President Michael D. Higgins has caused some controversy (though this might be too strong a word) for his more outspoken comments on some issues. In a speech he gave in DCU in September he was highly critical of neo-liberalism as an ideology and economics as a discipline. We should hardly be surprised. Most know where he stands on these issues, and given that, President Higgins has probably been restrained.
However we know that Irish presidents are meant to be above politics, and while this clearly means above partisan politics, it is moot whether it also means ideological politics. President have ‘themes’ which we might think of as soft policy agenda. No one suggests that the presidency should revert to be seen as a retirement home (though this might be a bit unfair to Paddy Hillery) nor is it likely people want the President to be the subject of controversy. Presidents have been known in the past to highlight issues that might indicate their views on issues.
Dan O’Brien took exception to Higgins’s speech and argued that it was clearly ideological. It’s hard to disagree with him that it was. What we don’t know is whether the voters who elected President Higgins did so because of his ideological positions and position taking or in spite of them.
In a chapter in a new book on The Irish Presidency (edited by John Coakley and Kevin Rafter, Irish Academic Press) I use the recall poll commissioned by RTÉ and carried out by RedC to investigate the reasons for Higgins’ election. The data aren’t ideal, but they do ask a series of questions on what was important in the respondents’ vote choice. these are Honesty and Integrity, Good candidate to represent Ireland abroad, Experience/ qualification, Good for jobs/ economy, Independence, and because the respondent agreed with the political views of the candidate.
It is striking that independence, or being non-partisan, is less important than many commentators felt during the campaign. The least important trait is agreement with political views, suggesting that ideological position on, say, the ‘culture war’ was not an important determinant of vote choice. By contrast, valence issues, honesty and ‘best candidate to represent Ireland abroad’, are rated most highly.
Note: These figures give the point estimations for model coefficients and the 95% confidence intervals around these estimates. Where the lines do not cross over the vertical zero line they are statistically significant. The position of the point estimate does not indicate the strength of the relationship, but is determined by the measurement of the independent variables. The first five to six variables are dummy variables, whereas the bottom six are on ten-point scale.
As we’d expect having voted for Labour significantly increases the likelihood of voting for Higgins. Holding all other variables constant at their mean, almost 60 per cent of Labour voters supported Higgins, compared to just 30 per cent for those who voted for other parties. Those rating honesty and experience highly were more likely to choose Higgins rather than any other candidates (50 per cent of those rating as 10 the importance of honesty and integrity voted for him, compared to about seven per cent of those who rated it six or less, everything else being equal). Higgins was significantly less popular among those who cited agreement with the candidate’s political views, which indicates voters for Higgins were less interested in his policy or ideological position.
Partisanship is somewhat important in determining voting choice at presidential elections, but to be successful a candidates must appeal beyond party loyalties. However, while we know that Mitchell’s vote was highly partisan, he could not mobilise a great deal of his party’s support. ‘Culture’ may not be irrelevant for presidential elections, but it does not appear to decide elections, especially where there are multiple candidates for each ‘block’. In 2011 any ‘blocks’ were less obvious, but the shift in the final week of the campaign occurred across what blocks there were, not within them as we would have expected had ideology been important. Some candidates’ support, in particular that of Dana and Mitchell, appears to have been more ideologically-based than the vote for Higgins. In 2011 candidate characteristics emerge as most important. Voters sought someone appropriate for the office with less emphasis on partisan heritage or ideological position. It appears that Higgins was the least unacceptable option rather than someone whom voters voted ‘for’.