Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein have already made one mistake that Labour Leader, Dick Spring made in the moments before the General Election campaign of 1992. She still has time to avoid the other.
Sinn Fein will be secretly hoping that they do not climb much higher than 25% of the national vote next Saturday. Anything north of 25% and Mary Lou will have some very awkward questions to answer on election night. Because anything north of 25% will not be yielding the additional seat bounce that vote share demands.
The final heavyweight poll of the #GE2020 election cycle by the Irish Times/ MRBI has Sinn Fein at this magic 25% number. Even allowing for a big margin of error in this poll, the Sinn Fein leadership have made a massive error in the number of candidates they are running. They clearly didn’t see the big bounce in time.
Sinn Féin are only running 42 candidates in comparison to Fianna Fáil’s 84 and Fine Gael’s 82. If Sinn Fein are actually running neck and neck with FF and 5 points ahead of FG this is a colossal lapse in judgement.
In 2011 the Labour party made a somewhat similiar mistake. However at that time, Eamon Gilmore never realistically had a chance of Labour becoming the largest party in the land. The moment Eamon for Taoiseach signs were nailed on telegraph poles around the country Labour’s numbers started to falter. Sinn Fein, on the face of it, are in a much stronger position than Labour were 2011.
The vagaries of our proportional representative system of government mean SF could out perform FG by 2 – 3% in overall first preference votes and still return anything up to 5- 10 seats less than the Blue Shirts. If a scenario arises where SF outperforms any of the two major parties but returns less seats. Big questions will rightly be asked.
One aspect of Irish politics that is very rarely analysed is the historical advantage both FF/FG possess over the traditionally smaller parties, and it is their experience of running multiple candidates per constituency country-wide. Maximizing seats for votes. Very rarely have the smaller parties got this mix right when they’ve found momentum at their backs. On a few occasions over the past 30 years an opportunity has a arisen for a smaller party ( Labour ) to break into the mainstream. In 1992 the ‘Spring Tide’ saw Labour win 19.3% of the vote and double their representation in the Dail. From 15 or 16 seats to 33. It could have been much more.
The biggest criticism of the Labour Leader after that election was that he didn’t run enough candidates. That and ditching FG at the alter for Albert and FF. Spring ran 42 candidates in 1992 exactly the same number as Sinn Fein are running on Saturday. It is entirely possible that if he ran more candidates that 19.3% would have been much higher.
When momentum is with a party it is vital they see it early and maximize their share of the vote thru the correct number and mix of candidates. Now if Sinn Fein achieve 25% of the #GE2020 vote it is probably going to mean that at least a dozen SF candidates get elected on the first count with massive surpluses. Surpluses that will benefit other people and parties. Additional candidates in the correct constituencies act as an insurance policy that these votes do not end up in the wrong hands. FF hands to be precise. However when it comes right down to it – I have my doubts that 42 candidates can actually deliver a 25% vote share. 50-55 might. While topping the poll is good for the ego, winning the last seat in 4 and 5 seat constituencies is what unlocks the door of the Taoiseach’s office.
In previous election cycles SF have hinted at making a major breakthrough only to disappoint on election day. Momentum in any competitive environment is an intangible thing – you know it when you have it. And Sinn Fein most certainly seem to have it. Even harder to establish is the moment momentum begins to wane. For the first 2 weeks of the #GE2020 campaign all the positive energy has been with Mary Lou and Sinn Fein. The wind at their backs has carried them right up to this 25% opinion poll rating. Three days before the election they are nominally the largest party in the Republic, yet running half the number of candidates of the two nominally smaller parties FG and FF.
But has the SF tide started to turn ever so slightly?
Ironically, good news may have imperceptibly halted the SF gallop. When RTE rowed back and invited Mary Lou McDonald to join the final Leaders debate, it may be a decision that works in the other two parties favour. It would’ve been far more beneficial for SF had she been excluded, as that story would have dominated the last week of the campaign. The injustice of it would have swayed sympathy and more undecideds into the SF camp on election day.
Despite this, there is no doubt in my mind that this election feels a little different. Whatever happens on Saturday SF representation is going to shoot up in Dail Eireann. But it remains to be seen if 42 candidates can deliver 25% of the vote in an actual election as opposed to an opinion poll. I doubt it – somewhere between 20-22% maybe. A good guide will be to see if SF can beat that Dick Spring watermark of 33 seats.
If SF have selected too few candidates there is a very good case to make that FG have selected too many. It has been a disastrous campaign for Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael and if the opinion polls are within the margin of error it would seem we have a party with 20% of the votes running enough candidates to win about 52% of the seats. This mix is certain to cost them seats. A too many cooks spoil the broth kinda of deal.
By a process of elimination FF should get most bang for their buck on Saturday. Since the global meltdown in 2008 we have had two general elections, in both, FF % share of the vote out performed the Final Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll before the election. The Trump effect if you will.
In 2016 that margin for error was a +1.3% bump for FF on election day and a -1.2% slump for Sinn Fein. Independents outperformed opinion polls by nearly 2% and are a notoriously difficult grouping to get right. In GE2020 we also have the huge unknown of the Green Party. In the current climate (excuse the pun) it wouldn’t surprise me if Eamon Ryan’s party polled anywhere from 5% to 12% on election day.
Will the majority of under 30’s put climate at priority No.1 on election day?
And if they do how many of them will show up to vote?
If the Greens have a 10% + day at the polls expect Fine Gael to really struggle to break 20% on election day.
Dick Spring made a second error in that 1992 election. He went into government. He compounded that error by jumping into bed with Fianna Fail. It cost Labour dearly in the long run. Mary Lou will probably get the opportunity to make the same mistake. She would do well to avoid it. There is only one stable form of government after #GE2020 – a FF/FG coalition. Forcing Fine Gael and Fianna Fail together will give her 5 years to consolidate her gains and to co-ordinate a viable Left alternative government in time for #GE2025.
Has she the patience to wait 5 years for a border poll?