This year’s presidential race appears to be taking a traditional pathway: three candidates, one defined by her experience in the union; one defined by his stance against the union’s bureaucracy and disconnect from the student body, and a moderate outsider seeking meaningful reform.
Molnárfi’s campaign of highlighting issues within the union appears to be succeeding in winning votes from students he describes as “sick and tired”. In Trinity News’ poll of 509 students, Molnárfi leads the presidential race receiving the first preference of 58.84% of decided voters.
Candidates Zöe Cummins and Tilly Schaaf are head-to-head for runner up with 18.26% and 17.97% of decided voters respectively. While Molnárfi leads by a significant margin, it is important to note that over 28% of poll respondents remain undecided about their preferred candidate. This large cohort of undecided voters leaves room for other candidates to win a surprise victory over Molnárfi. A further 3.5% of students polled indicated that they would vote to reopen nominations as well as 5.7% of respondents who said that they do not intend to vote.
Molnárfi leads among voters of all political leanings, though, predictably, most strongly amongst left-wing voters, at 76.1% of that group’s first preferences. Similarly, 69.1% of students who expressed a desire for the union to engage in more direct action cast their vote for Molnárfi, an indication that his promise to bring the union “back to the grassroots” has resonated with voters. Throughout his campaign, Molnárfi has championed the mantra that “direct action works”, pointing to his involvement in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and protests against fee increases and pay cuts.
Molnárfi’s lead drops most significantly among voters who have previously held positions within TCDSU, an indication that his plans to transform the union are less attractive to those with “insider” experience. Though Molnárfi still leads this group at 46.4%, Cummins garners a significant 30.4%, compared to just 11.5% of other members of the student body.
The vote for Molnarfi breaks down roughly equally between men and women, but is significantly larger among non-binary voters and those who chose not to state their gender, with over four fifths of voters in these groups indicating him as their first preference, albeit among a smaller sample with a margin of error of 18%. Not only may Molnárfi’s radical politics resonate more strongly with students who identify outside of the gender binary, his decision to capitalise on campaign attention to encourage donations to Trans Harm Reduction will also have signalled his allyship to these groups, thereby increasing his vote share among them.
A variety of candidates
Leading the poll, László Molnárfi is a foreseeable frontrunner as the race’s most radical candidate. Students are experiencing high costs of living and issues accessing student services, this desire for radical change is exemplified by protests in Front Square last October during which students demanded reform. The student body’s patience is waning and Molnárfi’s political involvement and chairing of Students4Change makes him well known for raising a voice against the issues which are affecting students most.
Molnárfi’s popularity in the poll suggests that students are seeking to bring about this change through their vote, something which the candidate’s hustings speeches promise. At Dining Hall Hustings last Monday, Molnárfi said that “we are all sick and tired” of our union “doing nothing”. The candidate’s vision of a “rebirth of the students’ union” is likely appealing to those who feel that the union should be taking a more hands-on approach to helping students, those who are sick and tired. This desire for change amongst Molnárfi’s voters is clear from polling results with the majority of the candidate’s supporters saying that the union should be taking more direct action for change.
Molnárfi is also the most popular candidate amongst students from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) with poll data indicating that 48% of respondents from the faculty intend to vote for the candidate. Voter turnout has been a long-term issue in union elections with AHSS students repeatedly making up the majority of voters. This makes candidates’ popularity with this cohort of students key to a successful campaign.
On the other hand, polling data suggests that AHSS students do not intend to vote for Cummins or Schaaf in great quantities with 10.1% and 11.6% of the faculty’s respondents saying they will vote for each candidate respectively. Without the support of this key group, winning the presidency will be difficult.
Zöe Cummins’ campaign is based on experience and the belief that she is “the most qualified” person to lead. While experience is certainly useful, Cummins has had a turbulent campaign being struck off the ballot as a result of breaking electoral rules, a decision which has now been successfully appealed.
Despite this temporary disqualification, Cummins’ team were given permission to continue campaigning during the appeals process. A temporary strike off the ballot is likely to affect any candidate’s campaign, however, polling data shows that this decision is unlikely to have an impact on the outcome of the race. Prior to the Electoral Commission’s (EC) decision to remove Cummins from the ballot, polling data suggests that the candidate’s support was at 26% of decided voters. Cummins’ support currently stands at 18.2%, a roughly 8% reduction. The decision, however, is unlikely to have had an impact on the election’s outcome. Cummins’ roughly 8% reduction in votes appears to have transferred to Schaaf who went from 9.3% of decided voters to 18%. This suggests that Molnárfi’s lead is unrelated to the EC’s decision.
