Saturday 22 October 2016

We don't have to like our leaders, but it does help

Eoin O'Malley finds voters, whether at home and abroad, can quickly see beyond the myth of the masterful leader

Eoin O'Malley

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. Pic: Tom Burke
Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. Pic: Tom Burke

After the 2014 local and European elections the Labour party, despairing at its poor performance, started a 'shove' - 'coup' seems too clinical - to remove Eamon Gilmore. He left quickly, albeit unwillingly.

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It was felt Gilmore was an impediment to the party's performance. Polls showed that Joan Burton was the most popular of senior Labour politicians.  She easily won the leadership contest, reshuffled some of the older, more comfortable ministers out, for younger, hungrier guys. The 2016 election came and Labour was annihilated.

Was it that Joan Burton wasn't the right choice? Perhaps she grated with the public once they got to know her? Or could it be something else?

What's happening in the US presidential election might provide an answer. The next few weeks will be dominated by it. In particular we'll hear about whether Donald Trump can keep a lid on his temper. The election is about the two individuals, the candidates for president. We'd reasonably expect if Joe Biden - who has managed to overcome his image as an affable idiot - had been running against Trump he'd wipe the floor with him. We're told that if the Republicans had picked a centrist candidate, Hillary would be history.

Trump appears to be breaking all the rules. He's barely got a campaign organisation in place. He has almost no endorsements in the press or from senior party figures. He spends much of his time insulting voters, and has been hit by so many scandals that he should be on the deck. Other candidates in the past were sunk by far less, but his campaign seems impenetrable. Could it be that Trump is the strategic genius he likes to portray - the smart guy who knows the voting market and can sell his product - even if it is a draft-dodging tax avoider in a septuagenarian body with bad hair and a loose tongue?

For some this can all be explained by sexism. It's proof that women are held to a higher standard. Hillary Clinton is obviously a more stable, better qualified candidate, but because she's a woman many voters and many in the commentariat refuse to accept her. Perhaps Joan Burton faced the same problem. That may be it, but I suspect it's not.

It could be that she's not a very good candidate. Hillary does not give the warm and fuzzy feeling that her husband managed to convey to those he met. He was The Natural. Ronald Reagan lived happily unburdened by anything close to the intelligence that either Clinton has, but he had that easy manner and quick wit that voters lapped up.

Warmth, we're told, is important. We like to like our candidates. George W Bush may not have been bright, but in 2000 when we didn't know much about him, he was the guy you'd pick to have a beer with over the policy wonk Al Gore.

Hillary Clinton has never been popular - even when she was First Lady she was regarded as self-righteous, then hated equally by the liberal elite and the lumpen masses. She has struggled to overcome this, and much of the campaign has been about 'humanising Hillary'.

Could they be wasting their time? Could it be that the candidate, or the leader doesn't matter as much as we think they do?

The success of Trump - he's managed to make himself competitive when almost no thought he could - could be because he's just lucky that his opponent's personality is not that attractive either. Candidates are supposed to appear strong, competent and likeable. She's obviously competent, but when she collapsed in the New York heat it suggested to voters she may not be physically strong.

Or could it be that the candidate's personality doesn't matter that much?

Research in the US shows that ever fewer people care about the candidates' personalities or personal qualities. We forget that Bill Clinton won despite being questionable on integrity.

A couple of things are at work. Attachment to a party is still so important in the US that Republicans will vote for their candidate, even if that's Donald Trump. By now there are such big policy differences between US parties that the personality is a minor factor.

For Joan Burton the problem wasn't that she was the wrong leader. The problem was that Labour was unpopular. Voters felt it had broken its promise. Burton's problem was that when she took over, apart from changing a few faces, she didn't change the relationship within the government. Nothing substantive changed.

That's not to say parties shouldn't take care when picking a leader. They're the mouthpiece through which we hear the party's message. But it is their role in shaping the party's message that matters more.

The other parties need to be aware of this. John Deasy said last week that Enda Kenny could cost Fine Gael more seats at the next election. But when Kenny is replaced, his replacement needs to think about what he or she will do differently. Kenny was lucky in 2011 when the party effectively ran unopposed. His and his party's failings didn't really matter.

But now Fianna Fail is competitive again Fine Gael needs more than a new leader. It must be clear what it stands for. Following everyone else into the centre might just lose it more support to Independents.

And last week's poll numbers show Fianna Fail isn't on a single track to success because it has Micheal Martin. Fianna Fail did well this year because Fianna Fail was more popular than before. That was probably because Fine Gael and Labour were less popular. Micheal Martin might have helped on the margins, but he's not the cause of its slight recovery. Voters might move away if its policies suggest it hasn't learned the lesson of the crash.

It is probably that most people make a decision on whether they like the party and its policies first. The leader can help in that decision, but he or she isn't the deal-maker. However, if the leader can make a difference to some voters, a few extra points for a party can still turn an election.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is a senior lecturer in political science in the School of Law and Government at DCU

Sunday Independent

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