ALONG with the dissolution of the Dail and the beginning of the general election campaign proper has come the first major opinion poll of the campaign, the Millward Brown IMS survey published in this newspaper today.
It confirms in broad terms the existing levels of support for the political parties and the relative standing of their leaders. But it also contains a few surprises, and challenges to the conventional wisdom.
What it cannot contain is the election result. No poll can do that, except the poll in the ballot boxes on election day. The record of Irish political opinion surveys is spectacularly good, and we can take it that this poll reflects accurately the current state of public opinion. However, although it does appear to indicate some intriguing trends we have to be cautious.
It may well be that voters have already overwhelmingly made up their minds about their decisions on polling day. If so, the election result is not in doubt. Fine Gael on 30pc and Labour with 24pc will together have a massive majority of the first-preference vote and an even more massive majority of the seats in the 31st Dail -- and, for all their recent squabbles, will form a coalition government.
But campaigns do matter. Voters do change their minds. In the past, television debates have been held, rightly or wrongly, to have made all the difference. The public, angered and frustrated by the amazing and demeaning capers that preceded the demise of the 30th Dail, may feel that the campaign has already gone on for a lifetime -- but in fact it has only started.
Events in the coming weeks could determine more than the election result. In particular, they could determine the future of more than one party leader -- including one who, on all the indications, has no prospect of leading a government.
Fianna Fail in this poll stands on a dismal 16pc nationally, 11pc in Dublin. That indicates a disastrous performance, with survival in jeopardy. But its new leader, Micheal Martin, has a satisfaction rating of 44pc -- the second highest and only a whisker away from that of Labour's Eamon Gilmore.
This is surely an outstanding indication of party loyalty -- and of its overnight transfer from Brian Cowen. Martin's only hope of a decent election outcome is an appeal to his party's traditional voters. His popularity suggests that he could persuade a considerable number of them to rejoin the fold.
However, too much should not be made of the "beauty contest". Gilmore has consistently scored high in this competition, but so did his predecessors. In the present survey he is on 46pc, his party on just over half that at 24pc. But as recently as last February his rating was 54pc. Both Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte had similarly good scores in their time, but neither succeeded in taking Labour into office.
Gerry Adams is a more striking example. His present rating of 31pc may seem excellent for the leader of a minor party, but in the recent past he has scored as high as 60pc.
Respondents to polls are not judging the subjects' fitness for office but their performances as party leaders.
Gerry Adams undoubtedly benefited heavily from the perception of his involvement in the Northern peace process. He was on his home ground then. His evident lack of familiarity with the politics and economy of the Republic may hurt him and his party.
At present there is no sign of this. Sinn Fein is on 13pc nationally and on 12pc in Dublin, where it is seriously in contention for several seats. It may benefit from transfers from candidates in the category "independents and others" and from the proposition that it could lead a substantial left-wing group in the incoming Dail. Not long ago this possibility might have been dismissed as pie in the sky. No longer.
Allowance must be made for the facts that "Independents and others" include centrists and right-wingers as well as left-wingers and that the Dail seats they win will not reflect the size of their vote. But a total vote of 28pc indicates the disillusionment so widely felt with the traditional parties.
And of all the traditional parties, Fine Gael is the most traditional -- and in some ways the most puzzling. This poll finds its support at 30pc, only three points above the party's result in the 2007 general election. Enda Kenny is on 27pc, behind Martin, Gilmore and Adams. He has trailed his party by wider margins before now, to the point where an unsuccessful coup was mounted against his leadership. The current closeness is more remarkable in its way. To put it shortly, why are Fine Gael not doing better?
THE answer is not the rise of Labour. Its figures of 24pc nationally and 29pc in Dublin are not particularly good. In Dublin, it is one percentage point behind Fine Gael. This suggests that Fine Gael has seized a much greater share of the vital middle-class vote and that for all Eamon Gilmore's popularity, Labour has not made a sufficiently good appeal to the middle class who constitute about half of their support.
There is another, more disturbing possibility. The voters have rejected Fianna Fail, at any rate for the present. Does their disillusionment extend to all centrist parties, and does it reflect their view of the country's future? We will learn a lot more on these subjects in the next three weeks.