It has been a dull start to the election. Week one was taken over with verbal pirouettes about fiscal space. While crime dominated the airwaves through week two, the parties remain gridlocked in the polls and even the first of the leaders’ debates failed to deliver any breakthrough.
The government campaign got off to a rocky start. There were big questions about their numbers on fiscal space and it was week two before they built a bit of momentum. The Fine Gael campaign has steadied.
There is a clear, if rather uninspiring campaign mantra, “keep the recovery going”, and while some voters may have only heard this in passing, for those who regularly watch and listen to current affairs programmes, it has become something of a source of amusement.
Campaign bingo games have now started to appear on social media and there is a suspicion that cabinet ministers are involved in some kind of internal competition on who can get their catchphrase into debates most often.
For all the joking about it, the message is clear and based on the idea that political stability will deliver further economic prosperity. It also includes a subliminal fear message which translates as: a vote for the other side could bring potential disaster.
There is some US-based research which supports this campaign approach with evidence showing that voters are interested in preserving what they have rather than the promise of future benefits especially at times of uncertainty.
That said, although Fine Gael’s position in the polls has stabilised around 30%, it needs to pick up at least three to four more points if it is to get back into government with its preferred coalition option of just Labour and Fine Gael.
Labour has much bigger problems. Historical support for the party is between 10% and 12%. They have dropped below this in the consolidated polls and it spells serious trouble.
Their 2011 support was unusual and it became clear early in the years of the Government that sustaining that support was going to prove very difficult. Predictions that the party will be wiped out are overblown but it does face significant seat losses and on current levels, there is no way that it is going to make it back into government with Fine Gael in a two-party coalition.
The problems which have beset Labour during their years in government are even more evident during the campaign. Party representatives are struggling for relevance and visibility especially in the larger debates.
Close reading of their policy papers suggest some important points of policy difference with Fine Gael and it has innovative ideas for example, in relation to childcare but this is not translating in debates.
Labour is being overshadowed by its larger coalition partner. Joan Burton is a capable media performer. She provides a distinctive voice and presence in the debates, not least because she is one of the few senior females in politics — but the Labour message is not coming through.
Party deputy leader, Alan Kelly, may yet test the proposition that all publicity is good publicity. His abrasive style has garnered him many pages of coverage. The media coverage of his pronouncements may save his seat in Tipperary but has done little to promote Labour policy.
Micheál Martin is the most impressive media performer of the main party leaders and he put in a robust performance in the first of the leaders’ debates. He is at the forefront of his party’s campaign but the polls remind us that voters don’t decide on the basis of media appearances alone.
Fianna Fáil is struggling in the polls and has not regained much of the territory it lost in 2011. It should increase its seat numbers quite a bit, partly because it was punished by the vagaries of the transfer system in PR-STV in 2011.
Fianna Fáil has one big advantage, fragmentation in the political system means that it remains relevant and current numbers are keeping it in the frame for government formation.
The “will they, won’t they” question about coalition with Fine Gael will keep a focus on the party and helps obscure the fairly weak frontbench.
Sinn Féin have gained considerable ground since 2011 and are set to make major seat gains. The focus on crime this past week may have reminded some wavering supporters of the party that is has a mixed past but for party loyalists, this will have mattered little.
Sinn Féin has moved firmly into the leading pack and is clearly targeting all the other main parties but it is also fighting a rear guard action on the ground against some of the more radical left wing parties.
We saw some of this dynamic in recent by-elections and it is in play again now. It has a difficult task to present policies which are mainstream and costed while at the same time staying connected to the ‘everything will be free’ populism of the radical left.
It is testament to the abilities of some of its prominent personnel like Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty that it continues to do this.
Strict broadcast rules are having an impact on the smaller parties and independents. They are often the most prominent voices in debates in the normal parliamentary year. While their support has grown, fragmentation means they are heard only infrequently through the campaign. Time must be allocated proportionately.
The seven-leader RTÉ debate on Monday will provide a good opportunity for the smaller parties to set out their stall. The radical left alliance of AAA-PBP is performing well in the polls ahead of most of the other parties and it looks set for a breakthrough.
The Social Democrats have very accomplished TDs and may yet make gains; likewise the Green’s Eamon Ryan looks set to take a seat. But Renua, which had first movers’ advantage, is struggling and doesn’t look like it will make a breakthrough.
Although with the poll arithmetic the way it is, the Social Democrats, Greens, and Rénua could all yet be in the frame for government formation along with several Independents.
Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the Department of Government at UCC
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