Monday 24 October 2016

Now the result depends entirely on 'don't knows'

Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30


I was only "surveyed" once ever myself. Some years ago, a nervous young man with a yellow clipboard approached me in a supermarket car park and asked me a series of questions about potatoes. Happily, I had no difficulty sharing my own very strong views on the subject. The young man's form had a "don't know" box for most answers. I'm proud to tell you that he did not tick it once for me.

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But Friday's election is entirely another matter. With five days left, most of us can agree it has been a lacklustre contest - but we must equally agree, it is still impossible to figure the outcome. And we have not seen that level of uncertainty, this late in an election campaign, in our lifetimes.

Alas, right now, we just "don't know".

Three separate opinion polls brought varied results yesterday. A Millward Brown survey for the Sunday Independent showed support for the government parties was unchanged. There was a small increase in support for Fianna Fáil and for Independents and some smaller parties. A Sunday Times poll by Behaviour and Attitudes suggested that Labour's support is as low as 4pc. The Sunday Independent pollsters put Labour on 6pc, but the third survey, by Red C in the Sunday Business Post, put them on 8pc, unchanged from their previous survey.

Indeed, both outgoing government parties preferred the Red C findings which were generally kinder to them. They rated Fine Gael on 30pc, up two points. The combined Fine Gael-Labour 38pc was the best prognosis available to teams whose campaigns have stuttered and struggled.

But then, there was the "don't know" factor.

All three polls suggested that anywhere between 9pc and 17pc of voters were undecided. And the head of the Red C polling company, Richard Colwell, went a step further by having his surveyors ask people how sure they were that they would stick by their expressed voting intentions on Friday. This showed that many people have strong views - lightly held. In fact, only a little over half of those asked were completely and resolutely decided.

Mr Colwell calculated that those who had yet to make up their minds, and those who might change their minds, combined to make up about one-quarter of the electorate.

So, no great surprise then that Enda Kenny produced his most rabble-rousing back-of-the-lorry stuff at a Fine Gael party canvassers' rally in central Dublin yesterday afternoon.

Stripping out the predictable old rhetoric and rather tired attacks on Fianna Fáil, Mr Kenny's manic ham-actor shouting, later relayed nationwide on the RTÉ's Six One News, was aimed at keeping his canvassers beating on doors right up to 10pm on Friday night and close of polling booths.

Fine Gael and Labour strategists have little choice but to keep the bright side out and insist there will be a belated voter "surgette" - if not a fully-fledged surge - in their direction over these final days. Meanwhile, Fine Gael take the better-sounding polls and put the most optimistic gloss on things.

One prediction here is that Fine Gael could get in the mid-to-high 50s in Dáil seats. Labour could get as many as 12 TDs. That would leave them seeking some form of support from some 12 or more reliable "Independents or Others".

In reality, that all seems a bit of a stretch and smacks of whistling past the graveyard. But they are right to keep trying for another while yet in this most uncertain and strange election.

It turns out that Fine Gael's slogan - "Let's keep the recovery going" - missed the target, though many, including this writer, thought it was rather good.

But the reality is that it was too metropolitan, based on experience in the bigger population centres which had been touched by the economic uplift. Perhaps even in the bigger cities, too, many people did not feel like cheering either.

The party, since the middle of last week, quietly moved from there, to talk about "sharing the recovery" and "spreading the recovery". But they are still staying with the "it's chaos or us" choice.

They are busy telling us that five years ago, we were headed up the creek with Greece, Portugal and Spain. And of that 2011 quartet of countries, only Ireland has come back from the economic brink.

Thus, the Fine Gael message remains the same: if you vote for change, or the election outcome signals political instability, you may find an adverse reaction in world financial markets.

They still hope people will ponder that over the coming five days - and see the Fine Gael light.

Labour's problems seem even more acute and potentially terminal. The weekend prediction of 4pc would mean wipeout. No surprises that they prefer the 8pc rating - and try to talk it closer to double figures. Up to now, they have allied themselves closely to Fine Gael. Their differentiation points were on "liberal issues" and a warning that Fine Gael need watching on behalf of working people lest they slope off with their "posh pals".

Thus far, it has not impressed voters who are reluctant to give them a hearing.

They remain stuck in the polls close to their calamitous local election result of 7pc in May 2014. This coming week, Labour will extend their message with examples like giving full trade-union rights to gardaí and the Defence Forces.

Fianna Fáil have more reason to be happier in themselves, though again it's "pick your favourite poll" as some offer better news than others. Micheál Martin had an excellent campaign so far, helped by ongoing attacks by Fine Gael and Labour.

Sinn Féin appear stuck in the mid-teens, having been nearer 20pc. They are afflicted by the timing of their stance on the Special Criminal Court and Gerry Adams's poor numeracy skills.

But, it is those "Independents and Others" who pose most problems for us. They are put at above a quarter of the electorate in all surveys and it has been thus for a long time now.

What 25pc would deliver to such a diverse group, across the 40 constituencies, is hard to compute. The destination of their transfers is an even bigger head-wreck. So, they are at the heart of the "don't know factor".

This election has been dull but the count will intrigue us.

Irish Independent

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