As Ireland has it's first real ballot box contest in years, communication will be key

Finally, it’s game on in what will be the most keenly contested election in over 30 years.

By Dan Pender Managing director, PR360

The polls have shown consistently that for the first time since 1987, we start a campaign where two people, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, have a genuine prospect of becoming the country’s next leader. The ‘campaign’, specifically how things play out over the next 25 days, truly matters.

One of the primary reasons both Varadkar and Martin are leaders of their respective parties is their ability to communicate. Both are consummate communicators in distinct ways.

Varadkar has an ability to resonate, particularly with people with only a passing interest in politics.

Martin is a proven campaigner. He has a track record of playing leading roles in successful elections, both in the war of media but also in the ground war that is one-to-one engagement at constituency level.

The campaign

As the immediate excitement of the starting gun begins to dissipate, wait until perhaps day 10 before evaluating the framework within which the campaign takes shape.

In this regard, form matters, not least because of what the public told us in the November by-elections, the 2018 local and European elections, and the 2016 general election. The results of these share three important insights that I think will be key in determining who ends up being the next Taoiseach.

First, people are indicating their preference for investment in public services over tax cuts. The ‘economy’ in the narrow sense—jobs and money in my pocket—is no longer the pure prism through which voters make their decision.

It is now more about how the Government of the day uses our taxes to deliver and protect public services. A country is a society, not a set of accounts. That the public is drawn to those who appreciate this is a trend that has been consistent in election results here and across most Western countries.

Secondly, the haves and the have-less/have-nots. Unquestionably, our economy is strong. The despair of a decade ago is gone. But not everyone is ‘feeling’ it.

On housing, health, urban versus rural, childcare, cost of living, there is a clear gap. Who can best close it? This is a question that many will be weighing up over the next 25 days. Notably, both parties’ slogans—‘Looking Forward’ (Fine Gael) and ‘An Ireland for All’ (Fianna Fáil)—signal an appreciation of this factor.

Thirdly, personality trumps policy. The likelihood of every voter reading every party manifesto is slim. That’s not to say policy and manifestos do not matter—they do, not least in terms of the platform they can create to resonate.

But, as the recent UK election demonstrated, policy is increasingly secondary to ‘feeling’ when it comes to the art of winning votes. And ‘feeling’ is primarily about the leader—their message, but also their personality.

Communicating leadership

The shadowboxing of recent days and weeks has given us an early insight into what the respective parties will like us to remember about the two contenders for Taoiseach.

From Fine Gael, it’s reminding the public that Fianna Fáil ‘wrecked’ the economy and that Micheál Martin was a leading member of that government. From Fianna Fáil, it’s Fine Gael’s obsession with ‘spin’, personified best by Leo’s penchant for selfies. Let’s take each of these sideshows in turn.

The ‘Fianna Fáil wrecked the economy’ message will play well with a certain cohort of the voting public. However, that cohort has already made their minds up—they’re not voting Fianna Fáil to begin with.

Elections are won by the parties that best resonate with undecided or swayable voters. These voters tend to fall into two groups.

One has a passing interest in politics and only tends to turn its attention to the vote in the dying days of a campaign; the other actively considers the issues of the day, caring little or less about the past. Both groups tend to view politicians through the guise of ‘they’re all the same’ and find mudslinging offputting.

For me, while Fine Gael’s attempt to drag-up the economic collapse may energise its base, it risks alienating the undecided. Many in this camp, wisely or not, think that when the music stopped in 2008, Fianna Fáil was the one holding the baby. It could just as easily have been Fine Gael.

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Fianna Fáil’s attempts to focus minds on Fine Gael’s obsession with spin is anchored in attempts to show that Leo is more focused on the ‘nice’ or easier things that come with power than the issues challenging people every day. The Fine Gael campaign comprises many capable people, and they will know this one is coming. How they handle it will matter.

The best of the rest

While only Leo or Micheál will ultimately win the prize of Taoiseach, both will likely require support to form a government. Who, then, among the other political parties should we be watching?

The Green Party starts its campaign with that much sought-after secret sauce: momentum. The 2018 election results mean they are real contenders in many constituencies. For the first time, the ‘big two’ parties will have a Green Party playbook.

Attempts to paint all Greens as ‘loonies’ is unlikely to wash as easily as before; the public is smarter and more motivated now. If Eamon Ryan, who is experienced and capable, can shine, and campaign discipline is maintained, the Green Party can return with double digits.

For Sinn Féin, while recent polls have shown improvement, this election will be tricky. Mary Lou McDonald is a fighter, but that can play both ways. I suspect she’d take your arm off right now for an election where she holds the seats she has. Brexit and debates about the prospect of a united Ireland will be timely.

For Labour, the challenge is to elbow its way onto the pitch, a challenge they’ll struggle with. For the Social Democrats, a gain of one is the absolute minimum for it to be deemed an acceptable result.

The three weeks will be fascinating. Every candidate contesting is to be commended—it takes bottle to put your name forward for public office, particularly in today’s world.  Buckle up.

Dan Pender is founder and managing director of PR360

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