I am currently reading an excellent book called Alpha Dogs, written by the editor of The Times (London, not University), James Harding.
It tells the story of two men, David Sawyer and Scott Miller, who founded a political consultancy firm, imaginatively called Sawyer Miller, which is widely credited with influencing all modern political communication. They were, in effect, the inventors of modern ‘spin’.
One of their earliest clients was Kevin White, who hired the firm to advise on his re-election bid as mayor of Boston in 1978. White was an effective mayor politically but he was a vain and arrogant individual and was personally unpopular with the electorate. His opponent, Joe Timilty, was the opposite: an affable character who the electorate easily warmed to, but insubstantial politically.
Sawyer Miller knew they had a problem – if the campaign became about who was the more likeable guy, White was toast. However, if they could make the campaign about who was the more competent politician, it would be comfortable ground for the incumbent.
Sawyer Miller went negative, and early. They summed up their message as follows: “Joe Timilty is an okay guy, but Joe Timilty is a lightweight. He doesn’t understand the tough job of running this city.” The message worked – White won and went on to serve another two terms as mayor.
Enda Kenny has a Joe Timilty problem. Nobody doubts he’s a nice fella, he is. It’s just that very few people (including more than half his outgoing TDs) think he’s capable of running the country.
It is also clear that the Fine Gael election strategists are aware of this problem. However, they are managing it in a cack handed fashion.
The latest manifestation of this is the farce that has become Enda’s stance on next Tuesday’s leaders debate on TV3. First, Enda said he wouldn’t take part in a three-way debate. Then, he said he would take part but not if Vincent Browne was moderating it. Today, he said he is too busy and it didn’t suit his schedule.
All the while, the public know the real reason: Fine Gael are seriously worried about the ability of their guy to manage to get through an hour on stage alongside Micheál Martin and Eamon Gilmore.
This is a miscalculation on the part of the Fine Gael handlers on two levels.
Firstly, it assumes that performance expectations for Enda would have been the same as for the other two leaders. They would not. If Enda had managed to keep his trousers from falling down and didn’t trip over the lectern it would have been a win for him.
Secondly, and more importantly, it reinforces all the negative perceptions that the public have about Kenny to begin with. The public would not be wrong to wonder how Enda is going to deal with Jean Claude Trichet when he can’t handle Vincent Browne (who, let us not forget, used to be a member of Enda’s party).
This should be the election where Fine Gael bury their Civil War rival – Fianna Fáil’s vote has more than halved since 2007. And yet, and yet, and yet…Fine Gael – according to recent polls – have only gone from 28% of the vote in 2007 to around 35% today. Kenny’s own approval ratings remain dismal. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out (I have figured it out and I’m far from a genius) that Enda is (at least a large part of) the problem holding them back.
Somebody in Fine Gael HQ needs to get the number for Sawyer Miller, and quick.