Electioneering is best done with a scalpel, not a shovel, writes Gerard Howlin

THE political swirl is at full spin. It’s not an accident that big parties are getting bigger and all others are diminishing. It’s about relevance and share of the spotlight. It is a variation of the proverb that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

The seeming certainty of Brexit and unrelenting uncertainty surrounding an election haves benefited the larger parties, particularly Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They are simply taking up a lot more space in the public conversation.

Two recent opinion polls show almost remarkable consistency in terms of support for each of the parties: Fine Gael is in the early 30s, Fianna Fáil is in the mid to high 20s. The standout difference of opinion between the polls is Sinn Féin. Red C gives it 14%, while The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll puts the party on 24%.

That is an irreconcilable gap. The lower Red C figure is consistent with its own findings over several polls. Ipsos MRBI, in contrast, puts Sinn Féin on a fairly consistent upward trend since its general election result of 13.8%.

Labour is stuck on about 5%. All others are much diminished and now collectively in the early teens. There is reconcentration of support around the larger parties. The worst-case scenario for Sinn Féin is that its base is solid, and we should recall this represents growth of just under 4% and nine seats from one election to another.

Uncertainty suits Fianna Fáil — provided it doesn’t actually result in an election just yet. It is hard to see any scenario whereby this isn’t about peak Fine Gael, with about one third of the electorate supporting it. There are several scenarios whereby a winter in health and housing could set it back.

Parties playing politics in bid to stay under the public spotlight

In a budget that was louche, to facilitate electoral expediency, the issue is whether Brexit allows and the Taoiseach chooses an election sooner rather than later. Micheál Martin firstly eluded the Taoiseach’s grasp for months and is now offering support through the uncertainty of Brexit.

He can’t control Leo Varadkar’s decision but he is setting a context, in which he will have to explain it should he go to the country.

The big surprise in the Ipsos MRBI poll is that apart from 10% who sat on the fence, 90% were evenly divided between wanting more confidence and supply versus a general election.

That’s not how I was reading it but it is good to be reminded of a world outside your own silo.

Even in grumbling, I don’t hear much appetite for an election. The only explanation I can retrofit onto this finding is that increasing talk of an election is normalising the expectation of one.

The more probing question is how party support is divided between those who want the current arrangement to continue and those who don’t.

This is pivotal for Fine Gael. The top-line figure might say things are evenly divided. The real question is what opinion is on the issue among those who are not core Fine Gael voters, but might support the party.

Parties playing politics in bid to stay under the public spotlight

It is in this narrow trench that Varadkar will actually fight an election. It is there that opinion really matters.

A national election is something of a misnomer where 160 TDs are elected in 39 constituencies, and where candidates and local issues have consequences. The two largest parties know that about 60% of voters are simply not in the market for either of them.

Electioneering is best done with a scalpel, not a shovel.

In yesterday’s Ipsos MRBI poll, the underlying figure is that 77% of Fine Gael supporters say there should be a renegotiation of the current agreement. Only 20% favour an election. That leaves a lot of explaining to a lot of Fine Gael voters in a precipitously announced or unnecessary election.

For Fianna Fáil the same figure is actually evenly divided at 46% each. That represents the chip on the shoulder of its core voters who resent Fine Gael suzerainty.

Paradoxically, it puts Martin tactically in a strong position in the short-term. He may well feel the Fine Gael fruit is not fully ripe for the picking, or at least the best picking of it that can be had. It also tells him that for Varadkar, the risks of miscalculation are enormous.

It is not enough that the Taoiseach comes back with more seats. Current indicators say the three largest parties will do that.

He has to widen the current four-seat difference over Fianna Fáil to give Fine Gael other and better options after the election to justify the gamble of calling it. That is a tall order. It requires the alignment of the right conditions with the right campaign.

The political tundra outside the spotlight is getting colder. Limelight is critical, politically. For better or worse, the Government always has the advantage. The eddying, serial crises of the past 10 days, from Brexit to budget to Denis Naughten to the Charleton report, has been senior hurling.

Parties playing politics in bid to stay under the public spotlight

Solidarity and People Before Profit are bereft of a protest current and it is costing them. Labour, which in every previous period of uncertainty was the X in OXO, is now an add-on at best.

Poll numbers tell us little about either the Greens or Social Democrats because their prospects are concentrated in so few constituencies. It is the grass that suffers.

TO SEE how spotlight can be captured, look no further than President Michael D Higgins. He is rerunning Éamon de Valera’s presidential re-election campaign in 1966 — the last incumbent in the Áras to stand again.

Dev didn’t engage with his challenger, Tom O’Higgins, stymying him. A smarter Higgins varies the theme. In nonsense about prioritising the office of president, he plays a game unbelievably facilitated in too much of the media.

He is on presidential engagements that preclude him engaging with the vulgarity of a campaign and its questions. In the small space left over, he, as a confident incumbent, is participating in only three debates.

That’s about a third of what he did in 2011 as a candidate. It’s cynical stuff and it’s working. The lesson for the future is if an incumbent runs again, the presidential commission should take over for the duration of the campaign.

Parties playing politics in bid to stay under the public spotlight

What works for Michael D is not working for our democracy. There is a difference that should be obvious even to his admirers, who have a lot to say about power and its insidious uses otherwise.

Events, hustings, and essential decisions concentrate the mind. They focus the agenda onto essentials and revolve usually around main players. To be a plucky outsider on the main stage for the big event requires extraordinary dexterity and a lot of luck.

It’s never impossible but is usually unlikely. That’s the reality of a concurrent concentration of focus on main players, in the Dáil and in the presidential election.

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