Since the exit polls emerged late on Friday, predicting an emphatic win for Michael D. Higgins, you could be forgiven for thinking the incumbent president had actually lost. The polls also correctly foreshadowed an unanticipated decent performance for former wooden spoon contender Peter Casey, and it was this result which has occupied much of the coverage of the count.
Casey had managed to come last in all of the polls leading up to the election, suggesting the final ten days, which included an RTE Prime Time debate and two Virgin Media debates, made a serious difference.
The 17th of October, the day after the final preliminary poll was published, proved to be the turning point, as Casey appeared on an Irish Independent podcast and made remarks about the traveling community that were rightly condemned. Casey even drew admonishment from the Taoiseach, although Casey’s words about the traveling community being a supposed drain on the public coffers had been echoed before by a member of his cabinet, Josepha Madigan. The Taoiseach has also described Fine Gael as a party for people who “get up early in the morning” and run campaigns against welfare cheats.
The coverage of his remarks not only did Casey’s prospects no harm, but gave his campaign a massive boost. An analysis of Google searches related to Casey shows an explosion in public interest, all coming from his appearance on the podcast.
Just as with the 2011 campaign, the debates played a role in shifting the dynamics of the race, but unlike Sean Gallagher’s largely self-inflicted downfall, Casey was able to double down on his remarks and present a coherent, and abhorrent, vision to the public. This gave him the momentum needed to become the viable candidate for those looking for an alternative to Higgins and the only other candidate who stood out in the imagination of voters.
There was near consensus that Casey’s remarks were unacceptable, but much hand-wringing or even defensiveness over the role in the media in facilitating Casey’s surge.
But who were these voters who had been wooed in the dying days of the campaign? There were some initial indications as the votes were counted, with Casey performing better in rural areas, although there was anecdotal evidence there was not just an urban-rural divide, but one based on age, income or other demographic factors.
On a constituency basis, Casey’s top five best performances came in Tipperary, Roscommon-Galway, Limerick County, Galway East and Donegal, although he also just about matched or outperformed his national vote in the partly urban Limerick City, Waterford and Galway West. It is difficult to draw too many inferences at this level of analysis though, given the the size of Dail constituencies, although tallies may help and should be covered at a later stage if I come into possession of any.
For now, the Red C exit poll is the most detailed source of demographic information.
The broad trends are clear, with Higgins’ holding a large lead in every category, with a minimum of a 30% lead even among farmers (F under social class). Casey is firmly 2nd as well in all categories, and only narrows the gap slightly among the elderly.
There is a 4% difference in Casey’s vote among those holding managerial, technical and professional professions (ABC1s) compared to manual workers (C2DE), and he does best among farmers. One thing to bear in mind is the inability of occupation classifications to capture all of the dimensions of class, which under any political definition should include property ownership and income. For the Marriage Equality referendum, polling data also projected a gap in support between working and middle class communities which did not materalise to any significant degree.
With the promised “debate” now taking place, supposedly thanks to Casey’s provocations and in the broader public interest despite the inevitable damage it will cause, it is important to put the results in context. The bottom line is that 23% of the vote in a low turnout election is not the significant watershed moment that it is being advertised as. It becomes even less so when you consider it was achieved by reheating some of the government’s own positions with less polished language, so the idea of Casey being an “underdog”, “insurgent” or even the much abused “populist” can be dismissed, as can the notion the Taoiseach has become a social democrat.
In part 2 I hope to do further analysis based off whatever tally data I can lay my hands on. Thanks for reading and please consider making a donation or supporting in any other way the work of Pavee Point, which you can do here.