Lies, damned lies and election polls: What to make of the numbers

Newstalk's election analyst Odran Flynn looks at some wildly divergent polls

Much of Irish politics, rightly or wrongly, is viewed through the lens of public opinion polls.

13 polls have been published since the start of the year, 10 since the start of the election campaign - and more will likely released in the coming days.

Amid this flurry of numbers, what are we to make of the sometimes widely diverging statistics they provide us?

Newstalk's resident election analyst Odran Flynn spoke to the Sunday Show about the three polls released this weekend, and his own predictions for the outcome of the election.

He noted one important different in methodology between Red C, who conduct polls by phone, and other agencies, who conduct face-to-face polls.

This different methodology is visible in the gap between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, he said. The gap between the parties is 11% in Red C polls, but only 6% in face-to-face polls. Both cannot be right as the difference is well outside the usual 3% margin of error.

"There is a very clear pattern developing. One will turn out to be right and one will turn out to be wrong," he predicted.

Odran's own instinct leads him to believe momentum is now with Fianna Fáil, who have risen consistently outside Red C polls. Fine Gael meanwhile, have lost the confidence they had the week before the election was called on February 3rd.

He also raised the issue of polls affecting political reality. "When does a poll stop reflecting what is actually happening, and start influencing what will happen?" he asked.

Few believed the accuracy of the latest Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitude poll when it suggested Labour support had halved to a mere 4%. But, Odran argues, if that had been the only poll this weekend, it may well have influenced the decision-making of the party itself, causing them further harm.

Toxicity - the 'who would you never vote for' factor - is also worth observing.

Sinn Féin prove the most toxic, according to the Sunday Times/Millard Brown poll, but perhaps surprisingly, Fine Gael and Labour are considered toxic by more (35%) of the electorate than Fianna Fáil (27%).

The current coalition will find it next to impossible to take more than two seats in five-seater constituencies, Odran said. Even with strong personal votes, there will be no repeats of Dublin South-East (now Dublin Bay South), where Fine Gael and Labour won all four seats in 2011.

With independents continuing to gobble up a significant share of the vote, it looks like a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael might be the only feasible Government.

Odran predicts Fine Gael to receive about 27% of first-preferences and 42 seats, with Fianna Fáil taking 23% and 36 seats. Factoring in the seven or eight seat bonus for the largest party, this would leave the pairing well clear of the 79-seat hurdle required to form a majority in the Dáil.

This would open the floor to the idea of a revolving Taoiseach arrangement between Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin.

When asked if the Fine Gael-Labour coalition might be returned, the answer was simple: "No."

Live from @ElectionNT