Party Leader Approval Ratings Analysis

I’m not doing a projections update this month as all we have to go on from May is a B&A poll that feels like an outlier – I will wait until we have another couple of polls and do an update in June. However, while its headline figures were odd, the poll had some other interesting little features – specifically an approval rating of party leaders. This included cross-tabs of their approval by members of other political parties, which is really interesting and what we’re gonna look at in this post. Bear in mind that some of these breakdowns are small, so as usual some caution should be used in interpreting this data.

Ireland Thinks do also do leader approval ratings, but don’t publish the cross-tabs, so only B&A give us this kind of granularity. Unlike IT, who rate on a scale of 0-10, B&A ask a question on their performance, looking for a “satisfied/dissatisfied/no opinion” answer. The ratings shown below are net of satisfied minus dissatisfied, so for example if politician A had 40% satisfied, 35% dissatisfied and 25% don’t know, I would chart that as a net approval rating of +5%

B&A only ask about the leaders of 5 parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Green Party and Labour. They also only break down support among these parties, with everyone else in the Independent/Other category – so on these graphs IND/O includes the Social Democrats, People Before Profit and Aontú, as well as Independents and various micro-parties. DK/WV stands for Don’t Know/Wouldn’t Vote, and while obviously those are less likely to impact in an election, I’ve included them in some of the breakdowns for completeness, as well as a few interesting points.

First, let’s look at the overall ratings:

The first and most obvious thing is that nobody has a particularly strong approval rating. This is, perhaps not surprising given the increasing polarisation between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael – but as we’ll see later on, it’s not quite so clear cut. Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach (yeah I also keep forgetting it’s him and not Varadkar) has pretty meh ratings, and bear in mind that this is based off a poll that was also a significant outlier in favour of FF (having them at 22%, their highest since December 2020).

It might be surprising to some to see Alan Kelly up there given that Labour are struggling, but there’s increasing signs of life there in some polls – and they might now be competitive in the Dublin Bay South by-election, though that’s a post for another day. The outlier is, of course, Eamon Ryan. It’s strange because this B&A poll wasn’t particularly bad for the Greens – 5% is at the upper range of their current polling – but the leader is extremely unpopular among some sectors, which we’ll look at later.

The provincial breakdown is strange when compared to voting preference; possibly an artefact of small samples, or possibly because there isn’t in general a strong correlation between general approval of party leaders and who people vote for. Connacht-Ulster, for example, seems pretty happy with Alan Kelly, but Labour regularly struggle to poll above 1% in the region.

On the other hand, Varadkar is far ahead of everyone else in Dublin, where FG continue to dominate polling and are still comfortably outstripping SF. That said, SF should be pretty happy across the board, barring Dublin. They’ve failed to progress their support in the capital since the last election and the fact that their leaders has roughly equal approve/disapprove levels in the capital re-enforces my suspicion that the party has, for now at least, hit a cap in its support in Dublin.

Munster seems to be pretty chill with everyone except Ryan, though given that his most high profile intervention in the region since entering government was the Northern Distributor Road debacle, perhaps that makes sense.

On a final note before we get deep into the party breakdowns – approval of party leaders by their own voters. There’s nothing too remarkable here, although McDonald’s numbers are lower than I would have expected given SF’s explosion in support under her leadership. Labour seem very happy, and the GP are not – though given their small support bases, these have less of an overall impact than the view of other parties’ supporters.

I’ll now move on to a breakdown of each party, you can click the links here to move to the relevant section, though I think it’s worth reading all of them to get a full picture of how they interact (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Sinn Féin

For this and the following sections, the graph on the left (top on mobile) shows the approval of the relevant party’s leader among supporters of all parties. The one on the right (bottom on mobile) shows the approval rating various party leaders have among supporters of the relevant party.

Looking at Sinn Féin, some things aren’t surprising – SF’s supporters seriously disapprove of the leaders of other parties, and supporters of other parties aren’t huge fans of McDonald either. But there is one thing here that may be surprising – McDonald is nowhere near as badly thought of by government (FG/FF/GP) voters as I would have thought. Anyone who has listened to the more vocal depictions from both legacy and social media might also be a bit surprised. However, I think this is interesting because it ties into what I see as SF’s overall development strategy.

Perhaps there’s a reminder here that neither the online nor professional commentariat really reflect anyone but their own self-selected group, even within the wider group of their political affiliation. Sure, on average FG FF and GP supporters don’t like McDonald, but this idea that she’s universally feared as some kind of house-stealing, business-destroying monster among the sensible folks of middle Ireland isn’t reflected by these numbers. Despite the Irish Independent, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and @blueshirtbarry489312846 from Twitter dropping hot Army Council takes every five minutes, McDonald has only a marginally negative rating there.

