This is my Broadsheet.ie column from last week, published before today’s Sunday Times/B&A poll showing FG on 29% and FF on 30%. This joint level of support of 59% is a positive, particularly for FF and suggests it has scope to get its average showing back into the low 30s.
The original article is online here: www.broadsheet.ie/a-bounce-or-a-recoil
Well, that didn’t seem to last too long.
Yesterday’s Sunday Business Post/RedC poll showed Fine Gael’s lead over Fianna Fáil closing by 5pts: from 8% in late May to down to just 3% now) This suggests an abrupt end to the Varadkar honeymoon.
I stress the word “suggest”. While the RedC poll puts Fine Gael on 27% and Fianna Fáil on 24%, another poll, taken exactly two weeks earlier by the Irish Daily Mail/Ireland Thinks put Fine Gael on 31% and Fianna Fáil on 26%. While it is possible that Leo’s less than adroit handling of events over the last two weeks may have shaved 4pts off his halo, it would be folly to try to conclude that from the results of two separate polls conducted by two different companies and taken at two different time periods.
What you can do, though, is track and compare the results from one individual polling company over a period of time. Fortunately, Red C does that for you via its handy online live-polling-tracker. Here you can find the results from the 10 polls conducted by Red C over the past year.
They show that Fianna Fáil has been ahead of Fine Gael in 7 out of the 10 polls – good news for the Soldiers of Destiny, you would think. But that joy is somewhat diminished when you see that two of the three where they are behind are the most recent ones: see shaded cells in table below (data from Red C here):
Table 1. Red C polls July 16 – July 17
Ireland Thinks’ Dr Kevin Cunningham has highlighted the trend here and tracked a gradual Fine Gael recovery from soon after it became clear that Enda Kenny was set to depart.
What this suggests to me is that there is not so much a Leo bounce as a post Enda recoil. While the May Red C poll showed Fine Gael opening up a dramatic gap on its rival, the July one shows it closing back gain. So much for all the Fine Gael TDs who confidently hoped that electing Leo Varadkar as leader would have them 10pts clear of Fianna Fáil.
What the Red C polls show is that practically nothing has changed in terms of party support since the last general election. This is hardly surprising. What many pundits and commentators forget is that the vast bulk of voters are not avidly following the ins and outs and ups and downs of politics. Let me correct that slightly, many voters do follow what is happening day to day, but they do not base their voting intentions on process, but rather on outputs. That means that they do not give much consideration as to who they will vote for until they see that an election in imminent.
The fact that nothing much has changed in terms of the polls is kind of good news in the quasi zero-sum game of Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil.
Fine Gael has played its ace card. It has dumped the pilot and put its smartest newbie in charge and the net impact is: meh! It has recovered the ground lost over the 14 months after the February 2016 election, but effectively it is back at that result – a result that was a big contributory factor in Fine Gael dumping Enda. Where else is there now for Fine Gael to go?
It could be argued that Fianna Fáil has been threading water awaiting this changeover. Despite the mythology I mentioned last week, Fianna Fáil must know that some of the gains made were due to Fine Gael own goals. Fianna Fáil cannot depend on Fine Gael shooting itself in the foot the next time – though Fine Gael always retains that capacity – but it can now plan a strategy knowing that the Fine Gael leadership handover has happened at a time that best suited Fianna Fáil.
No doubt the new Taoiseach will use the Summer to boost his profile and standing, but what works for Trudeau in Canada or Macron in France does not necessarily work here. As I opined on Twitter this week, it often seems to me that Varadkar has a good understanding of politics in general, just not of Irish politics. Gesture politics and soaring rhetoric do not play as well here as in other countries. Perhaps it is to do with scale and proximity. As (I think) the folk singer Frank Harte told Gay Byrne on the Late, Late Show many years ago, it is impossible to become a big star in Ireland as there will always be someone to pipe up: sure, I knew him when he had nothing.
Leo may succeed in raising his personal popularity ratings between now and September, but that does not necessarily translate into gains for Fine Gael – indeed recent political history suggests that the popularity of a party leader rarely bleeds across to help their party. Micheál Martin was adjudged to have had a good election in Feb 2016, but even his winning performances in the leaders debates barely moved the dial for his party during the campaign.
The danger for Fianna Fáil is not in the future of Fine Gael, but rather in the dangers of the aforementioned FF/FG zero sum game. As Table 1 above shows the combined of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil support in the Red C polls over the past year has averaged at 51%. Compare this with the figures in elections from before 2009 in table 2.
Table 2. Combined FF + FG first pref % at general elections
Whereas Fine Gael is now back at the levels of support it had for most of its modern history, Fianna Fáil is at about 60% of the level of support it enjoyed in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s.
While this 60% is a lot better than what it was getting in 2011, the party should be aiming get back to about 80% of its previous levels of support, especially at this point in the electoral cycle. To do that it needs to see the combined Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil poll numbers increase back to around 60% combined support, which means that it must start eating back into the support it has lost to independents at one end of the range and to Sinn Féin at the other.
This is partly done by incremental and sustainable growth, but it needs something more. It needs a big political idea that makes its message, its identity and its purpose clearer. Makes it stand apart from Fine Gael. Finding that message is no simple task, but it may have been made easier by the Brexit turbulence of the past year. Brexit is set to change a lot of how we do business across this island, so why not our politics? What I suggest is… oh, I see I am out of space. I shall return to this issue soon.