Politicians publicly dismiss polling but are in fact in thrall to it
Opinion: As for Groucho, principles can be changed if they don’t meet with approval
The standard response of a national politician to an adverse opinion poll finding invariably involves doublethink.
Publicly they’ll be chanting cliches of rejection such as, “it’s only a snapshot in time” and “the only poll that matters is the general election”.
Privately, they consume them as voraciously as a stray dog coming upon a scrap of food. The bigger parties, especially Fine Gael over the past decade, have been huge consumers of private polling. You can be as sure as night follows day the two lowest common denominator slogans that dominated Fine Gael’s posters – save €20 million and fewer politicians – came straight out of focus-group polling.
That was borne out by The Irish Times poll this week which showed that despite all the criticism of it being a “cheap shot”, the €20 million slogan was the pay-off line for the Yes campaign, with 43 per cent of Yes voters citing it.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have, at one time or another, been followers of triangulation, which was championed by former US president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair. In essence it means aligning your policies as close as possible to where popular sentiment is believed to lie (and often that means stealing the policy positions of rivals).
At best, it compromises core values; at worst, it betrays them. They (and Labour too when it suited) have followed the Marxist (Groucho school) maxim: “Those are my principles and if you don’t like them . . . I have others.” It underlines the slight hypocrisy of rejecting polls in public while being addicted to them privately.
Rebellion in the Seanad
Perhaps the best acknowledgment by the body politic of the influence of opinion polls was in 2001 when the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats coalition tried to ban opinion polls in the seven days prior to election day. The Bill had been “inspired” by the then government’s perception that a poll published in the final days of a byelection in Tipperary South had swung the result away from Fianna Fáil.
Irony of ironies, given the week that is in it, the Electoral Amendment Bill 2001 was withdrawn after a rebellion in the Seanad to the Bill, led by Fine Gael Seanad leader Maurice Manning and (then) senator Shane Ross.
So on that occasion at least the Seanad was more than an adornment.
Such legislation would have had all kinds of implications for free expression and speech in a democratic society. There is undoubtedly a question as to whether or not opinion polls can act as a catalyst to accelerate a swing that has become apparent.
We have seen the influence of such swing polls in previous referendums (particularly in Lisbon One) and in the last week of the 2007 general election campaign, after The Irish Times poll showed a strong Fianna Fáil resurgence was on the cards. But that’s a question for another day.