It’s worth noting that under McDonald, SF has very much pursued a strategy of mainstreaming and normalising a party that until about 20 years ago was a fringe force in Irish politics. And it has worked – they got the most first preferences in GE 20, have become the biggest party in opposition and increasingly are setting the political agenda in Ireland. The approval numbers here further re-enforce it. These are the numbers of a someone who has legitimacy. Sinn Féin are mainstream now, and not just because a load of people have come together to challenge what they see as the political “establishment”, but because a lot of supporters of that “establishment” view McDonald as a legitimate opposition figure within that paradigm.

Whether or not that’s a good thing from a left-wing perspective, is, of course, up for debate. And of course there is clearly a gulf between this and how SF supporters view the leaders of other parties. This is a really fascinating dynamic, and given that SF will, on current polling, need to enter into coalition with at least one of those parties to form a government, it’ll be really something to see how that would play out among their voters.

Fianna Fáil

Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin’s situations are probably more predictable than Sinn Féin’s. If you’d been asked to guess the order on the left hand chart, I suspect most people would have been able to do so correctly. It is interesting how high the FG number is, but if I were in FG I would probably be very happy with the job the Taoiseach has done of letting the party do and say whatever it wants. Martin is, fairly or not, often perceived as a decent man but a weak leader, one who has given far too much latitude to his coalition partners. I believe the numbers here reflect that.

It is however also notable that, despite the fact that his own parliamentary party constantly seem to have their knives out for him (probably an effect of the aforementioned perception), his approval rating among FF supporters is pretty solid. While the obvious response is that FF has lost so many supporters that maybe those only those who approve of Martin are left, its worth noting that this is from a poll that, as discussed before, appears to have overpolled the number of FF supporters. That does not, of course, fully mitigate this possibility, but is worth consdering.

Regardless, this is again an interesting reflection of the gap between those who are highly engaged in politics and those who are not – and it is the latter group who make up the vast majority of voters. Giving this kind of potential insight is one of the reasons that I think approval polling is useful and should be done more, frankly.

Fine Gael

The Fine Gael numbers are interesting. Firstly, their voters seem to think everyone is doing a pretty good job! Considering the current situation seems to be working out well for them overall – they basically run the show in government and continue to poll better than they did last time round – perhaps this is an expression of comfort with the current political status quo as much as anything else.

It is worth contrasting Varadkar’s approval with Martin’s. FG’s supporters are much happier with Martin than FF’s are with Varadkar; as mentioned in the FF section, I believe this is due to the dynamics within the coalition whereby it’s clear to most observers who is really in control. That said, Varadkar’s support among FF is still good. In fact every group, except for FG’s two coalition partners, give Varadkar a higher approval rating than they give Martin. The number among DK/WVs might not seem very high, but it might be significant – we’ll come to this later.

I reckon this coalition dynamic is also responsible for the Tánaiste’s terrible rating among Green Party voters – Varadkar has been the face of many of the most uncomfortable moments in government for the GP. The ongoing CETA dispute comes to mind, where Varadkar is continuing to snipe at those still arguing against it, even though the Green leadership has publicly adopted a supine position on the issue.

But to reiterate on a theme, this kind of polling data challenges received wisdom in the political discourse. If I were FG, and had dedicated so much time and resources and god knows how much in consultancy fees to launching attack after attack on Sinn Féin, and Mary Lou McDonald came out of it with only a -8% approval rating among my own supporters, I would probably consider changing tactics (and revoking Cllr. Large Adult Son’s Twitter privileges). I’d also probably consider whether or not whoever was advising my political communications was, in fact, grifting me.

Green Party

Before we get into this, I would like to reiterate – this was a good poll overall for the Green Party. 5% nationally, 7% in Dublin… it’s not amazing, but it’s competitive and at the upper bound of recent polling. But this? This is bad.

Let me contextualise this a bit. Among Fine Gael voters, after years of constant attacks and mud-slinging, Mary Lou McDonald has an approval rating of -8%. Among Fianna Fáil voters, after 11 months of coalition, Eamon Ryan has an approval rating of -9%. And of course, as you can see above, FF voters also think McDonald is doing a better job than Ryan by 11 points (+2% vs -9%), though FG voters have a higher approval of Ryan than of McDonald.

