The reality gap
2016′s general election campaign will not engage as many people as you think, as election day turnout will show
Are you general election fit? For the next three weeks, it will be general election morning, noon and night. It will start with Morning Ireland on the radio and go on non-stop through the day on every social media platform under the sun (bar Snapchat) until Vincent Browne says goodnight on the telly 18 hours later. You’ll look out your window to see Enda Kenny or Gerry Adams or Joan Burton staring back at you with a big gormless grin on their gob from halfway up a pole.
You’ll answer the front door to collect your Amazon or eBay or Finery package and a lad or lass waiting to shake your hand and give you a leaflet or a sticker which your tax euros probably paid for. You’ll hear candidates discussing policies with surprising amounts of erudition given that they haven’t actually read the paper in question. You’ll take in all of this and sigh. What a time to be alive, eh?
The perception around the kind of general election campaigning which occurs here every four to five years is that everyone is interested. Those of us who enjoy this sort of sport think it’s the best thing ever and we kind of assume that everyone else is on the same page. But the actual turnout on election day would beg to differ with this cosy consensus. 70 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote last time around in 2011, a figure which was an increase on 2007′s 67 per cent and 2002′s 62 per cent. That still means that 30 per cent, 33 per cent and 38 per cent of the people eligible to vote didn’t bother their hoops doing so. The marriage equality referendum, the campaign which dominated the headlines for a lot of early 2015, attracted just 60 per cent of the electorate on the day. When you consider this against the money and effort exerted by political parties, individual politicians, media and the government in campaigning, it’s quite astonishing.
Then again, it’s worth considering the gap which exists between what we assume everyone thinks about politics and the reality. For a lot of people, politics goes in one ear and out the other. My favourite line of general election 2016 has already been uttered. I don’t think anything is going to beat the focus group member who told The Irish Times that it was Shane Ross who rocked Joan Burton’s car on that infamous Saturday afternoon in Tallaght and, furthermore, was arrested for it. Despite all the palaver at the time, “nobody can think of Paul Murphy’s name”.
Stephen Collins will probably not be the only one to note in the coming weeks, as he wrote about the focus group findings at the weekend, that “listening to undecided voters discuss the political choices facing them in the upcoming general election is both illuminating and depressing, throwing into stark relief the gulf in understanding that separates the political class from the majority of ordinary people.” It’s worth remembering to those hustling for a vote that “the detail of party policy and much of what happens in the Dáil go over the heads of most people who have other things to do with their lives than follow the ins and outs of political debate.”
The gap between what we think is the case regarding political engagement and what is the reality is vast. The political messages will be tended and finessed to speak to the widest number of potential voters, but the reality is that 30 per cent plus of the target audience won’t show up on the day. All this post-match talk of the election on a Thursday or Friday to accommodate students or rugby fans or commuters does not take into account the reality that at least 30 per cent of them won’t be bothered no matter what day the vote is held. The belief is that everyone is interested in wall-to-wall and hour-to-hour coverage of debates and discussion, but the reality is that the number of voters who are truly engaged – engaged enough to spread the word on social media, for instance – is probably much smaller than you think.
Getting those potential dropouts engaged with the campaign would probably entail swapping the general macro messaging of a general election for more nuanced emphasis on specific issues. For instance, it was interesting to read the thoughts of first time voters in the paper a few weeks ago about what matters to them. While some of their concerns chimed with the general population, there were other issues which were probably only common to other 18 year old or 19 year old voters.
It’s not just Irish millennials or Generation Z either who have different issues on their mind either. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll showed that this is a demographic which is philosophically hard to pin down along the usual Republican/Democrat lines. Because their lives and careers are so different to that of their parents and previous generations, it stands to reason that they hold different political views which don’t adhere to the old way of thinking.
Yet established political machines rarely take these changes and different concerns into account at a time when they’re trying to get out the maximum amount of voters. The parties look at who is probably going to vote for them and this is what shapes the message in the main. Sure, there will be an effort meant to reach out to the undecideds and floating voters – that whole stability versus chaos message which the government parties will preach non-stop for the next three weeks is designed to draw them in – but it will be done in the widest possible brushstrokes. Nuance and micro detail rarely find room in a general election campaign so those who are not interested in the Punch & Judy style of Irish political coverage, with its conservative and narrow focus on personalities rather than policies, are left out in the cold. And they’re the ones who will end up voting by not voting.