Voter disinterest? But final days before 2019 polls will be crucial

As Friday looms, party gears shift to extreme pragmatism. And low turnout is inevitable

Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee looks at the battle between the candidates of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in Midlands–North-West. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Friday is polling day in the local and European elections, the culmination of campaigns that have cost millions, involved countless hours’ work by thousands of volunteers and have – in many cases – been years in the planning. With many voters only making up their minds in the last phase of the campaign, these final days will be crucial.

So what are the things to look out for before the polls open at 7am on Friday?

Every man and woman for themselves

Constituency – or local election area – divides between candidates of the same party are all very fine in theory, intended to maximise the party’s return from the votes it gets in any given area. But a candidate’s job is to get elected. That’s why such strategies invariably come under pressure at this stage in the campaign.

So don’t be surprised to see your party “colleague” put their posters up in your area, or to find a dubious letter from headquarters asking party supporters “in this area” to vote number one for your running mate and number two for you.

In the European elections, where the stakes are higher, party headquarters will make tough calls – effectively dumping some candidates, as has happened to Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte in the Midlands North West. In the South constituency, Fine Gael has not made a similar decision on who they want to back for the second seat – sitting MEP Deirdre Clune or Wicklow TD Andrew Doyle.

The rule for voters here is caveat emptor – slogans or arguments deployed in the last few days of a campaign are often those which wouldn’t stand up if they were scrutinised earlier in the campaign.

Will housing hurt?

While politicians on all sides report a flat campaign that has never really sparked into life, they also acknowledge that housing is the issue coming up most often. Many voters are critical of the Government on the subject – but not angry, like they were about austerity and water charges in 2014. Also Opposition parties and groups are all campaigning on the issue, so where do the housing votes go?

Campaigners say they don’t really discern a mood to “hurt” the Government by voting against Fine Gael candidates.

“In 2004, 2009 and 2014, there was a real mood to teach the government a lesson,” says one Opposition campaigner. “But this doesn’t really feel like a change election.”

Green on the go

If there is a trend towards one party, campaigners suggest it is towards the Greens, as concerns about climate change begin to impact on voting behaviour. But only in a minority of contests will the Greens have candidates that are in a sufficiently strong position to avail of an uplift in support to the extent that they can win seats. The Dublin MEP seat – pursued by Ciarán Cuffe – is the great litmus test, while optimists in the party also say they could be in with a shout in Ireland South, where Grace O’Sullivan is contesting. The Euro seats are important for the party, but it is vital that they elect councillors who can become TDs if they wish to have a say in the next government.

Manage expectations

At the beginning of the campaign, Fianna Fáil sources were talking up Fine Gael’s chances of winning the largest number of councillors, pointing out that they had done very badly in 2014, and some comeback from that low point should be anticipated. Now Fine Gael sources are talking down this prospect, pointing out that government parties normally lose support in midterm elections and even a standstill result for Leo Varadkar would be a significant achievement. In other words, the management of expectations is in full flow.

Watch the turnout

If, as all the parties say, voters are at best disinterested in the elections, then a crucial job for the parties and candidates is to get their supporters to actually turn up on Friday – or GOTV as it’s called in the US (Get Out The Vote).

Turnout at local and European elections (just over 50 per cent in 2014) is considerably lower than general elections, when almost two-thirds of voters go to the polls. In last October’s presidential election, the turnout was just 44 per cent.

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