February 17, 2004

Campaign and election myths

I know I've been tardy with my final piece of analysis on the Queensland election, promised for last Friday, but in the meantime I thought I would post this piece by Warwick Powell.

It's an interesting analysis of some common beliefs about elections, although not one with which I agree 100%. I'd be interested in any feedback. Warwick Powell is a market research consultant and was a Labor marginal seats strategist and campaigner and adviser to the Goss Government. Contrary to gossip on Crikey! he assure me that he did not work for Merri Rose in Currumbin in the last election.

Campaign and election myths

By Warwick Powell

It’s time to dispel a couple of myths about political campaigns and electoral behaviour. These myths have either crippled effective campaigning (especially in the most recent State election by the Opposition) or have led to chronic misunderstanding of voting behaviour and the reasons for it.

Myth 1: voters prefer positive to negative advertising, and negative campaigns turn voters off.

There is a phenomenon in market research that is known as “learned responses” – that is, people repeat back to researchers what they have learned about the state of public opinion, thereby reinforcing the original point of view. This is exactly what happens with positive and negative advertising. When asked, voters these days will typically say they don’t like the negativity – but that’s largely because that’s what they think is the “right” thing to say "cause that’s what 'the published research and journalists says'”.

In reality, empirical research conducted in the USA – arguably the global leader in electioneering and behavioural research – shows that voters respond more to negative advertising than positive campaigns, provided that the negative messages can be substantiated and are in general terms “fair”, “credible” and not too “heavy handed”.

Strategically, the key is to ensure that one builds up one’s positives before one goes negative.

Political parties and candidates – in particular challengers – who fall for the line that they should stay “positive” for fear of alienating voters are doing themselves a chronic disservice.

The bottom line in this day and age, when voters generally hold politicians as a class in fairly low esteem, is that voters are more readily swayed “against” a politician than they are “for” a politician.

Just look what happened to Merri Rose in Currumbin as a case in point.

Myth 2: there is something called the “protest vote”.

The idea of a “protest vote” came to prominence when people went over the entrails of elections that didn’t fall the way commentators expected. So we have a situation where the defeats suffered by erstwhile popular politicians like Sally Anne Atkinson, Wayne Goss, Jeff Kennett and the near-defeat of Nick Greiner’s government in NSW is explained by reference to this thing called “the protest vote”.

Specifically, when people talk about the “protest vote” in these contexts, they imply that there is a difference between the voting actions of an individual and their “true” intentions about a government. In other words, a “protest” vote is when someone votes against the government but doesn’t want to vote the government out.

This is a nonsense, and is a self-serving myth promoted by those associated with losing campaigns who don’t want to face up to their underlying campaign and political failures and unpopularity. Invoking the “protest” vote idea is a way of saying it was “voters who made a mistake”.

How disingenuous is this? The fact is voters are making a considered decision when they mark the ballot paper – they vote with intent and, in their eyes, aren’t making a “mistake” or “protesting” with the end-result being “accidental” or “unintended”. Those that voted against Atkinson did so because they didn’t like her arrogance and perceived policy failures. Ditto for Goss and Kennett. They did not want these guys running the show, and gave them the proverbial a**e.

In Queensland, the Mundingburra by-election of 1996 should have put paid to the myth of the “protest” vote for good. This is for the reason that had the 1995 general election result (Goss’ near death experience) been a function of a misplaced “protest”, then voters when faced with the reality of the potential consequence of turfing out the Goss Government in the 1996 by-election wouldn’t have voted for the Liberal’s Frank Tanti. But they did.

According to the Oxford dictionary, “protest” is a “statement of dissent or disapproval”. This is the only sense in which the idea of a vote against a government being a “protest” actually means anything. When someone votes against a candidate or a government, it’s because they disapprove of it for one reason or another, and do not want the candidate or government elected. It’s not a mistake or an accident. It’s willful and entirely purposive.

Myth 3: the average swing is meaningful.

Almost all the coverage before and after the recent State election has focused on the state-wide swing against the Government (or swing to the opposition parties). There’s been some discussion about how best to "measure" the swing, especially given the "optional preferential voting" system that exists in Queensland.

By focusing on the average swing, analysts concoct a device called the "pendulum", from which they predict that for the government to lose a swing of X per cent is needed. Commentary glibly notes that this in fact is not quite the case, because the swing is not "uniform", but then goes on to discuss electoral outcomes in terms of what is actually the average "swing".

People who run campaigns know that practical realities don’t sit comfortably with the pendulum device. That is, it’s not the average swing but the distribution of the range of swings across electorates that determine electoral outcomes. For example, this is why One Nation was able to get some 11 seats in the 1998 election with around 21% of the vote across the State. One Nation’s vote was actually concentrated in pockets, which are best understood in spatial-demographic terms. The average swing to them (+21%) was entirely meaningless as a predictor.

Analysts should worry less about the average swing, and should focus their minds on the range of swings and the distribution of the vote. That way, they will be able to better predict campaign impacts and voting behaviour drivers.

When we look at things this way, we can dispel the last myth, namely that elections are "unwinnable" because of the number of seats involved and the size of the average swing required to cause these seats to change hands. It was this myth that sat behind the idea that for the coalition parties, the 2004 state election was really about positioning them for a serious tilt in 2007.

Most elections are winnable, particularly as the proportion of ‘rusted on’ voters declines; for challengers it’s a matter of figuring out ways of generating a sufficient range of swings against incumbent candidates in a large enough number of seats. Peter Beattie did it in 2001 and John Howard did it in 1996.

These campaign myths had real effects in the recent State campaign.

The Government was naturally worried about a “protest” in the Oxford dictionary sense, which could only be generated through an effective negative campaign from the Opposition. Labor effectively spooked the Opposition out of this kind of campaign, and consequently avoided the possibility of voters expressing disapproval. (I notice that Springborg has waited until after the election to challenge Premier Beattie on Freedom of Information laws!)

In any case, the coalition never thought they could win (“too many seats”, “too large an average swing needed” were the excuses), so their challenge was akin to being attacked by a wet lettuce leaf.

So that's Warwick's take. We might have to have an argument online about protest votes, or that there are no "unwinnable elections"!

Posted by Graham at 04:28 PM | Comments (6)
Graham Young
John Black
Mark Bahnisch
Michael Lee