Now the date has finally been announced, we face a fairly short election campaign that will be split into what campaigners call the air war and the ground war, says Theresa Reidy
Speculation about the election date had been dragging on since October giving us a four-month phoney war where everyone knew an election was imminent but direct campaigning had to be a little discreet.
Now that the starter gun has been fired, we face a fairly short election campaign which will be split into what campaigners call the air war and the ground war.
The air war is the name given to the part of the campaign which plays out on national radio and television, in the national newspapers and on billboards across the country.
Parties will launch their policy manifestos at events in Dublin and there will be daily policy pronouncements from all of the parties which will be carefully co-ordinated with their social media campaigns.
Radio and television debates play an important part in informing voters about the plans of each of the parties and party notables will be ever present on our airwaves over the next three weeks.
The highlights of the air war are usually the candidate debates.
We know that RTÉ is planning two and we can expect the other broadcasters to announce their plans very soon.
The jury is out on how these debates matter but one thing we know is that they can’t be ignored. In 2011, just days before polling, nearly one million people tuned into the RTÉ leaders debate.
The tone of the campaign is very much influenced by the air war. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin have already unveiled billboard ads which fall under the broad heading of negative campaigning.
Labour’s 2011 adaption of the Tesco poster “Fine Gael, every little hurts” came back to haunt them during their five years in government but negative campaigning can be useful and many commentators still recall the effectiveness of Fianna Fáil’s famous slogan from the late-80s ‘Health cuts hurt the old, the sick, and the handicapped’.
Any negative campaigning is more likely to focus on policy than personality. While Enda Kenny is the face of the outgoing government, opposition parties will need to ensure that their message on policy failures in health and housing gets home to voters.
The personal characteristics of the Taoiseach only matter indirectly. The RTÉ exit poll from 2007 reported that 22% of voters decided who to vote for based on the candidate for Taoiseach but that number had dropped to 7% by 2011.
Many of the same leaders are still in place so we have no reason to expect that personality battles like those of the 1980s between Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald will make an appearance.
Enda Kenny tends to keep a relatively low profile during the air war and efforts by Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams to provoke him into a more prominent role will likely be ignored by Fine Gael strategists.
Kenny will do a small number of debates, but the presidential style of campaigning where the focus is on the leaders of the two main parties vying to lead government will be diluted by Kenny’s reluctance to appear and the fragmentation in support among the other parties.
Still, we can expect plenty of drama. It is possible we will have more than 600 candidates from across the political spectrum all vying to make their points, some lively encounters are inevitable.
The ground war is the part that you cannot escape. By the weekend, every lamp post, telephone poll, and spare bit of wall space will be covered in a sea of election posters.
Candidates will smile down upon you for the next three weeks. Posters are much maligned but in practice they are important especially for new candidates. It is one of the few ways that new candidates and non-party candidates have to alert voters that they are contesting the election. They also serve the important function of letting people know that an election is imminent and that they should remember to vote.
Door to door canvassing is a very important part of the election.
Data from several waves of the Irish National Election Study tell us that voters like to be asked for their vote and having met the candidate is an important influencer on a voter’s final voting decision.
Local hustings and local radio are important for candidates to engage directly with voters in their own areas and with so many candidates in the field this time, they will be an important way for voters to get a sense of the diversity of opinion on the ballot.
Lastly, leaflet drops are the bottom of the scale when it comes to the ground war. They are a necessary evil for new candidates but most become fodder for recycling bins.
Social media will play a more prominent part in this election but it is better understood as a new strand to the campaigning toolbox than as something which can displace other activities. Building an effective social media profile takes a lot of work and even candidates with lots of friends or followers must beware that these will not necessarily translate into votes.
Facebook users outnumber Twitter users but the latter is a much more political forum. Social media will be a source of information and entertainment for all but it may be some time before digital campaigning becomes decisive.
Lastly, we expect that voter advice applications will be used more widely at this election. These online tools like www.smartvote.ie and www.whichcandidate.ie enable voters to take a short policy test after which they are matched with the party or candidate that is closest to their own policy preferences. These applications are used widely in elections internationally now but again, their full impact is not yet clear.
The next three weeks will bring information overload for those who enjoy campaigns but for voters with only a passing interest, the best thing to say is it will all be over fairly quickly.
Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the Department of Government at UCC
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