Polling report: Fine Gael maintains front runner position

Polls are the modern equivalent of Pop Idol. It seems to take all the hard work out of working out how the people are going to vote (spend their money on music). But anyone trusting too closely the national ratings is in danger of misconstruing that Irish elections are really 43 bye elections (see Adrian Kavanagh’s excellent work on trying to break it down to that level).

So today’s Irish Times poll confirms pretty much what we already knew. Fine Gael have opened a modest but consistent lead over the rest of the pack. The shift behind Fine Gael is now well established, as you can see from this graph taken from the excellent Guth an Phobail website:

They’ve been in that leading corridor for much of the last year, with a few wobbles here and there. You can see too that Sinn Fein has made a significant leap out of the also ran category. What the chart doesn’t show is the position of the Independents, particularly the leftist candidates, who have the possibility of forming a technical group in the 31st Dail.

Labour is holding on in a strong second place, but will probably have to accustom itself to the idea it will be going into power as the junior partner. Tough, since it has prospered hugely from its pitch to public sector workers that it would lay weight on increases, when Fine Gael are saying almost exactly the opposite.

However, transfer friendliness may be the key to maximising their vote. The alignment with FG, may draw transfers in that way, especially if they think Noonan, the same way George Osborne has sidelined Vince Cable, can isolate Joan Burton from direct influence at Finance.

One thing missing from much of the published analysis is any consideration of why Fine Gael is currently leading by such a margin. My suspicion is that it’s a combination to two things.

Casting Enda as the Chair of an extremely talented shadow cabinet is working for their base. This is bolstered by  a public committment to competence in office, and in particular ministerial: in effect if a Minister screws up (they say) he or she will walk.

This has the double effect of criticising Fianna Fail’s routine ‘mistakes were made (but I’m the cabinet representative for Donegal South West, so I cannot resign)’, and holding out the promise of a government more focused on the business of doing government than pressing flesh.

The second factor has to be fear. Mostly of the middle classes who feel they put their money on the wrong horse last time, and are fearful of the revolutionary talk of burning bondholders and devil take those in negative equity.

Noonan’s urbane response to the budget last December, in which he ‘suggested’ the new government might flood the market with Nama held housing in order to set a floor to the Irish property market, was an exercise in soothing middle class nerves.

In the process they are quietly re-calibrating their fiscal position presumably to align more closely with Labour. It may not go down will with core FG voters, but its unlikely that with so much at stake for the party that it will cause any major disaffection there

As for Fianna Fail, well changing leader has still to have an effect. In fact it’s doubtful the extent to which any effect of Martin’s takeover can be measured in positive terms. It may be that he’s simply buying off the attack dogs of the media sufficient for local TDs to pitch on their local popularity.

The party machine may be seriously depleted in historic terms, but it was still powerful enough to confound Bertie’s critics last time out. I would not be surprised to see a five or six per centage rate above the current polling were voting to take place today.

For now, Stephen Collins notes:

The only hint of good news for Fianna Fáil strategists is that even though the party’s national vote has dropped by two points it has made a gain of a similar size in Dublin where it is now on 13 per cent. It has moved ahead of Sinn Féin in the capital since the last poll and that will give it some hope of holding on to a handful of seats in Dublin.

A rally in the capital, no matter how small, will be a welcome development. But, similarly to the British Labour Party last may in the UK General Election, they will be relying on a number of defendable incumbents to push their seat haul in direct contra direction to its final percentage of the vote.