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Voters are yearning for 'alternative' candidate

The most curious result of this presidential poll, conducted between August 18 and 30, is not so much the headline figure of Michael D Higgins opening a clear gap between himself and Gay Mitchell (these two candidates having established clear water between themselves and the other declared candidates), but rather the electorate's apparent yearning for an alternative.

When the 'Don't knows' are excluded, Higgins tops this poll, with one in three (32 per cent) giving him their first preference. His support base is primarily male, aged 50+ and based in his heartland of Connaught/Ulster. In terms of attracting the younger vote, he may well face an uphill struggle -- just one in five 18 to 24-year-olds plump for him, and even among 25 to 34-year-olds, his first preferences are lukewarm at 28 per cent.

Given that Fine Gael is on a post-election high, and still riding high in the most recent opinion polls, party strategists will surely be concerned at the apparent difficulty Gay Mitchell has had in making any significant impact on a dubious electorate. He, too, has the support more so of males, but his appeal is more balanced across the generational spectrum. Dubliners, at 24 per cent, are more likely to back him, but this is hardly a ringing endorsement in his own back yard. Just one in six (16 per cent) of Leinster voters, excluding Dublin, feel that Mitchell is the man for the Aras.

Incredibly, over two weeks after his withdrawal from the race, David Norris was still attracting the support of 18 per cent of the electorate (we included his name on our ballot to see if there was any residual support following his August 2 announcement). Evidently there is. Given his self-imposed exile for the month of August, as other candidates ratchet up their campaigns, his strategists must wonder what might have been.

A sizeable proportion of the electorate seem to be also wondering. Norris's support is also relatively balanced across those under the age of 50, and he attracts strong endorsements from all regions (with the exception of the more rural Connaught/Ulster), debunking the myth that his support was too Dublin-centric.

Is it that the electorate are seeking a return, or that they are not entirely comfortable with what is currently on offer? Micheal O Muircheartaigh (a potential candidate when this poll commenced), attracted six per cent of the vote. Therefore, nearly a quarter of those 'decided' voters are looking for an alternative to the declared runners in the field. Perhaps it is a case that they have seen the presidential menu, and have merely decided that what's on offer doesn't suit their palate.

Much has been made of the difficulties encountered by non-politically affiliated candidates in getting the nod for candidature. Those who have achieved this goal, and are still officially in the race, are languishing somewhat.

While it is still relatively early days, and the campaign proper is in its infancy, both Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher (at 13 per cent and 11 per cent respectively) are struggling to build any kind of momentum. If these results were to be replicated come October 27, they would swiftly be eliminated. In this scenario, it will be interesting to see where the transfer of the independent votes will go.

It seems that with Higgins and Mitchell, the 'establishment' candidates, garnering just over half (53 per cent) of the vote, there is a yawning chasm to be filled in this election. And Fianna Fail not contesting adds to this sense of something lacking.

The next decision for Fianna Fail, and its still considerable block of voters, will be intriguing. After the debacle of the nomination 'process', will the party back any candidate, or will it keep its head down and let its voters choose to decide whoever they want? As a party, it would love to see a candidate that could shake up the status quo, and one that it could support, whether in practical or 'moral' terms.

The party badly needs to be seen not as a pariah, but as the underdog, and if this means backing an independent candidate with a realistic chance of unsettling the apple cart, so be it -- is this a viable strategy as an official party line, or will its supporters do this anyway?

Regardless of how the campaign pans out, and there will invariably be many more twists and turns, this election so far has been unique for its mix of aspiring candidates, potential candidates, and sometimes unwilling 'candidates'.

Voters increasingly view political parties with an equal dose of scepticism and mistrust, and this seems to be a significant undercurrent thus far in this campaign. One wonders if the office of the presidency has been devalued somewhat by the proposed parachuting of potential 'celebrity' candidates into the mix. Has the race for the Aras gone full circle from being insinuated previously by the media as being a retirement home for politicians to being a retirement home for the media?

Paul Moran is an associate director with Millward Brown Lansdowne

Sunday Independent