When Campaigns Go Wrong #GE2020

I wrote this piece on Sunday Feb 2nd and it appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday Feb 3rd. It was written in the immediate wake of a series of national opinion polls showing Fine Gael slipped further back and Sinn Féin advancing further to either tie with, or pull ahead of Fianna Fáil.

This column looks at the various possible government formation outcomes. I explain why I do not see either a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael grand coalition or a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition as likely. I conclude that the most likely outcome is a Fianna Fáil/Green/Other coalition (probably a minority govt), though it will take weeks, if not months, to negotiate and agree. The only alternative to that is another election. 

I assume, for this coumn, that the polls are broadly correct, but that they both slightly underestimate Fianna Fáil’s support and slightly overestimate Sinn Féin’s. 

GE2020 posters Success has many fathers, defeat is an orphan. As true as this is in sports, it is an absolute certainty in political campaigning. Have no doubt that all those fine young marketing executives who told their colleagues over Christmas how remarkably close they were to the Taoiseach and Fine Gael, now struggle to remember just who Leo, Eoghan or Simon might be.

In the words of the great yellow rose of Finglas, Jim Tunney, there are too many folks around politics who opt to buy their colours coming out of the match, rather than going in.

So, before I look at the events of the last few days and attempt a feeble look forward to what may be to come, let me raise a glass to toast those in all parties and none who are sticking by their party and candidates, despite the polls.

I may have mentioned this story before, but during the 2013 Seanad abolition referendum I read an opinion piece in one of the national newspapers by a PR person, who I hadn’t heard of then and I haven’t heard of since.  He was critiquing our vote No to abolition campaign. Though he took over 750 words to do it, his analysis basically said: these people are going to lose because they never asked me what to do.

Though I was confident of our campaign and messaging, his article really got under my skin. So much so that over six years later I am still moaning about it!

So, remembering how I felt then, I will not try to criticise or second-guess the strategies and decisions of those running the major campaigns. I am sure that none of them sat down a few months back and thought: how can I design a campaign that turns away our potential voters. The von Moltke maxim applies as much to political as military campaigning: no battleplan survives with any certainty beyond the first direct engagement with the enemy.**

The world is full of backseat drivers, hurlers on the ditch, Monday morning quarterbacks and various assortments of folks none of who have never lost a game because not a single one of them has ever played one.

What I will do instead today is to look back at how I thought the campaign would go – and see (a). what I got wrong, and (b). consider how that impacts on the way(s) I see things playing out from next Monday or Tuesday onwards.

For most of the last 18 months to 2 years I have been talking about the opinion poll trend showing the combined Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael support running at anywhere between the mid 50s or sometimes even heading as high as 60%.

As the two parties had a combined total support of just under 50% in 2016, I took the trend to the mid 50s as a sign of a modest growth in the centre ground of Irish politics – indeed you could broaden that definition of the centre ground by adding in the Greens and Labour.

I had thought that a big part of this election would be about how about how that 55% divided between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – and I felt reasonably confident that this would see Fianna Fáil hitting 30% or even a point or two higher.

That prediction was based on my long held and expressed belief that the Leo bounce of late 2017/2018 and early 2019 was more done to Brexit than any public faith or confidence in his leadership. I further felt sure that Fine Gael would approach this election with overconfidence and run a campaign that misread the public mood.

On these latter points I think I was proven right. On the capacity of the two main parties to rebuild the centre ground of politics to a modest level of 55%, I was wrong.

In my defence, I was not the only getting that bit wrong. It seems Sinn Féin broadly agreed with me. Though they had confidence in their capacity to hold on to their 2016 vote share, despite the hammering they received at the 2019 local and European elections, their decision to run just 42 candidates in this election suggests a party strategy more focussed on consolidation and modest growth, rather than one predicated on big breakthroughs and surges.

It could well be that they are right and the polls are still over-estimating their possible performance on the day but, even so, there is something happening at this election. These question therefore is: how many seats will Sinn Féin add to its 2016 total? Will it be in single digits, or is a double digit seat increase on the cards? I have one spreadsheet prediction that has them on 34 seats.

As I discussed last week the mood for change is real and palpable. Sinn Féin speaks directly to that mood while Fianna Fáil struggles to do so with clarity. What is beyond doubt is that Fine Gael cannot represent that change. So, any chance of a last minute Fine Gael resurgence is ruled out, meaning that the most likely micro-outcome of the election is a depleted Fine Gael heading to the opposition benches.

So who ends up in government, assuming the polls are broadly right?

There is no appetite in Fianna Fáil for a grand coalition. Fianna Fáil is having a tough enough time convincing a significant cohort of voters aged 25+ that it represents change, how much worse would its task be at the next election if the outcome of this one was Mícheál Martin aiding and abetting the return of rejected Fine Gael ministers to Cabinet.

Similarly, a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition is a non-runner. Martin has been absolutely clear that he would not agree to such a coalition. Whatever level of support Fianna Fáil secures next weekend, be it 25%, 26%, 27% or higher (full disclosure I think it will be around 26/27%)… will have been won, in part, on the basis that Fianna Fáil will not go into government with Sinn Féin.

It is absolutely not impossible for Fianna Fáil to do a volte-face. After all,  politics and government formation is all about numbers, but the price it would pay at any following election would be significant. Wiser, calmer heads in Fianna Fáil know that the life span of any FF/SF government would be determined solely by Sinn Féin. At the first sign of trouble or of difficult decisions Sinn Féin would have no compunction about cutting and running. This is not just a theoretical concern, bear in mind that it is likely there will be some form of economic downturn due soon, be it Brexit related or global.

If you think I am just being cynical or blinkered by my acknowledged dislike of Sinn Féin, see how Sinn Féin handled the welfare crisis in the North. Faced with deeply unpopular decisions on welfare cuts, Sinn Féin, the ultra-republican party that rejects British rule and finds any form of presence at Westminster an anathema, voted along with the DUP to hand the welfare powers that had been devolved to it, back to Westminster. Not just to Westminster, but to one dominated by a Tory government that would impose swingeing cuts. This is before you even look at the three year government hiatus it triggered.

So, having ruled out a grand coalition of FF and FG or a coalition of FF and SF, what remains? I think it is a Fianna Fáil/Green government with outside Fine Gael support via a less restrictive C&S than Fianna Fáil had to endure. The Greens and Fianna Fáil may want others involved, such as Labour, Soc Dems or even some independents but that looks unlikely right now. Even so, the core of such a minority government would be Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

This would be Sinn Féin’s least preferred option. It would be very satisfied with a FF/FG grand coalition that made it the main opposition party, just as it would be happy with a FF/SF coalition. It would also be happy with a stalemate and stand off leading to a second general election. This is not an option that can be ruled out, either.

Sinn Féin has almost nothing to lose in any three of these four scenarios.

As  Sherlock Holmes used to say, when you have ruled out all the impossible option, then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the solution. It may take a few weeks, but watch that space.


** Shortly after this column appeared online I found a better variation of the von Moltke quote. It comes from former WWII Supreme Allied Commander and U.S. President Dwight Ike Eisenhower: In preparing for battles I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensible.

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