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The Irish presidential campaign - Sean Gallagher and Michael D. Higgins, the last two men standing?

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Michael D. Higgins and Sean Gallagher

The most recent opinion poll, conducted by the Red C polling firm for the Sunday Business Post, indicates that there are now just two candidates in the seven-strong field with a chance of prevailing in the Irish presidential election on October 27th. They are the independent businessman, Seán Gallagher, and long time Labour Party stalwart and office holder, Michael D. Higgins.

Higgins has for some time been the presumptive frontrunner and at or near the top of previous polls, but Gallagher’s candidacy has taken off in the past two weeks. He tops the Red C poll at 39% and Higgins, the first choice of 27% of the electorate, is next. The other candidates are well back. What lies behind the numbers and what might this tell us about how things are likely to unfold when the votes are counted?

A forensic examination of the poll data that did not feature as prominently in the Irish media reveals a few surprises that would seem to fly in the face of conventional Irish political wisdom.

First, while Irish presidential elections have never been as partisan as general elections for seats in Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament), it is still difficult to believe that the candidate of the largest parliamentary party, Fine Gael, is the first choice of just 8% of Irish voters and of only 15% of those voters who supported Fine Gael candidates in the last general election earlier this year. Nearly 40% of the Irish electorate voted Fine Gael in that election. These numbers, taken together, are nothing short of astonishing and validate the manifest frustration of the party’s leadership when Gay Mitchell was chosen to be its standard bearer in the presidential election.

Second, most observers presumed that the Sinn Féin candidate, Martin McGuinness, would benefit considerably from the decision of Fianna Fáil – the other Republican, in an Irish sense, party – not to contest the election. McGuinness is the first choice of just 8% of those who supported Fianna Fáil in the general election. He remains in a distant third place overall at 13%.

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READ MORE:
Martin McGuinness - the choice for Ireland’s presidential election

Sean Gallagher under fire for Fianna Fail fundraiser, illegal loan

Niall O'Dowd: Wacky Irish presidential race gets even stranger
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Third, Senator David Norris was long trumpeted as the choice of independents, of Dublin and of all those who admired his commitment to human rights and social justice. Even after the revelations about his ex-partner’s statutory rape conviction and his own statements on paedophilia forced him to drop out of the race in August, he remained popular in the polls. When Norris announced that he was recommencing his candidacy, many commentators surmised that he would run well and that there was a uniquely Irish sympathy factor that he could count on to ensure a strong showing, or even an extraordinary come from behind win. Norris is now at 7% and, barring a miracle, he is finished.

Lastly, independent Mary Davis was touted by some of the comentariat as the candidate who could be the race’s “dark horse” because of her inspired work on the Special Olympics and, speaking frankly, her gender. Owing perhaps to quite weak debate performances which exposed a lack of depth and to difficult to rebut charges that she is, in fact, an “insider,” Davis has picked up no traction whatsoever and is the first choice of just 4% of voters.

Seán Gallagher is the candidate who has clearly benefited from the foregoing developments. But how exactly did he get there? Is his 39% solid, or is it “a mile wide and an inch deep?” Can Higgins still win the election?

The detail of the Red C poll is again instructive in answering the first question. Gallagher is the number one choice of 54% of those who voted Fianna Fáil earlier this year. This largely explains his reticence to criticise his former party which, although a shadow of its former self, retains the support of almost 20% of Irish voters. He is also the first choice of 43% of Fine Gael voters in 2011. It is very likely that a good chunk of this 43% is comprised of members of the entrepreneurial and professional classes who enjoyed great success in the Celtic Tiger years. They don’t like politics or politicians, voted Fine Gael this year almost single-mindedly to "get rid of” Fianna Fáil and are attracted by Gallagher’s business background. This diversity in sentiment among Gallagher’s putative voters, if it indeed exists, is unprecedented.

Significantly for Gallagher, and somewhat ominously for Higgins, he is the first choice of 35% of Labour voters and he has benefited from Norris’s precipitous drop in support. Higgins obviously would have hoped that a higher percentage of Labour Party sympathizers would have rallied to his candidacy and that more erstwhile Norris voters would have drifted his way because both men are on the left of the political spectrum. And notably, Gallagher polls increasingly well with women and with voters over age 65.

That Gallagher has risen so meteorically is a tribute to his campaign strategy, which has been to stay above politics and to stress the multi-faceted nature of his own background, which includes overcoming a disability. He will now be very broadly scrutinised by both the other candidates and the media. This scrutiny already has revealed the closeness of his association with the now poisonous Fianna Fáil brand and that his record as a businessman and entrepreneur is far from perfect. It remains an open question as to whether the support he has attracted most recently is there to stay or might move again.

And what might the path to a Higgins victory look like? His chances will depend on two things.

First, he will need Gallagher’s movement in the polls to duplicate Texas Governor Rick Perry’s in this year’s Republican primary in the United States – very quick to rise and equally quick to recede. The close examination now underway of his past might cause some erosion of the 39%. Moreover, in the final televised debate just three days before the election, all candidates will seek to highlight Gallagher’s shortcomings. Gallagher was weak in the last debate, which took place after the Red C poll was conducted. Higgins was the best of the field that night and can be counted on to put in a very strong performance in the final affair.

Second, for Higgins to win, it may come down to voter transfers. As some readers will know and others won’t, voters in Irish presidential elections do not simply vote for one candidate, but rank them in order of their preference. Their votes stay with their first preference choice until that candidate is eliminated from contention (or alternatively, elected) and then transfer to whomever they have chosen as their second preference, and so on. As such, Higgins could win even if he is first out-polled by Gallagher.

The Red C poll shows that Higgins will do extremely well on transfers from Gay Mitchell and very well on transfers from Mary Davis and David Norris. Martin McGuinness, on the other hand, transfers very strongly to Gallagher.

Because Higgins is the second preference choice of a majority of Mitchell voters, there is one scenario that could benefit him. That is if, despite being at just 8% in the Red C poll, Mitchell profits from Fine Gael’s overarching popularity, comprehensive national organization and get out the vote effort and fares better on Election Day than is now forecast. Although the party leadership isn’t crazy about Mitchell, it’s difficult to believe that the candidate of Ireland’s now largest political party will garner just 8% of first preference votes and it’s equally difficult to believe that the party won’t make an effort to achieve the best result possible in the campaign’s final days to at least partially save face. A higher first preference vote for Gay Mitchell can only help Higgins’s chances of victory.

There is still time left. If precedent is any dictate and anecdote any guide, many Irish voters will only make up their minds in the coming week about who they’d like to be Ireland’s next president. While the most recent poll makes Seán Gallagher the current favorite, Michael D. Higgins has a very good chance and one can’t close the door too tightly on someone else’s making a last minute move. Voter turnout on Election Day is an additional variable, among many others, and could have a decisive impact on the outcome. The next week should make for fascinating theater that won’t reach its climax until all the votes are counted.
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READ MORE:
Martin McGuinness - the choice for Ireland’s presidential election

Sean Gallagher under fire for Fianna Fail fundraiser, illegal loan

Niall O'Dowd: Wacky Irish presidential race gets even stranger
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