in full force, is when you’ll start to see polls that are a bit closer to how things will actually turn out. And that time is when people are going to become susceptible to the tactics of the “No” crowd, whether it is just misinformation or scaremongering. That large amount of “Yes” voters will shrink because of that, just as they will shrink because of government unpopularity or the lackadaisical approach to be taken by Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, who will not be going out of their way to give the government parties a win in an election year, the greater good be damned.
What is there to be done about this? A waking up to the fact that the campaign will not be an easy one for those more committed to the “Yes” side, and a preparation for the effort to come. The arguments need to be honed now, the strategies of approach need to be worked on. It’s not enough to throw a few insults the Iona Institute’s way on Twitter. It’s not enough to preach to the choir. Because it will be all too easy for that movement to be caught unprepared in the weeks ahead of the vote, as the polls start to change and momentum starts to shift. The undecided’s – the true undecided’s, who will include so many of those who claim to be ready to vote “Yes” today – will need convincing. And that’s a harder job for the “Yes” camp.