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Irony of ironies, given the week that is in it, the Electoral Amendment Bill 2001 was withdrawn after a rebellion in the Seanad to the Bill, led by Fine Gael Seanad leader Maurice Manning and (then) senator Shane Ross.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.

The key point, however, is that in the absence of an election polls provide the only measure (albeit qualified) of public sentiment and mood.

Unusually, Labour didn’t quibble (well not much anyway) with this week’s Irish Times poll and took the 6 per cent haymaker on the chin. Moreover, come the postmortem at its parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday, there was little anger or recrimination besides a few muted references to the need for Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore to relinquish the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

That move back to a domestic ministry he will need to do and probably much earlier than the scheduled reshuffle after next year’s local and European elections. On a wider level, the party’s fortunes will be pegged wholly on the economy and how it fares over the next two years.

In an interview with this newspaper in December, Gilmore predicted that 2014 would be the year that Ireland would finally emerge from recession. He also said that the rising tide would lift the Labour boat.

Certainly, a recovering economy will do Labour no harm. But if anybody within the parliamentary party harbours hopes of a miraculous recovery, they are sorely mistaken. Just as Labour has suffered disproportionately in the ratings, any surge in support for the Coalition parties on the back of an improving economy will be biased towards Fine Gael. The smaller Government party’s recovery will be partial at best – its overweening promises before the elections is a virus that just can’t be erased from the hard disk.

Does 6 per cent represent a true reflection of its standing? At this moment in time, probably yes among the adult population; although probably no among the adult population guaranteed to vote. There has been considerable attention focussed on Dublin where the party’s support has fallen from nearly 30 per cent to 9 per cent. However, perhaps more worrying is the remainder of Leinster where its support has fallen from 19.2 per cent in the general election to a measly 3 per cent.

There are no exceptions

The party has eight seats in commuting and rural Leinster constituencies. None would be retained, bar maybe Brendan Howlin’s seat in Wexford.

It is a concrete and immutable reality that the smaller party takes a bigger hit in the election. There are no exceptions. The Progressive Democrats seemingly bucked the trend in 2002 when its haul of seats increased from four to eight.

However its level of support actually declined from 5 per cent to 4 per cent. Its success was due to luck and to vote management.

Elsewhere, the story has veered between loss and devastation (the PDs and the Greens). For Labour the most realistic comparator may be 1997, when the Spring Tide ebbed from 33 seats to 17, or from 19.9 per cent to just over 10 per cent.

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