Outcome will be regarded as barometer of party strength

Survey shows how tomorrow’s byelection will test party popularity

Renua candidate Patrick McKee: he adds an interesting dimension to this election, as it is the first electoral test for the party. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Renua candidate Patrick McKee: he adds an interesting dimension to this election, as it is the first electoral test for the party. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

 

The byelection in Carlow-Kilkenny tomorrow will be closely watched as a guide to the strength of the parties ahead of the general election. The result will be taken as an indicator of the extent of Fianna Fáil’s rehabilitation, of Fine Gael’s recovery since the water charges debacle, and of Renua’s electoral potential.

Over the final two weeks of the campaign, voters in the constituency have been invited to respond to an online survey on the website whichcandidate.ie, run in partnership with The Irish Times.

Survey

The survey asked respondents to select the issues they care about most, and to indicate where they stand on these issues. The survey was also completed by the election candidates, so visitors to the website are able to see which candidates they agree and disagree with on each issue.

More than 3,000 people have completed the online survey to date and compared their views with those of the candidates. We did not collect any identifying information but respondents were asked to provide general information about themselves, including age, party support and where they live. Their responses shed light on the issues that are important in this byelection.

Budgetary policy (taxes and spending) is listed as an important issue by the largest number of respondents from the constituency (77 per cent), closely followed by healthcare and employment. Surprisingly, water charges, mortgages and rent are among the less frequently mentioned issues.

That water charges do not feature more prominently may be due to the fact that it is quite a rural constituency, where many people are part of group water schemes. Drilling down into the figures shows a sharp divide between two broad groups of voters.

The largest group, which includes supporters of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, along with many non-aligned voters, prioritises issues related to economic policy. The prominence given to economic issues is reflected in the candidates’ campaigns: several candidates have focused on the theme of extending the benefits of the economic recovery beyond Dublin. While these voters agree on the importance of economic policy, there are noticeable differences among them on particular issues, such as how to distribute the benefits of the economic recovery.

Differences For instance, most Labour and Fianna Fáil supporters believe that restoring public services should take priority over cutting taxes, but this position is not shared by the majority of Fine Gael supporters.

The second group consists of supporters of the far-left parties, Sinn Féin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, and People Before Profit. Among these voters, water charges is indeed the most frequently mentioned issue, and also features very prominently in the campaigns of candidates from these parties. The performance of these candidates in the election will say a lot about the level of opposition in the constituency to the new charges.

The presence of a Renua candidate, Patrick McKee, adds an interesting dimension to this election, as it is the first electoral test for the party. A small number of respondents indicated that they support the party.

While it is by no means a representative sample of Renua’s supporters, an analysis of their responses can give a tentative indication of the types of voters who are attracted by the party. Not surprisingly, almost half say they voted for Fine Gael in the last general election. They are also broadly similar to Fine Gael supporters in terms of their policy views.

What distinguishes Renua supporters from other voters is that they are more likely to list political reform and ethical issues (such as abortion) as important; and on these ethical issues they tend to be more conservative.

The focus on political reform among Renua supporters reflects one of the key themes highlighted by the party leadership. However, the party has an “open policy” on matters of conscience. That the party attracts social conservatives has presumably more to do with the circumstances under which the party was founded. Rory Costello is a lecturer in the department of politics and public administration at the University of Limerick

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