The 2019 European election in Ireland: not so second-order after all?

Guest post by Dr Rory Costello, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick.

There is a natural tendency to interpret European election results in terms of national politics.

This is not an unreasonable thing to do; after all, European elections in Ireland, as in many other countries, are to a considerable extent seen by parties and voters as a dress-rehearsal for the next general election.

Issues such as how the government has performed, how the various opposition parties have faired in the Dáil recently, and current domestic issues and political scandals are to the fore in the commentary seeking to explain the outcome. Voters views on the EU, European integration, and European issues are not given the same weight in explaining the results. (An exception to this is the strong performance of the Green Party, which is rightly seen as a response to the growing importance of issues such as climate change, which have a significant European dimension).

Yet the changing fortunes of the various political parties between the 2014 and 2019 European elections are entirely consistent with changes in public attitudes towards the EU. The 2014 elections took place following three years of the EU-IMF bailout programme, and attitudes towards the EU were decidedly lukewarm. That election was notable for the strong performance of Sinn Féin, the most Eurosceptic of our major parties. Five years on, Irish voters are considerably more positive in their opinions of the EU and European integration, partially as a result of the strong backing that the EU has provided to the Irish government in the Brexit negotiations. The election outcome is consistent with this mood, as Fine Gael (the self-styled ‘party of Europe’) increased their share of the vote by 7% while Sinn Féin’s vote declined by an even greater amount. The excellent performance of the Green Party, who are also now a strongly pro-EU party, is also consistent with this interpretation.

Of course, a lot of other factors can also explain these changing patterns; and the fact that similar (but more muted) trends can be seen if we compare the local election results in 2014 and 2019 suggests that attitudes towards the EU provide at best a partial explanation of the trends. Nevertheless, it is worth investigating to what extent attitudes towards the EU influenced voting patterns in the 2019 European elections.

To provide a first look at this question, I will present some evidence from a very large online survey from the WhichCandidate voting advice application. As well as asking respondents their views on a wide range of policy issues, the website included an optional survey asking respondents about their past voting, current vote intention, along with various demographic questions. Just under 37,000 unique respondents completed this survey, the vast majority of these on the day before and the day of the election. I have weighted this data to reflect the distribution of the electorate in terms of age, gender, education, location, and how they voted in the 2016 general election. Importantly, the sample is not biased towards those with a high degree of political interest (there is a small bias in the opposite direction), so the effect of issue attitudes is unlikely to be overestimated using these data.

The figure below shows the effect of six different bundles of issue-attitudes on voting for each of the main political parties. Each issue is measured on a 3-point scale. The bars represent the effect of holding a particular view on the likelihood of voting for the party in question. So for example, the first panel shows that respondents who were favourable towards European integration (have a score of 3 on this scale) were 9.5% more likely to vote for the Green party compared to respondents who were neutral on this issue (i.e. have a score of 2 on the EU scale). Similarly, pro-EU respondents were 7% more likely to vote for Fine Gael than people who were neutral on this issue, or 14% more likely than respondents who were anti-integration. In contrast, pro-EU respondents were far less likely to vote for Independent candidates and Sinn Féin.

While these effects might sound modest, they were estimated while controlling for a range of other factors, including how the respondent voted in 2016. This means that attitudes towards the EU had a significant effect on which party respondents voted for, even taking into account how respondents voted previously.

Perhaps the most noteworthy finding here is that attitudes towards the EU and environmental issues were far more significant in influencing how people voted than attitudes on other issues, such as economic tax and spending issues, social issues such as abortion and the role of the church, and questions on immigration and minorities. For example, holding left-wing views on economic issues reduced the likelihood of voting for Fine Gael, while holding liberal views on issues such as immigration reduced the likelihood of voting Independent. However, these effects were not as large as the effects of EU attitudes.

If we look at individual election candidates, some other patterns also emerge. For instance, the issues of immigration and Traveller accommodation were a more important factor in voting for Peter Casey than other issues. However, a full exploration of these patterns is beyond the scope of this post.

The key takeaway here is that we should give voters more credit when interpreting election outcomes. ‘Second-order election’ factors such as domestic issues and government performance are important, but Irish voters are also strongly influenced by their views on the most relevant issues for the election at hand. The strong performance of Fine Gael in this election should be interpreted in part as an endorsement of their position on questions of European integration, and this (along with climate change) is also an important factor in the performance of the Green Party.

Effect of attitudes on a range of issues on voting in the 2019 European Parliament elections

bar chart

Note: The size of the bar represents the difference in the probability of voting for the party when comparing individuals who hold the view in question (pro-EU/environmentalist/left-wing/liberal) with individuals who hold a neutral position on that issue. These effects are independent of how the respondent voted in the previous general election.




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