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Pat Leahy: 53% of voters know ‘hardly anything’ about March 8th referendums

Analysis: A majority of voters say they will back the proposed changes, but the contest is likely to tighten

Illustration: Paul Scott

Since they were announced last year, the proposed constitutional changes relating to the definition of a family and the role of care in the home have been regarded as a potential banana skin by many Government politicians.

Today’s poll results will ease their fears somewhat, showing a large majority of voters who declare a position saying they will back the proposed changes to the Constitution. But there are indications in the data that the contest is likely to tighten as polling day approaches.

One of the starkest findings of today’s poll is the extent to which the voters have simply not switched on to the referendums at this stage. With polling day on March 8th just a month away, only a small minority of voters (8 per cent) say they know “a lot” about what is proposed. A further 36 per cent say that they know “a little” about the referendums, while more than half of all voters – 53 per cent – say that know “hardly anything at all” about them.

The Government proposes expanding the definition of family in the Constitution to recognise “durable relationships”, such as cohabiting couples and their children, and replacing the language around “women in the home” with language recognising care within families.

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Older voters, voters in rural areas (especially in Connacht-Ulster) and working class voters are all more likely to say they know hardly anything about the referendums.

While the numbers of those saying they know little or nothing about the referendums can be expected to drop as the campaign proceeds, it hardly seems likely that this referendum is going to grab the public’s attention in the way that the same-sex marriage or abortion referendums did in 2015 and 2018. Certainly, Government politicians are sceptical of suggestions that a major campaign will be mounted, while the most popular party in the country, Sinn Féin, has not yet taken a position. This campaign seems likely to be low key – which on past experience would suggest a low turnout. That makes things unpredictable.

There are also indications in today’s poll that voters who have a lot of knowledge about the proposals are more likely to vote against them. In fact, the data suggests that voters may be potentially up to twice or three times more likely to vote No in the referendums if they know a lot about them. As the campaign proceeds and polling day nears, it can be expected that the number of voters who feel they know about the proposed changes will increase – suggesting that the No vote should increase. At the very least, it should close the gap with the Yes side.

But that gap, for now anyway, is very large. On the “family” referendum, a majority of all voters (52 per cent) say they will vote in favour, with just 15 per cent against and 27 per cent saying they don’t know. A further 5 per cent say they will not vote.

On the “care” referendum, which proposes to recognise the value of care and remove the text that recognises women’s role in the home, the Yes lead is even larger – 59 per cent say they will vote in favour of the changes, with just 12 per cent against, and 23 per cent undecided, Again, 5 per cent say they will not vote.

So the picture is clear – at the start of the campaign, the Yes side has a massive advantage. But in the absence of much engagement in the campaign it is rather too early to be calling this a done deal yet. A low turnout – predicted by all sides – could change today’s numbers substantially.

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