Friday 23 February 2018

Pre-election poll shows nuanced opinion

Paul Moran

This latest Millward Brown Poll, conducted over 10 days up until last Thursday, captured opinion during the long goodbye to the 31st Dail, but also covered the first two days of the campaign.

It provides for interesting reading. Taking a step back, this election is still Fine Gael's to lose, but the public is more nuanced in its opinions than some may have anticipated.

Firstly, headline figures: Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have slipped back marginally, while Labour remain in the doldrums, and it's as you were for Sinn Fein. Independents and other parties have shifted up somewhat, reflecting potentially the most fractious election in recent generations.

Both government parties will be somewhat deflated, if not downright disappointed, by these latest results. Fine Gael, at 27pc, will be concerned that the momentum, apparent for the party in the autumn, has dissipated. For Labour, at 6pc, the situation is far more critical. They have less than three weeks to kick-start their recovery. Given that they have remained in the doldrums for the past two years, unable to reach the psychological barrier of 10pc in our tracking polls, it may well be that the tide has already gone too far out for them to muster any respectable recovery. Damage limitation may be key, with the party having to focus only on those seats it has a reasonable chance of actually winning.

For Fine Gael, the past couple of weeks have been less than stellar. Despite having the advantage of knowing when the starter's gun would be fired, they have still stumbled out of the blocks.

The opening days of their campaign have, at best, been lacklustre. Between the debate over the size of the already much-maligned catchphrase known as the 'Fiscal Space', and Enda Kenny's less than sure-footed explanation to it, the omens are not good.

When the central platform of your manifesto message is financial prudence, it is worrying to be caught with a sucker punch so quickly. When you are having to explain, you are losing. In addition, it will stick in both FG's and Labour's throats that it was Sinn Fein who were seen to display the most fiscal rectitude on this issue. Strategists will be seeking to move the debate on to other issues as swiftly as possible.

Vacillations over whether Fine Gael would seek the support of Michael Lowry or not have also done the party no favours. Both Fianna Fail (22pc) and Sinn Fein (21pc) will be happy with these results. They both have built a platform on which to build.

The main movers have been Independents/other parties. Looking at the "smaller" parties, one suspects that their branding is confusing: people are more likely to nominate individual (high-profile) candidates by name rather than the party they are linked to.

Taking a step back, the broader narrative of these results is that focusing too much on the economy is potentially a risky strategy - the public don't necessarily buy into the government argument of Stability vs Chaos - just one-in-three agree with the doomsday scenario put forward by FG/Labour that a change in government will put Ireland's economic stability at risk.

This approach may need to be revisited, especially if it does not gain traction with the electorate soon. The alternative is that the public will become irritated very quickly if the government parties don't adopt more agile strategies and communications over the next couple of weeks.

One landmark result from this poll is that for the first time since the crash, financial sentiment has crept into positive territory - that is, for the first time since 2008, more of us are upbeat about our financial situation over the next 12 months than downbeat. While the government parties would like to take credit for this, external factors also play a large part - something that opposition parties will be eager to articulate.

As it is, just over one-in-four (27pc) believe that either Fine Gael or Labour can be most trusted to manage the economy. Fianna Fail gets the nod from 17pc, while 13pc believe that Sinn Fein can be most trusted.

In addition, the preferred focus among the public for the next government (whoever it may be) is that public services should be improved (39pc) versus one-in-four nominating tax cuts, suggesting that hard-nosed economic policy communications may not be the best advised route - society and social issues may take centre stage after several year years of savage cuts.

But these are early days. Among decided voters, we asked how certain they were in their nomination. Nearly one-in-five (19pc) either have some reservations or are not certain at this juncture. There are plenty of potential switchers (unfortunately for Labour, 39pc of their current supporters, albeit of a small base, are potential waverers).

The ambition for all our political parties for the next two and a half weeks will be to actually understand what the voters want to hear.

Paul Moran is an Associate Director at Millward Brown

Sunday Independent

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