The upcoming referendums to be held on March 8th on proposed constitutional amendments relating to non-marital families in Ireland, and both women’s duties in the home and the provision of care, will take place just under two weeks from now.

Historically, it is only at this stage a couple of weeks out that ordinary voters start to engage with referendums, and the arguments become better established on both sides.  This means today’s poll is probably only the starting gun on where things may end up, so what can we learn from current voter attitudes?

For these referendums, there appears to have been quite a lot of media coverage suggesting that the changes were largely symbolic and that voters will therefore not engage with them.  That certainly does not appear to be the case according to our poll today, with 67% of voters suggesting they believe the referendums are important for them to vote in, while only 11% suggest they are not important.

It is also the case that similar proportions of voters suggest they will vote in them, as would if there were a general election.  In fact, 58% of voters suggest they are extremely likely to vote, vs 64% for a general election.  Both these figures suggest turnout may be at least ok, even though it clearly won’t be as high as seen at general elections.

On the back of this apparent engagement among voters, their claimed vote intentions currently suggest both referendums will pass.  Over half (55%) of voters suggest they will support the amendments to the constitution for the non-marital families referendum, rising to 58% among likely voters, while just 16% of likely voters suggest they will oppose the change.

An even greater proportion (59%) suggest they will support the amendments suggested in the women/carers referendum, rising to 61% among likely voters, while only 23% of likely voters suggest they will oppose it.

Past referendum polling has however uncovered two main features that can often apply in referendums that are worth bearing in mind when analysing poll results.  The first being the status quo effect, and the second the impact of shy voters on the outcome.

The status quo effect has been seen in almost all of the referendum polling conducted in Ireland over the last number of years.  It suggests that voters, if they are not 100% decided on how they will vote, tend to end up voting for the option that would result in no real change.  Why change something if you are not convinced by the arguments in support?

Moreover, “Don’t know, vote no” is a popular political position for No campaigners globally, and this argument might resonate with those who feel that the government has not adequately defined durable relationships or a clear outline of the implications of the proposed changes.  It is possible therefore that those who currently don’t know how they will vote, may ultimately vote for the status quo if they actually bother to vote at all.

In fact, we saw in the same-sex marriage referendum that almost all of those who were undecided in the final polls, appear to have ended up voting No to changing the law on polling day.  If RED C had simply excluded undecided voters from our final poll before the referendum, we would have been predicting an 80% Yes vote.  As it was, we suggested that all the undecided voters would vote No, and published a final poll predicting 69% would vote Yes – which was very close to the final result.

This phenomenon was also apparent in the children’s and the Oireachtas enquiries referendums, with at least 70% of undecided voters ending up voting for the status quo.

These referenda don’t feel quite as significant as something like introducing same sex marriage, but if we were to apply the same thinking to the upcoming referendums what would this mean?  Currently approximately 16-23% of voters are undecided for each referendum vote.  That means at current voter intention levels, even if all of these undecided voters decided to oppose the referendum, both would still pass.  But it does suggest they might be somewhat closer than even now than just looking at the topline polling data suggests.

The other factor that could be at play is the shy voter effect.  Referendums can often be far more emotionally charged than political party elections.  With strong and emotive arguments being made on either side, voters can sometimes feel “shy” about expressing their opinions, particularly when it appears to be in the minority.

The shy voter effect was particularly evident in the same-sex marriage referendum, where many of those that didn’t want to see change, felt somewhat compelled to silence by the overwhelming media support for same-sex marriage.  This meant many of the polls somewhat underrepresented their views.  Again, another argument for making sure you read the polling data with these possible issues in mind.

In these referendums the arguments are not quite as emotionally charged, so the shy voter effect is likely to be minimal.  However, there is a media narrative that some form of change is right, and should be pushed through, even though the final agreed text is certainly not supported by all.

Almost half (48%) agree that the current language on women’s role in the home in the constitution is outdated and undermines Irish women’s role in our society.  But that also means more than half are not convinced that it is outdated, and many believe that the current wording pays tribute to women.  This does mean that even if some believe that change the current text is right, they don’t necessarily agree with the text that has been proposed, and this nuance is more difficult to measure.

Even with both of these factors at play, current polling suggests that both referendums will pass, but of course polls measure opinion at a moment in time.  So  with two weeks to go in the campaign, and with undecided voters possibly more likely to vote No, the result may be potentially closer than the current polling might suggest.

Business Post RED C Opinion Poll Report – February 2024