Billy Vaughan explores some of the factors behind Katie Ascough’s unexpected victory.
KATIE Ascough’s victory was, to say the least, unexpected by many. UCD had its very own “Trump/Brexit” style upset and like those events, it has prompted much soul searching about many things studets took for granted. Trinity’s University Times was quick to proclaim that the election was the “direct result of a student population who have lost interest in the world of student politics and have forgotten its potential significance”. This, of course, may certainly be a factor. But as with any unexpected outcome, it is unwise to pre-emptively put the result down to one reason. Specifically, issues over the 8th amendment featured prominently in this election cycle. But did it really ultimately affect the average voter’s intentions?
There are reasons to think that it both did and didn’t, and unpacking this fully can help us to understand what the average UCD student thinks about the abortion issue, and its place in campus politics. Some have said that there is a larger pro-life support base on campus than thought, while others have said that many pro-choice students didn’t see it as a relevant issue this year.
“Ascough’s policy promises were also somewhat uncontroversial”
It is important not to stress factors like campaign success too much in what seemed to be a Presidential race like no other. There were four candidates this year, each with varied experience. The choices ranged from SU insiders (Hart), to sitting auditors (Weldon), and wild-card outsiders (Ascough and Bartley).
Ascough’s policy promises were also somewhat uncontroversial, and yet if we look at transfer patterns, we can see that voters had largely divided into “Ascough supporters” and “everyone else”. By the end of the fourth count, Weldon had come close to matching her, rising from a very distant second in the early rounds. This shows that Hart and Bartley supporters flocked to Weldon in much greater numbers than they did to Ascough.
The three schools where the Ascough vote was highest were also the three schools where the pro-neutral “yes” vote was highest during the abortion stance referendum last year. Support (or lack thereof) for Ascough seems to be strongly correlated with each school’s vote percentage in the abortion referendum. This could suggest that a prominent issue for students was abortion.
“An election that should’ve focused on a raft of issues essentially became a battleground over abortion”
Another possibility is that certain schools are consistently filing protest votes to try and draw the SU’s attention to specific problems, either faced by their own schools specifically or that they feel UCD is facing. While a certain measure of disagreement between faculties is healthy for any campus, the fact that Ag, Health Science, and Quinn consistently differ by large margins is a sign that more dialogue may be needed between the SU and individual schools.
On a related note, another possible factor to consider is whether we, as a campus, are becoming a “college of faculties”, separated by outlook on issues such as the 8th amendment. Katie Ascough’s vote was certainly not spread evenly throughout the schools. Her vote share went from as high as 54% in Agricultural Science, to around 28% in Engineering and Arts. Ag Science, Quinn (Business), and Health Sciences proved to be major hubs of Ascough support. Is there a divide between schools in UCD that we are not paying attention to?
Ruth Murphy, a final year English student, didn’t give any preference vote to Ascough. She says that a certain “outcast” ethos in Ag may explain why it bucked the trend: “Ag students get stereotyped a lot and many are not surprised that Ascough got votes there”.
Kevin O’Leary, a 2nd year politics student, agrees; he voted for Ascough first, and Weldon second. He mentions Ag’s different student make-up compared to other schools. “By the very nature of Ag, it is made up almost entirely of people from outside of Dublin. This is where the Repeal the 8th campaign could ultimately fail: a pro-choice viewpoint appears popular in Dublin, but people from outside the capital are largely pro-life, and many are strongly opposed to the very concept of abortion”. He believes that the correlation between school election results and the abortion referendum shows that “an election that should’ve focused on a raft of issues essentially became a battleground over abortion, and this time pro-life won”.
One thing that seems to have surprised nearly everyone is Ascough’s unexpectedly high showing in Arts. While it was still one of her lowest poll centres in terms of vote share, many would see the arts school as stereotypically more liberal. O’Leary was shocked at the arts result. “The Arts block is staunchly pro-choice, as evidenced by the abortion referendum results, and I was flabbergasted that Ascough won there. The obvious excuse would be that Arts students didn’t know Ascough was pro-life, but that’s a bit hard to take seriously, since the results in other schools all seem to correlate with the results of the abortion referendum”.
“It’s easy to focus solely on the abortion arc to this election, but it should be remembered that a lot of people still don’t care about the issue”
Murphy focuses more on the fact that Arts was one of the least supportive of Ascough in absolute terms: “She had support in every building, though little in Arts, so maybe more Arts students care about Repeal the 8th. Arts can be a less socially conservative space”.
