From top: Yesterday’s Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown Poll l Derek Mooney
The results of yesterday’s Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown Poll would appear to confirm two things.
The first one is that the two main parties are evenly matched and are together edging their combined vote back up to the 60s. The second is that there is very little likelihood of there being a general election this year.
I have addressed both this points before, so I do not plan to dwell on either one now, except to say that having the two parties so evenly match just weeks after Fine Gael has placed its ace card and changed leader; is effectively a bonus for Fianna Fáil.
The elevation of Varadkar should have seen Fine Gael use the euphoria and novelty of having a new leader to put some clear blue water between it and its main rival. It hasn’t, and that signals a big problem for the party’s strategists over the coming months.
As I have observed here several times, the main political parties do not do their polling in the same way as the major newspapers. They do not base their analysis on national quantitative surveys, but rather they employ constituency polling to measure where their messages are working and where their candidates are performing.
They do not see the country as a single battlefield, but rather as a patchwork of individual political battlegrounds, both geographic and demographic.
This is the data that decides election strategies. It is also the data that the leaders guard most jealously. It is rarely, if ever, shared beyond a handful of people. It is rarely even shared with ministerial or front bench colleagues, unless the leader wants a particular snippet or factoid to make its way into the Sunday papers or on to Morning Ireland.
It is the political equivalent of the Coca-Cola recipe. A few people may know one or two of the ingredients or how some part of the process works, but only the ones at the very top know the whole thing.
However, while the newspaper opinion polls do not swing or impact a political party’s electoral strategy, they can and often do influence the morale of candidates and activists.
Given the number and regularity of these national polls – and one has to question their value beyond selling extra copies, when an election is probably a year or so away – one bad poll result is not likely to too dispirit the troops, but get two or three on the trot and it can start to impact negatively.
And it is not just activists and aspiring candidates. Outside of the Dorcas gazelle, there is no creature on this planet who is more easily startled or alarmed than the bank-bench TD.
Show them a sequence of two or three bad Red C poll results and they are climbing the walls or, more likely, heading surreptitiously to chat with the nearest pol-corr to tell them how the leader needs to act quickly or dramatically to do x, y or z… where z usually involves their promotion.
The paradox for the party leadership is how do they reassure their unnerved backbenchers without giving away proprietary information from their internal polling.
As with all paradoxes there is no answer and so, to quote Sister Gertrude from the 1977 satirical movie Nasty Habits (based on Muriel Spark’s the Abbess of Crewe), “a paradox is something you live with”.
To be fair, any TD who is regularly out knocking on doors and maintaining a solid connection with their constituency and constituents will know whether any given poll is in tune with what they are hearing. They also know that the vast bulk of their constituents are not thinking daily about who they plan to vote for at the next election.
Yes, voters have opinions on what the government is doing on a particular issue or how it is handling the latest crisis, but voting is an aggregated decision. It has many component parts, of which how the voter feels about the party leader is one of the lower ones.
Analysis of the 2016 general election exit poll shows that less than 10% of voters cited choice of Taoiseach as a factor when they decided how they would vote.
For a much greater number the suitability of the candidates in their constituency was a key deciding factor. If you thought that water charges was the key issue you were about 10% more likely to vote Sinn Féin and about 15% less likely to vote Fine Gael.
How can a newspaper poll, conducted mid-term when a general election looks like being at least a year away, be expected to pick up on such many and varied factors – especially when most voters are not in that frame of mind right now.
This is not to dismiss newspaper opinion polls out of hand, nor is it a plea to ban polls, though banning them for the duration of a whole campaign, or at least the final 10 days is worth considering.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney
Graphics via The Sunday Independent