Predicting elections is a tricky business. The pressure of government sees events overtake plans very quickly. Deciding when to go to the country has always been a holy grail of strategy for serving Taoisigh. There are many examples of getting it wrong and still many more of where a government collapse takes the decision away from a Taoiseach.
Enda Kenny will have to try plan things though. All things going well the ultimate decision lies with him. There is one more budget to come and barring any implosion on the part of the Labour party the Taoiseach can try to pick his moment.
There has been much talk about the possibility of an early election. For me the dates that still make the most sense are in or around late March. A winter election just after the budget would make little sense. It is not a good time to be out campaigning and there is only scant evidence to support the idea that just after a budget is a good time to cut and run.
Ireland has been through a bit of a political trauma in the last decade. Reading into patterns can be dangerous due to the exceptional nature of the events that took place however there are some interesting patterns. Firstly, the so called ‘budget bounce’ is worth about 3-4% and usually falls within the margin of error in a poll. It is welcome for governments but not the game changer some pretend. Even during the massive giveaways of the Celtic tiger the budget bounce was relatively small and usually evaporated after a few months.
If we try go back to the start of the crisis years we can see a situation a little more comparable to what we have now. In November ’07 FF were at 32% in the RedC polls. After the budget they were at 36% in January and 37% by early March. However by the end of March they were falling back to 35%. The budget bounce does not tend to last.
Moving on toward the end of ’08 we find FF languishing at 26% by October. After the budget they were climbing to 28% by January. Budgets take a little time to work through the system but these budgets were not pretty and the electorate was looking for hope. FF dipped and rose over the following moths in line with the fortunes of the economy and the international markets. By November 2009 they were on 23%. Once again after the budgets they had climbed to 27% by the end of February 2010 only to fall back to 24% by the end of March.
The whole 2010 and 2011 era was a period of crisis were FF fell to about 17% in polls and flat lined (apart from a drop to 13% in one poll). Enda Kenny will know there are few lessons from those years that will be applicable. However the FF performance does show that January to March often gives the best figures as a budget works its way through. Even a harsh budget as people search for stability.
Enda Kenny will be far more aware of the FG performance since entering government. In October 2011 FG stood at 31%. After the budget they were on 33% by January but had climbed to 34% by the end of March.
On 2 December 2012 FG were on 28% and they remained there even in the months immediately after the budget. It was not until June that they climbed back up to 30%. However it is the last two years that will interest the Taoiseach most of all as it is here he is most likely to try find a pattern with comparable moods prevailing.
In November 2013 FG were on 29% after the budget they dipped to 27% by January but got back to 29% by the end of February. Once again the immediate aftermath of the budget didn’t appear the optimum time for polling figures but more worryingly they had fallen back to 26% by the end of March. That would leave the window very tight.
Perhaps this year can be seen as a road test for what to expect in the time ahead. In September 2014 FG was on 28%. On 14 October 2014 the budget was announced. On the 25th of October FG stood at 26%. Yes there was the whole Water Charges debate but that issue isn’t entirely gone away and there is always something new to take its place in any event. By 22 November FG had fallen to 22%. At the end of January FG were on 24%. This suggests that other issues and concerns can easily overshadow the budget in its immediate aftermath. There is a lesson there for anyone pushing for a November election in government circles. By March 13th this year FG were back to 26%, they got 25% at the end of April and the latest poll puts them on 28% at the end of May.
All of this evidence points to governments suffering some of their poorer ratings in November and December and that a ‘budget bounce’ is not felt the day the budget is announced but rather some months later. It also points to governments getting their some of their better ratings in January to March. Summer can be a bit unpredictable as it’s hard to say how long before figures start to drop off slightly again. If I were sitting down with Enda Kenny I would rule out any November or December elections. January would be the earliest and that’s not a great month for party organisations. Therefore February to April is the optimum time and end of March would look very tempting indeed.