Another influence could have been the skill and efforts of the presidential candidates’ campaigns. Was this year a case of, as in other years, simply the most impressive candidate with the best-run campaign rightfully earning elected office for their efforts? Emer O’Hara, a final year English and History student, seems to agree. She gave Ascough her second preference after Philip Weldon. She says that Ascough seemed to benefit from keeping discussion of controversial issues to a minimum.
“I think she ran a solid campaign which in large [part] shied away from controversial issues. She was shrewd and well-spoken and promised basic realistic solutions to everyday student issues. I respected her throughout the campaign. While I do not agree with her views I felt she handled herself with great dignity.” Murphy was also impressed with how certain aspects of Ascough’s background were not discussed as much. “I was impressed with how they could promote her as a charismatic sweet candidate as opposed to what she was so known for, which was being pro-life.”
Those who say that it was simply a case of the best candidate winning argue that the abortion issue was not as important to the “silent majority” of voters. “It’s easy to focus solely on the abortion arc to this election, but it should be remembered that a lot of people still don’t care about the issue, and that Ascough ran on a comprehensive campaign that addressed every student and their needs in at least some way,” said O’Leary. “Students’ general perception of Ascough as the best candidate was what got her through in the end.”
There was a general sense amongst some that the abortion issue had been “settled” last year, and that students had voted in the confidence that any potential candidate would have to work within a pro-choice framework regardless. O’Leary says that “to vote on an external issue would’ve been a waste of time when the SU is already pro-choice. If I voted for Ascough because she was pro-life, I would hardly have given Weldon my second preference. These two candidates in particular, were of a calibre that could prove extremely effective as our president.”
“The Arts block is staunchly pro-choice… I was flabbergasted that Ascough won there”
O’Hara also had no problem voting for both Ascough and Weldon. “I do feel some of the other candidates offered quality alternatives, especially in the case of Philip Weldon. Philip was articulate and showed promise as someone who had experience working with the university on issues already.”
Murphy adds, however, that abortion was not the only contentious issue, and Ascough’s stance on LGBT issues also remains a worry. “Right now we know, ok, she’s probably not going to march for repeal but there are other sabbats, campaigns coordinators, and students that will. I don’t know however where Ascough stands on LGBT issues and that scares me.”
Many people are saying in the aftermath that student apathy is simply the main factor. Since Ascough supporters were more committed, and the rest of the student body didn’t care about elections, she was supposedly able to win through complacency. UCD has indeed suffered from traditionally low turnout rates, with turnout for this election being about half that of Trinity’s recent SU election.
Turnout was also much lower than the abortion referendum of last year. “People were not worried that she’d win and so didn’t bother to vote,” says Murphy. “Many struck for Repeal and did not worry about the vote. I think many students thought that with three openly pro-choice candidates there was little chance of Ascough winning”.
The electorate’s possible lack of knowledge on Katie Ascough’s stance on the 8th Amendment has also been a contentious issue, both during and after the election result. Many tie this in with the apathy issue, and say that people weren’t aware of Ascough’s 8th amendment views because they simply didn’t bother too much to find out.
“I was very aware of her support for the 8th amendment,” says Murphy. “I felt it was the main thing I heard about her before the campaign but I know that this may have been just among the people who I spend time with. I know the College Tribune labelled her as the “Pro-Life candidate” and she was asked on multiple occasions by the Observer if she would march for repeal, but not everyone reads student newspapers.”
“I don’t know however where Ascough stands on LGBT issues and that scares me”
If the 8th amendment issue didn’t feature as prominently as some might have hoped, it may indeed have been the age-old problem of student apathy. Murphy acknowledges that “a lot of people just don’t vote. They may not care or they may not know enough about the candidates to make an informed decision.”
No matter what side of the debate you are on, it is difficult to argue that the result was simply down to student apathy and nothing else. While low numbers did indeed turn out, this is not unusual for UCD elections. What is more extraordinary about this election was the increasing polarisation between schools, and student’s increasing differentiation between “the abortion issue” and “student issues”. In terms of the differences between schools, it seems the SU needs to do more this year to scope out the general atmosphere and specific problems that some schools face, and give more of a platform to class-level SU reps. If this is the way campus is moving, it will be interesting to see whether the SU responds by focussing more on non-national, campus focussed issues.
Ascough’s signature promise for more microwaves was derided by many, but it seems that it was a message that certainly resonated with students who voted. Ascough has, with a microwave in one hand and a ballot box in the other, made many of us question where the values and priorities of UCD students lie.