The nature of elections is that they always throw up surprises.
In 2010, for example, I didn’t see Peter Robinson being toppled by Naomi Long and I thought Reg Empey would win South Antrim.
This time I’m pretty sure Long will lose, but I can’t make up my mind about South Antrim.
I think there are 16 certainties: 7 DUP, 5 SF, 3 SDLP and Lady Hermon. That leaves Upper Bann and South Antrim, held by the DUP.
I knew Upper Bann was in play when I heard the DUP wanted it as part of a pact. If they were worried about it six months ago it meant they believed a loss was possible.
The fact they talked up the possibility of Sinn Fein “sneaking the seat” if the unionist vote split down the middle meant they were worried.
Jo-Anne Dobson is a canny choice for the UUP: a post-Agreement party activist who is liberal, media savvy, popular on the ground and a ferociously combative campaigner.
She should be able to tap into an Alliance and soft nationalist base (not huge numbers, but every vote counts) as well as picking up some TUV/PUP/UKIP voters who want to damage the DUP. My gut instinct is the odds remain in Simpson’s favour: but if there is to be a surprise in this election then Upper Bann is one to watch.
The other seat is South Antrim, where William McCrea is defending a 1,183 majority, down from 3,448 in 2005. He’s up against the UUP’s Danny Kinahan, a local MLA with long, strong family connections in the area.
That said, McCrea saw off a challenge from UUP leader Reg Empey last time. But the DUP will be worried the TUV candidate can add to the 1,829 votes their candidate took in 2005 — most of which seem to have come from the DUP.
They’ll also be concerned that some Alliance voters will switch to Kinahan.
Again, the odds remain in McCrea’s favour, but the UUP has run a very well organised, upbeat campaign, so a surprise is possible.
Mike Nesbitt needs one of these seats, although he’d be ecstatic if the UUP won both. He faces four possible outcomes:
• The UUP win nothing but manage to increase their overall vote (that can be dressed up as success of sorts)
• They win one seat, but the overall vote goes down (still a victory and he can point to North Down and the pact as a reason the vote went down)
• They win a seat/s and the overall vote goes up as well (he’ll be carried shoulder high from a count centre and both the DUP and TUV will be worried)
• They win nothing and their overall vote goes down (he’ll spend hours walking around a count centre with party members avoiding eye contact with him).
The irony is that the UUP’s best chances are in seats where there isn’t a pact!
The bigger election picture still looks blurry.
Opinion polls remain agonizingly close, meaning weeks of horse-trading and unconvincing compromises and the possibility of another election. To be honest I’m not sure a second election would make much of a difference.
The trouble seems to be that the parties are appealing to their core vote and finding it enormously difficult to tap into the ‘swing voter’ market — the sort of people who gravitate towards one of the two big parties as polling day approaches.
‘Swing voters’ are the sort of people who give the benefit of the doubt to one party or another in exchange for the likelihood of strong government. But the evidence suggests — as it has since about 2008 — that fewer people are prepared to give either Labour or Conservative the benefit of their doubts.
So anything is still possible on May 7, although the mathematics suggest it will be easier for Miliband to cut a deal and form a government.
On Saturday afternoon I sat on my stairs and looked at a framed poster from the Electoral Commission that has been hanging there since 2005: “How politics affects your journey to work. It controls the planning and building of new roads, including motorways and by-passes; decides how much money is spent on maintaining the existing road network; says who can dig up the roads and when; decides where to put traffic lights, one-way systems, roundabouts and speed bumps; sets speed limits; decides how much road tax motorists should pay every year; decides which roads should have bus and cycle lanes; sets safety standards for public transport; decides where you can park and how much it’s going to cost you; sets the level of tax on petrol and other fuels.”
It’s one of three posters I have there — the other two being about how politics affects the ‘food you eat’ and ‘your night out.
I used to teach politics. I commentate on politics for a living. I champion democracy and free speech. I argue in favour of people taking a stand and making their voice heard. I have spoken to dozens of people about my recent pieces on either not voting or spoiling my vote.
And do you know something? They are right.
Not voting won’t make a difference. Spoiling my vote won’t make a difference.
Our political institutions are weak and in need of reform. But opting out of the election process won’t change that.
So, on Thursday, I will be voting.
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