Life in the modern political supermarket

Second of five

Don Brash wore a red tie in the leaders debate on TV3 on August 11. Red conveys strength and warmth, marketers say. Blue just won’t do.

Such is campaigning in the twenty-first century. Contrast Sir Keith Holyoake’s 1969 campaign opening in a dingy hall in Christchurch — shouting to be heard over anti-Vietnam protesters’ barracking barrage, forgetting that his real audience was not in the hall but on the end of a radio, hearing the protesters as muted background.

Holyoake did his apprenticeship in the 1930s when hall meetings and street corners were the main campaigning media and local newspapers carried the message to those who didn’t or couldn’t turn up in person. Even 30 years ago the leaders made progresses through the country, village by town by city, up to six meetings a day and the big one each night.

Now leaders do “events” to illustrate the spin of the day, aimed for the 6pm television news. Long expositions of their parties’ policies have been largely replaced by subliminal messages, dog-whistles, keywords, sound bytes, stagey photos, gimmicks and slick, nasty or syrupy advertising — with automated phone calls and text messages to come, if Australia is a guide. Informative news features, as the Herald is honourably, copiously and impressively providing, are a minority activity.

Leaders’ targets have changed, too. Holyoake and Norman Kirk, his 1969 opponent, were scrapping over maybe 10 per cent of “swinging” voters, who in any case had very limited choices: Labour, National or protest. The rest had fixed their votes far in advance of the campaign. Up to threequarters voted National or Labour election after election.

There are still swingers between Labour and National. But the social locks on voting habits have been sprung. Voters graze. They do not such much “swing” as “swivel” in response to multidirectional choices, tactical considerations and the option of splitting their two votes, as 39 per cent did in 2002.

The election is no longer a corner store. It is a supermarket.

Now the campaign can really count. In the last three elections the absolute maximum percentage of voters who might have been loyal to National in the three elections from 1996 to 2002 was 21 per cent (National’s score in 2002) and in Labour’s 28 per cent (Labour’s score in 1996). The actual big-party loyalty is far below that — probably in the 30-40 per cent range total for both old parties combined and maybe lower. Auckland University Professor Jack Vowles’ researchers found 48 per cent of all voters changed their vote between 1999 and 2002.

And voters are making their switch later. In 2002 Labour dropped 11 per cent between mid-June polls and the July 27 election, National dropped 6 per cent and New Zealand First and United Future rose 7 and 6 per cent respectively. Some 61 per cent told Vowles’ researchers they made up their mind during the campaign.

This may be too bald a statement. At least some of that 61 per cent are likely to have been at least subsconsciously leaning well before the campaign towards the party they eventually chose. For such voters the campaign — or just the approach of decision-day — may have brought to the forefront of their minds a decision they had in reality made earlier deep down.

And some of those late deciders would have been National-leaning voters making a tactical choice of leg-rope to constrain what they concluded would be an inevitable Labour-led government — that is, to vote for United Future or New Zealand First, whose votes soared.

That tactical factor will be absent this time — though if the Greens are not clear of 5 per cent Labour voters might vote Green to ensure their preferred large party has a coalition partner, as National voters used to do for ACT.

Nevertheless, the percentage of swivelling voters will still almost certainly be greater than the swinging voters of Holyoake’s day and the factors that swivel them will be more complex than those that swung the Holyoake-Kirk switchers.

That complexity has made identifying the voters to target in the campaign more difficult. (For small parties, though, with relatively defined constituencies, this is a much smaller consideration.)

In Holyoake’s day swarms of National and Labour canvassers knocked on doors to gauge the electorate’s mood, identify supporters and swingers and spread the message. Politicians’ antennae and intuition — and even principle — were also important.

The big parties still canvass and they are more active this time because Don Brash has sparked National and given Labour a fright. But they do it more by phone these days, in part because they have far fewer footsoldiers than 30 years ago. It is a new party, the Maori party, with its small armies of enthusiasts, that may get the most from footslogging.

Occasionally politicians also still trust their antennae and instinct, as Helen Clark did in the anti-nuclear and student loans fightback last month.

But they rely much more now on technocrats: quantitative opinion polls, which both big parties will do daily during the campaign to get instant feedback and enable instant reaction (for example, switching advertising tack); and focus groups, guided discussions with small hand-picked groups to find hot buttons to push and “third rails” (danger spots) to avoid and to test what is working once battle is joined.

This information hones their billboards, advertising, television and radio broadcasts, slogans, keywords for speeches, choice of media events, where the leaders go and even their clothes and hairdos: remember Clark’s amazing makeover in 1996, see her new pic on the TV ads and don’t forget Brash’s red tie.

ACT and National have also used Australian political consultants to hone their marketing. That is lightyears from the Holyoake homespun.

Now the political marketers aim to micro-manage the “news” in the campaign to their advantage. The problem with that has been that it has turned journalists into cynics. Fed up with stage-managed events, the news media set out in the 1990s to define the campaign agenda themselves, often drawing on their own polling or public feedback.

That in turn got the politicos looking for ways round the established news media: first, direct mail, introduced by Labour in earnest in the 1980s, then email and now blogs, a field in which the Greens are out in front.

No one knows yet how much younger voters form their political views from and in the blogosphere. Cyberspace campaigning is in its infancy. It might well turn a trick on election day but nobody knows.

But all the marketing voodoo cannot avert shocks and surprises. In 2002 neither the Greens nor Labour had prepared for Nicky Hager’s Corngate allegations mid-campaign and both lost support in the ensuing catfight between the two supposed friends.

Surprises and shocks are campaign hazards. Kirk in 1969 was convinced he lost because of a seamen’s strike in the last week of the campaign. What might come from left field this campaign — a scandal, a Treaty of Waitangi excitement, a scrap between two of a party’s MPs which points up divisions or between two supposed allies? Earthbound journalists cannot divine the ineffable.

Place your bets. Of all recent campaigns, this promises the most imponderables. Can you beat the odds?

Next week: parties as “brands” to be marketed.