Polling data suggests that, while Molnárfi is the most popular candidate amongst students from the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), the proportion of support for Cummins is highest amongst students from the faculty, with 23.5% indicating that they intend to vote for the candidate. Polling suggests that over 40% of Cummins’ votes are likely to come from STEM students. This may leave the candidate vulnerable due to the faculty’s traditionally low voter turnout. If this cohort of students fail to vote, this candidate may struggle to secure the election.
Cummins’ campaign focuses on her experience as education officer. While experience in the union is certainly a useful tool for success, over 70% of poll respondents expressed their view that the union should be more involved with the student body. Cummins may struggle to be elected as a result of this desire for change.
According to the education officer’s report, Cummins is yet to achieve her manifesto goals. As of this time in her term, only one of four of these goals have been completed, with other manifesto commitments such as a hidden cost index not appearing on the report. This may result in students who are seeking radical change voting for other candidates.
Tilly Schaaf’s campaign is based on the idea of being an outsider with the candidate saying that she is “a normal student”. At hustings, the candidate presented a variety of practical ideas to improve the student experience. These include College publishing exams’ past pass rates, as well as a more logical timetable.
Schaaf also states that “the students’ union is where you go to make change, so that’s what I’m doing”. Newcomer candidates often struggle to set themselves apart from the institutional experts who have concrete union experience to support their campaign. These candidates usually use the underdog card to their advantage, however; they typically emphasise their potential to be a fresh start for the union, through offering an outsider perspective to long-running issues in the union, such as engagement and student support services.
Outsider candidates have also typically relied on stunts to set themselves apart and gain wider recognition from voters who are primarily involved within the union. 2020/2021 TCDSU President Eoin Hand was praised for his stunt in which he took a toaster from the union kitchen in House 6, and ran across campus to the Hamilton building while holding it. Schaaf, however, has not yet conducted a stunt, which may be a factor in her not standing out against other candidates, and thus placing lower in the polls.
Despite Schaaf’s lack of a stunt, the candidate has shown herself to be approachable, opening hustings with a cheesy joke: “What does the cheese say when it looks in the mirror? Hallou-mi.” Schaaf also appealed to voters through her informative, yet light hearted, campaign video.
Traditionally, union outsiders have struggled to win presidential elections, with Eoin Hand being an exception. Polling suggests that this is likely to be the case this year, with Schaaf placing last in the polls with approximately 18% of decided voters.
While Schaaf’s campaign has possibly been boosted by voters redirecting their votes from Cummins, it is possible that her campaign has been overshadowed by Molnárfi’s commitment to radical reform and Cummins’ past experience.
While all three candidates for the union’s next president have their differences, it is also important to recognise that many of their core values are the same. All three candidates agree that engagement with the union is an issue which must be addressed, with leading candidate László Molnárfi stating that he hopes to “bring the union back to the grassroots”. Molnárfi also criticised the union for measuring its engagement on “how many condoms or goodie bags are given out”.
Candidate Zöe Cummins also expressed her hope for students to be more involved in the union, expressing her support for “grassroots campaigns coming from students from the bottom up”. Tilly Schaaf has also supported greater student involvement basing her campaign around being a “normal student”, and saying that the union needs “deeper respect for students’ ideas”.
One area in which the candidates appear to differ is in their approach to a referendum on Irish unity. While all three candidates appear to be in favour of a referendum taking place, it appears as though there are varying levels of enthusiasm regarding the topic. Candidates Molnárfi and Schaaf were vocal in their support for a referendum, with Schaaf saying that “it is good practice for our college to have a culture of referendums”. On the other hand, Cummins expressed a more ambivalent view that more discussion was needed within the student body in order to carry out such a referendum. This hesitation compared to the previous candidate’s openness to such a debate suggests that the likelihood of a referendum on Irish unity taking place is dependent on who wins the election.
Differentiation through delivery
While all three candidates had their differences, they also shared similarities. All candidates advocated for key issues such as accessibility, improving student services, and support for those struggling as a result of the cost of living crisis. It is fair to say that each candidate hopes to improve the student experience and, in the words of current TCDSU President Gabi Fullam, create “a fairer college that prioritises students, and proactive student union”.