| 12°C Dublin

Brace yourself for the black ops, Sean

When the story of this presidential contest is eventually written, presuming it ever actually ends, it will focus on a number of unusual features.

One of the most unusual concerns you: the voter.

For a sizeable proportion of the electorate, this contest is a first. Virtually no one under the age of 32 in this country has ever voted in a presidential election before. That is roughly 20-25pc of the approximately 3.2 million people entitled to vote.

While it is hard to say what precise impact this is having, it may play a part in explaining why this contest is not going exactly to plan: well, not to the plans of certain parties.

This election should have been Fine Gael's for the taking. With the exception of Mary Robinson's 1990 victory, the presidency has been the almost exclusive preserve of Fianna Fail. Fine Gael has dethroned its old adversary, yet its campaign strategy is sending its candidate's poll figures into reverse.

Another two weeks like this and poor Gay Mitchell will be in negative ratings. While that may be a mathematical impossibility, his getting less than a quarter of a quota and Fine Gael failing to get any reimbursement of campaign expenses is not.

Call me old-fashioned, but I really cannot believe that loyal Fine Gael voters will continue to allow a man who has loyally defended his leader to languish in the polls just ahead of Dana.

The problem for Mitchell is twofold. First, there is no hint of the core support rallying to him. Fine Gael activists have grown accustomed to easy canvasses and getting good responses. They do not relish the thought of having to knock on doors and listen to the flak just yet.

Second, the pundits are over-estimating the level of that core support. They point to poll findings that Mitchell is getting only 15pc of Fine Gael support.

This is a slight misreading of the RedC poll in my view. What it has found is that only 15pc of those people who voted Fine Gael at the last election are planning to support Mitchell. Not all of the 36pc of the electorate who voted for them in February now perceive themselves as Fine Gael.

Many are ex-Fianna Fail voters. They felt betrayed by the party they had supported and now feel free to change allegiances depending on the policies and personalities presented to them.

Speaking of Fianna Fail, the last two polls seem to give the lie to the assertions that Sean Gallagher's Soldiers of Destiny background would be a millstone. His increased support suggests that many voters are not bothered by his political past. This does not appear to be the situation for remaining Fianna Fail supporters, however. He is only their second choice, behind Michael D Higgins.


Gallagher's increased poll ratings come with a bigger target for his back. Doing well in a poll can be a major risk. Ask Mary Davis. Her surge two weeks ago was followed by an intensive period of dark murmurings and attack. Indeed, Gallagher was not slow to join in on that. What comes around, goes around.

Were her rise and attacks entirely unrelated? Hardly, though maybe it is just the cynic in me. Either that or it is the fact that I am considerably over 31 and have seen my fair share of presidential campaign black ops.

Whatever the case, the Gallagher team will be girding their loins, shins and other sensitive regions for the onslaught to come.

We are just at the halfway mark. The field does seem to be dividing itself into two leagues. A premier league, which this week stars Higgins, Gallagher and Michael McGuinness, and a first division featuring the just relegated Davis alongside Mitchell, Dana and one-time premier favourite David Norris.

But there are still two more weeks to go. There is still a lot to play for, and hopefully the play will be confined to the ball and not the man -- or woman.