Wednesday 22 November 2017

Higgins leads way but Mitchell in real trouble

Presidential race remains wide open as McGuinness and Norris jockey to join the field, writes James MacCarthy-Morrogh

This should be a great poll for Fine Gael. Six months into government, it has a poll rating of 40 per cent -- four percentage points clear of its record-breaking election in February. The senior Government party dominates every region and social group. Yet, there is a powerful sting in this poll's tail. With the presidential election only a month away, Fine Gael's campaign is in real trouble.

In contrast, the Labour Party should be very happy: it is holding the level of support it won at the general election and, better still, it is on course to take the Park too.

Fianna Fail shows no sign of recovery -- at just 11 per cent national support the party has slipped behind Sinn Fein into fourth place. It will take many party 'think-ins' to reverse its current fortunes.

Since our last poll, published two weeks ago, Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher have both received the requisite support from local authorities to be nominated. They have gained from this publicity: Davis, in particular, has risen five points to 18 per cent. In a tightly bunched pack, she looks to be a real contender.

Davis has increased her 'inspiring' number from 10 per cent to 15 per cent, and has made positive headway on 'trust' and 'honesty'. Gallagher now owns the 'modern' image and is strong on 'inspiring' too; these may make for compelling narratives for their campaigns.

Michael D Higgins remains the clear frontrunner, with the consistent support of one in three voters. Like his vote, Higgins's image is largely stable too -- 'trust' and 'honesty' are the bedrock on which his campaign will lie. Only a perception of being 'old' seems to be a negative for him.

Gay Mitchell's support has actually fallen four points to 17 per cent, far behind the party's national rating. Moreover, his image has deteriorated marginally as well, and his scores for 'boring', 'conservative' and 'unknown' are all rising.

In the coming weeks, these candidate attributes will come under greater scrutiny as the media spotlight probes each candidate's platform. We may expect to see greater shifts in opinion at that point as the candidates solidify their positions.

And then, of course, there is the David Norris factor. Back from his summer 'break', the possibility of re-entering the campaign has gathered steam in recent days and weeks. His absence has not eroded his support greatly. Almost one in five voters continue to give him their first preference, putting him in second place. Though he has much work to do to obtain the nomination, he would have a good chance of eroding Higgins's lead.

The constant low-level chatter about Norris has kept his torch alive. Indeed, the desire to see him on the ballot has increased sharply over the past two weeks -- from 34 per cent to 40 per cent. It seems that much of the Irish electorate have an innate sense of fair play as far as the senator is concerned with outright opposition to him re-entering the campaign continuing to be a minority view.

The presence of three strong independents in the field, as well as the cross-party appeal of Higgins, has blurred the lines of party loyalty in this campaign. Gay Mitchell is the chief victim of this trend. Backed by only one in three Fine Gael voters, his campaign loses party supporters in all directions. The Fine Gael party chose its candidate but Mitchell is not, at this point, the one the majority of Fine Gael supporters want in the Park.

The Labour Party cannot afford to be complacent either. Higgins does better amongst the party faithful (58 per cent), but that still leaves plenty of Labour supporters going a-begging -- primarily to Norris and Davis.

Fianna Fail voters currently have no home to go to: instead, they are getting behind former party man Sean Gallagher (33 per cent), with a further one in four of them opting for Higgins or Davis. Sinn Fein voters, prior to the weekend's nomination for Martin McGuinness, were mainly split between Higgins, Norris and Gallagher.

On these figures, Higgins is heading for the Aras. His transfer- friendliness makes this especially likely. The pattern of second preferences between Higgins and Mitchell is consistent: some three in 10 voters for the respective candidates give a second preference to their coalition partner. This is only going to play in to the hands of Higgins as things stand.

On the cusp of nominations closing on Tuesday week, this poll asks questions that will dictate the shape of the election in the coming month:

•Can Higgins maintain the lead he currently enjoys?

•If Norris gets nominated, can he regain the momentum he enjoyed earlier this year?

•Will Davis and Gallagher keep up their good showing and will their preferences prove decisive?

•What effect will the entry of Martin McGuinness into the race have?

•And can Mitchell start to attract more votes from amongst Fine Gael supporters, and beyond? He will need to start doing so fast, or else the biggest party in the State will be an also-ran in the race for the highest office in the land.

James MacCarthy-Morrogh is account director with Millward Brown Lansdowne.

Sunday Independent

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