Áras race shows money and spin can't buy success
Figures reveal Norris and Davis spent big on PR and market research but performed poorly, writes NOEL WHELAN
THERE WERE a number of moments during last autumn’s presidential election campaign when I made a mental note to check what the seven candidates were saying against the election expenditure figures when ultimately published.
The publication by the Standards in Public Office Commission of candidate returns on expenditure and donations is the closest we come to transparency in our politics. Freedom of information it isn’t, but it provides a fascinating insight into how the campaigns were organised.
One of those mental notes was made during the televised election debate on the Late Late Show as candidates were asked how much they would spend on their campaigns.
Seán Gallagher answered first, making much of his no-poster policy, and saying he expected his expenditure would be about €200,000. He ended up spending €323,318.
Mary Davis was next and said her final figure “could be €350,000”. She spent €414,041 during the statutory period.
David Norris told Ryan Tubridy he didn’t know what the figure would be and ended up spending €331,975 in the eight weeks.
Gay Mitchell said he would spend “in the region of €350,000”. It transpired that the “region” was substantial because the Mitchell campaign actually spent €527,152.
I remember being struck at the time about how precise Michael D Higgins was in his reply. He said his campaign budget was €321,000. He ultimately spent just under €360,000.
When Martin McGuinness turned to answer the question, he sneered at the figures mentioned by Mitchell and Higgins saying his expenditure would be “considerably less than Gay and Michael D” and “definitely nowhere near” the figures they had suggested. As it turned out McGuinness spent €302,563, just €57,000 less than Higgins.
McGuinness repeatedly stated during the course of debates and interviews that his was not a Sinn Féin campaign and insisted he was running in his own right. Interestingly however, of the 13 people legally authorised to spend money on behalf of his campaign, eight provide their address as the Sinn Féin offices on Dublin’s Parnell Square, while another two were party personnel who moved to temporary campaign headquarters on nearby Capel Street.
Indeed the orientation of McGuinness’s campaign is reflected in the detail of his spend. For example, he spent €15,000 on newspaper advertising but more than a fifth of it was spent on newspapers circulating primarily in Northern Ireland.
Again during the Late Late Show debate Gay Mitchell made much of how his campaign was being funded primarily from the proceeds of a Fine Gael members’ draw. They may have paid for Mitchell’s campaign but the expenditure statement suggests that the party membership did little work for him. Mitchell’s agent, Tom Curran, although also general secretary of Fine Gael, felt it necessary to hire commercial direct mail companies to deliver leaflets for their presidential candidate in no fewer than 10 constituencies.
Another moment during the campaign when I recall making a mental note to later check the election expenses statement was when I met Mary Davis. As someone involved in commenting on the election, her campaign invited me for a sit-down with the candidate in early September. Over the hour we talked she struck me as an impressive, if intense, candidate.
At the end of our chat she asked me what I thought of her campaign. I told her frankly that I thought it was too glossy and that it had all the signs of being run by public relations companies. She reacted strongly to the suggestion pointing to figures from the voluntary sector that were prominent in her campaign.
Her expenses statement reveals that she spent at least €70,000 during the eight-week election period itself with three different public relations companies, €42,000 of it with the firm, Q4. During the same period she spent an incredible €1,000-a-week on a speech-writing consultant.
Davis was not the only one spending big with PR companies. The returns suggest that David Norris’s campaign was run, at least after his re-entry, almost entirely by public relations personnel who were either on the campaign payroll or on consultancy.
Interestingly, those candidates whose marketing was least effective or coherent were those who spent most on market research. The returns deal only with money spent from the end of August to polling day. During that time David Norris spent almost €10,000 on such research. Mary Davis spent €6,100 while Gay Mitchell spent a whopping €50,000 under this heading. The winner, Michael D Higgins, spent just €1,000 on market research while the runner-up Seán Gallagher and the third-placed Martin McGuinness spent nothing on such research during the last eight weeks.
For curiosity value, the Norris statement makes most interesting reading. His campaign spent almost €1,300 on “pottery” (vote for Norris mugs perhaps?). It spent more than €22,000 on legal fees (presumably for advice on the Ezra letters) and more than €2,700 on sending a staffer to the US (to study American campaigning?).
The donation statements filed by each of the candidates were also published this week. Their value is limited because candidates are only required to declare individual donations in excess of €638.
These returns still contain some nuggets however. Among the most interesting revelations is that Labour’s leading politicians were inclined or required to put their money where their effort was in support of Michael D. Of the €121,000 in donations declared by the President, almost a third were individual donations from sitting Labour Oireachtas members, most of whom gave his campaign €1,000 or more. All Labour Ministers, bar one, gave €2,000.
By comparison, it seems that if any Fine Gael TDs or Senators donated to Mitchell’s campaign none of them donated in excess of the declaration threshold.