Ryan also has the lowest approval rating of any leader among his own party’s supporters, which shouldn’t be a great shock to anyone who has followed the party’s recent trajectory. But overall that’s a relatively minor contributor; the lack of approval from anyone other than his own party and FG is what’s driving Ryan’s numbers being so much worse than everyone else’s. This isn’t a good sign for those looking for a revival in the party’s fortunes – Ryan being underwater among supporters of their fellow centre-leftists in Labour, as well as among supporters of other minor parties, independents and undecideds does not bode well for the future of a party under his leadership.

Labour

Alan Kelly’s numbers were not what I expected. Although Labour have been showing signs of life in a few recent polls, they’re still struggling mightily – behind the SDs, barely ahead of the GPs – and seem on course to struggle to hold any of their seats. Despite this, Kelly’s numbers indicate that he is pretty well thought of across the political spectrum. And no, it’s not driven by a large number of “no opinions” – his score there is 15%, the same as Eamon Ryan’s, and as we saw above, there’s a huge disparity in the overall approval rating between the two.

However, this isn’t particularly good new for Labour. Kelly’s personal approval doesn’t seem to be having much of an effect on the party he leads. His best numbers are in Connacht-Ulster and Munster, where Labour are at 1.4% and 3.6% on the RPA, respectively. When Kelly took over leadership of the party in April of 2020, their national RPA was 3.8%. Currently it’s 4.3%, an increase of just 0.5%, and marginally below its performance in the last general election (4.4%). Kelly is in a strange spot in that most people think he’s doing a good job, but not enough to convince people to actually vote for Labour.

It’s worth noting, going back to the constant theme, that although Labour are frequently reviled among anti-establishment groups and on the left, Kelly’s numbers there are also relatively good. While SF supporters clearly hold him in low enough regard, his numbers among them are substantially better than Ryan’s, Martin’s or Varadkar’s. Similarly, the IND/O and DK/WV groups numbers are bad in absolute terms, but, as we’ll see in the next section, are relatively good.

Now, clearly, Labour’s polling numbers demonstrate that there are still huge issues for the party in that regard, but it’s interesting how Kelly himself is far ahead of his party. But as mentioned, unless he can actually find a way to convert one into the other, it’s not going to be of much help.

Independent/Other & Don’t Know/Wouldn’t Vote

Slight difference in this section – both graphs reflect the right-hand ones from earlier – approval of the five leaders polled among IND/O and DK/WV voters (or I guess in the case of some of the latter category, non-voters).

It’s probably not a shock that those who support other parties or independents aren’t huge fans of any of the leaders, though I wouldn’t have expected that they’d all be this far underwater. I also wouldn’t have guessed that Kelly would have the least-bad numbers among them. McDonald and Varadkar being close might seem odd, given that there’s generally an anti-establishment streak in SF transfer patterns, but remember that this in this aspect of the poll, IND/O is a huge catch-all group that includes everyone from the Workers’ Party to Mattie McGrath. Anyway, they all agree that they don’t like Eamon Ryan.

The Don’t Know/Wouldn’t Vote category is a lot more interesting. Firstly, its a massive slice of those polled; around 22%. What we have here is something rare – a tool, albeit a limited one, to gauge how undecided voters, or those who aren’t planning to vote but might be targeted by parties, might vote. I mean, it’s not surprising that they’re not super-enthusiastic about anyone. But it is surprising to see Varadkar and Kelly having the best approval among those cohorts. Now, as discussed above, we can probably ignore Kelly, given that he hasn’t converted his generally good ratings into support for Labour. But Varadkar? That’s something, especially when comapred to McDonald’s numbers.

Again I must emphasise that we should not draw certain conclusions from this as it is a sub-set of one poll, and a poll that itself was an outlier, but this is still a rare opportunity for insight. If it’s correct, there’s substantial ramifications. If undecided voters are more likely to end up voting for FG than to SF, it could erase the small polling lead SF have when it comes to the day at the ballot box.

With that said, activating non-voters has been a core part of SF’s strategy for a while now, and the numbers don’t tell us how this sample is split between undecideds and non-voters. If the sample is heavily biased towards the former, its less of a concern. But if this reflects more non-voters, that’s another worry for SF. These two cohorts are important pools for partys to “fish in” to improve polling numbers, so this right now looks like Fine Gael might have the most room to grow. But this is, I admit, highly speculative. We don’t the kind of frequent historical data on how undecideds and non-voters break at the end of the day, like we do with polling. The only thing I’m sure of here is that they also don’t like Eamon Ryan.

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