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Why might the European election exit poll have over-predicted the 'green surge'?

Questions are being asked about RTÉ and Red C polling as the first results come in.

The exit poll slightly underestimated Peter Casey's first preferences in Midlands North West.
The exit poll slightly underestimated Peter Casey's first preferences in Midlands North West.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

AS THE FIRST results come in from the European election counts across the country, questions are being asked about the exit poll – mainly because of its overestimation of the share of the Green Party vote. 

The RTÉ/TG4 exit poll, conducted by RedC, put the Green Party councillor Ciarán Cuffe on 23% – triggering discussions over a “green wave” in the elections. However, when the first results came in late last night, Cuffe in fact received 17.5% of the vote – a result well outside the poll’s 4% margin of error.  

The story was the same when the results were announced in Midlands North-West earlier today. The Green Party’s Saoirse McHugh – who attracted attention during an RTÉ TV debate for her put-down of fellow candidate Peter Casey – was projected to receive 12% of first preferences, placing her a surprise third in the constituency.

However, when the votes were counted she in fact received 8.58% of first preferences – placing her sixth behind Casey and Fine Gael’s Maria Walsh. 

The results also gave Independent Luke Ming Flanagan more reasons to be hopeful of securing a seat than the exit poll suggested. Having been predicted to receive 10% of the vote, he actually ended up exceeding expectations – getting 14.29% of the vote and placing him second just behind poll-topper Mairead McGuinness of Fine Gael. 

In Ireland South, the exit poll slightly overestimated the green vote. After the first count this evening, Grace O’Sullivan was placed fifth, whereas the exit poll had her in fourth and well in the running for an MEP spot in the five-seat constituency. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Technological University Dublin lecturer Dr Kevin Cunningham said that exit polls are “extremely pressurised and difficult to do”. 

Exit poll companies, such as Red C, often face a trade-off between accurately predicting the result or producing more data about voter demographics and values, which offer a level of clarity unavailable in a more simplistic exit poll.

Comparing Ireland’s approach to exit polls to those carried out in the UK, typically by the BBC, Cunningham said: “In Ireland, we do a full poll – which has the benefit of giving more insight but makes results less reliable.” For instance, the exit poll revealed that Green Party supporters were typically younger, while also highlighting that Fianna Fáil’s voters were overwhelming older. 

But the fact is that European elections are also much more difficult to gather data for. The combination of local and European elections being held together, the fact there are only three constituencies and the combination of candidates and parties voters are questioned on makes it a somewhat greater challenge than a general election for polling companies like Red C.

 Cunningham also suggested that Green Party voters’ enthusiasm might have caused the exit poll to overestimate the size of the “green surge”. 

“I don’t think people lie in polls”, he said, but “you have to get the people who aren’t that interested.”

If that is the case, a surge in Green Party supporters willing to take the poll could have contributed to the inflated predictions for Cuffe and McHugh. 

RTÉ doesn’t comment on the editorial decisions taken in polling and Red C didn’t respond in time for publication. But Cunningham suggested that if the intention was to get the most information as possible out of the poll, then that was the “right decision”.

“It’s about trying to help people understand – not simply to predict a little bit early,” he said. If people are criticising the exit poll over not being fully accurate, they’re “missing the point”. 

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