By Jane Suiter
The campaign we have just witnessed is unusual in Irish party political terms and may be one of the first where national policy has played an important part. There is little doubt when we examine movements in opinion polls over the course of the campaign that Fine Gael ran the most effective operation. The campaign post mortems have not really begun in earnest but a common theme in those that have appeared so far has been the effectiveness of the various media campaigns. These are undoubtedly important but I will leave it to another time to compare them in detail. More interesting perhaps, from a political science perspective is the underlying logic behind those messages.
Writing in David Farrell’s book Do Political Campaigns Matter? Ian McAllister set out a model of modern campaigns Calculating or Capricious? The nub of the argument is that the character of election campaign has changed markedly with the decline of voters with strong partisan attachment and the rise of late deciding voters. These late deciders can be divided into two types: capricious voters who are swayed by leaders and sound bite; while calculating voters pay attention to policy and to the media. In all recent Irish elections voters have been deemed capricious in other words parties have competed with populist pledges on the basis of the personality and popularity of leaders. This served Fianna Fail well in 2002 and in 2007 and the other parties attempted to emulate it. However, the economic collapse culminating with the arrival of the IMF changed this narrative. The limited evidence available to date appears to point to voters in this election who appear to more be interested in policy and in national issues than before. The change agenda arising perhaps from Obama’s’ charismatic campaign was also very much on the agenda.
Fine Gael appears to have begun in its plan more than two years ago. It appears that Brian Farrell’s seminal book Chairman or Chief was consulted in detail and it was decided that Enda Kenny would be a chairman and would no longer attempt to masquerade as a chief as he had in 2007, nor indeed attempt an Obama type message. At the same time detailed policy development plans were quietly put in place. Until recently, many Fine Gael spokespeople have answered the question of why vote for Fine Gael with the time worn answer of because we are not Fianna Fail. That had also been the underlying message in 2007. Almost unnoticed by many in the party policy documents were released looking at jobs, the budget, health, the public sector and political reform. For the campaign, these were amalgamated into a single heavily-tested document, the now infamous five-point plan to the surprise of many in the party. From this perspective, the decision not to put Kenny into the first leader debate allowed the campaign to settle on policy before the focus came on leader charisma.
Labour, on the other hand, appeared to run a very different campaign, one based more on the assumption of non policy oriented voters and decision was taken not to roll out many specific polices. Up to six months ago this was running well and that section of the website was instead filled with press releases and speeches. Little work appears to have been done on detailed policy apart from in the banking and finance areas covered by Joan Burton, but even here little detail was published. Instead Labour appears to have wanted to keep to the old model of appealing to sound bite and the Irish love of chieftains. Two polls last autumn which probably erroneously put Labour support above 30% with Gilmore’s personal rating soaring appear to have consolidated the view that this would be the most successful campaign method and thus formed the basis of the campaign. The Gilmore for Taoiseach strategy was decided, policy was put on the backburner. When they campaign focussed on issue rather than personality, Labour had no Plan B. the Gilmore posters were printed, the mugs on display and the party was playing catch up.
In the meantime Fianna Fail and the Greens have been so focussed on the problems of running the Government had little to offer in their manifestos apart from the IMF’s four year plan. The result was that Fine Gael were allowed to position themselves as the party of radical change despite having the only leader who also led in 2007 campaign of the four parties. Quite an achievement.