Cowen’s popularity cannot be expected to do a three-point turn

YESTERDAY’S Sunday Business Post opinion poll wasn’t that exceptional.

But at the same time it was unique.

It was unique in establishing three key realities. Definitively.

The first is that doing your best has no payoff once the public has made up its mind. The public has made up its mind about Brian Cowen. They want to give him his P45 and that’s all they want to give him. That’s a fixed position.

Because it’s a fixed position, it doesn’t matter that Brian Cowen has been playing more to his strengths in the last couple of weeks than for a long time up to that. He relaxed into the Greens’ consensus proposal, even though he looked from the start as if he thought it was as daft as a brush. He refused to rise to opposition leaders’ digs, although he couldn’t resist drawing attention to his untypical saintly self-restraint. He appeared in pictures filled with laughter at the antics of a bunch of kids when he was launching a new Luas line.

Add all of those positives up, drop them into the public mind around the time when an opinion poll is gathered, and what’s the payoff? Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Fianna Fáil drops six points to 18%. Fine Gael comes in at nearly twice that figure.

“Based on this poll, if we went to the country now, we wouldn’t get 30 seats,” a Fianna Fáil friend says. A measure of how miserable this friend is can be found in him not even bothering to issue the usual health warnings: 1) Fianna Fáil supporters might be self-conscious about telling an opinion pollster their intentions, but in the privacy of the ballot box they’ll still vote for the FF candidate, 2) Loyalty to a local Fianna Fáil candidate will always outweigh desire to punish the party as a whole for where it’s landed us, 3) Other parties like Labour don’t have the machinery on the ground to deliver the seats that seem predictable after such a poll.

Those caveats aside, the reality is that Brian Cowen is on the wrong side of a phenomenon in public-attitude shaping. The general public changes its mind. It may start by deciding that Joe Bloggs is an eejit and over time be persuaded that he’s a likeable genius. It will take time, persistence, evidence and hard work, but it’s do-able. Similarly, Joe Bloggs can start off popular and later be seen as a lemon. That progression from like to dislike or dislike to like is not easy, but it is possible.

What’s not possible is the three-point political turn. What’s not possible is starting off popular, becoming as unpopular as cholera, and going right back to popularity. It has been done – witness Nixon’s accession to the presidency several years after ostensibly retiring from politics because of unpopularity. Nixon was the exception that proves the rule. Brian Cowen’s personal popularity cannot be expected to do a three-pointer, no matter how much he concentrates on delivering the best of himself.

The second point proven by this particular opinion poll is that it doesn’t matter to the general public whether the Labour Party has well-worked out economic policies or not. This came as a great relief to me, because, one day last, on TV3’s morning show, I told Sinead Desmond and Mark Cagney that, while nerdy commentators had got themselves very worked up in the previous fortnight about the Labour Party being poorly endowed in this regard, my guess was that the general public didn’t give a sugar and that the next opinion poll would bear this out.

Having delivered myself confidently of this view, I then suffered a massive panic attack and fell utterly silent for the entire second half of the discussion. Not that it was so risky a prediction. People don’t vote on policies. Policies are documents produced by political parties because they have backrooms full of policy wonks who love producing them. They get egged on by broadcasters who want to play off one side of a possible coalition government against another. They get further egged on by print journalists who want to line up the statistics and projections of one party against those of another party as if readers would compare the two and go “Well, Golly gee, having totted up the presented evidence, I will now vote for Fine Gael as opposed to Labour.”

That’s not the way people make either purchasing or voting decisions. They make the decision first and then go looking for evidence to support it.

One examination of attitudes to the death penalty in America showed this process in sharp relief. The participants, who were either strongly for the death penalty or strongly against it, were given contrasting reports to read. One of the reports established that executing criminals had no payoff for society. The other indicated that capital punishment was an effective deterrent to crime.

It turned out that neither side was shifted from their pre-existing position by the evidence presented. The ones who championed capital punishment loved the report that described it positively, but had no time for the arguments and evidence in the report opposing it.

No surprise, then, to find their reactions mirrored precisely by those on the other side of the argument. If you started out believing the death penalty was state murder without justification, you discounted the report that suggested executing criminals might have benefits. Both sides came away from the experiment with stronger convictions than they had held when they began.

Nobody will ever admit to wanting a particular party in power because of purely emotional reasons, and so they need to backload policy data into their mindset to reduce their apparent irrationality. But it’s not the policy that makes them vote. The policy allows them to justify their vote.

Political correspondents andcommentators hate the idea that emotion, rather than reason, is what makes political decisions. Hence the current fashion to howl at the Labour Party for not having an elegant sufficiency of economic policies. The Labour Party leadership, however, knows that emotion is the tow bar and that you can always hook a load of policies on to it when you need them.

The final, and arguably most important lesson of this opinion poll, will be the one least commented upon: its confirmation of the continuation of Fine Gael’s pattern of slow growth at the expense of Fianna Fáil. If rational approach to data was what made people make decisions, commentators who have consistently rubbished Kenny would now say “Have to admit, he’s brought his party to almost twice the strength of Fianna Fáil and ended up after a ghastly summer, not only with increased party popularity, but with probably the best economic team – Noonan, Bruton, Varadker and Hayes – of any of the parties.”

Have any of them done such a turnaround? Nope. Will they ever do so? Nope. Why? I refer you to the point about emotion versus data.

The Red C poll makes the contrast clear: Enda Kenny is (with some difficulty) managing a march towards an objective.

Brian Cowen, in contrast, is presiding over a national and party tragedy.

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