Managing the election

Colin James on the election for Management September 2008

The first rule about elections is that they must be managed. They cannot be left to voters.

Even the date must be managed. Prime Ministers cling to the vestige of monarchical power which they have misappropriated, the power to determine when your election is held.

Elections could be on a regular fixed date, as in the United States, Germany — and New South Wales and Victoria. When New Zealand emerges from its long royal tutelage, there will be fixed dates here, too.

In any case the managing starts long before the date is set. The state machinery redraws the electorate boundaries, purges and updates the rolls, apportions the taxpayer contribution to television advertising, appoints returning officers and fixes polling places.

And the party machines set out to manage public opinion. That is now near- continuous but the pace and intensity pick up in election year.

Managing public opinion is a serious and sophisticated business. It is also a serendipitous and sophistic business. That’s because the customers are like no others and the product is like no other.

Pollsters and political scientists spend a lot of time and effort trying to distil out what voter-customers want to buy with their taxes — or think they should get for “free”.

Political parties mine voter-customers’ minds, too: the extent and depth depends on the parties’ size and funds. Getting elected is not cheap. Democracy may have a lot to do with free speech but it doesn’t come free.

That makes parties’ management task more complex. A party isn’t a regular business, with a defined product and only shareholders, bankers and customers (and, if they feel like it, workers) to satisfy, the first and second with profits made from the third. A party must satisfy multiple stakeholders.

A party’s “shareholders” are its subscription-paying members, some of whom are workers, canvassing by phone and on the ground and getting the vote out on election day. They expect something in return, varying from satisfaction at having their crowd in power to specific policy wishes. Party bosses upset the members at their peril.

National found that out in Sir Robert Muldoon’s later years and again when reforming Ruth Richardson was rampant. The membership melted. Labour found it out in the divisive Roger Douglas years. The Alliance split over Jim Anderton’s leadership. Many Greens deserted when it was a member-party of the Alliance.

A party’s “bankers” are its big funders – big business, big lobbies, big unions and deep-pockets individuals. It also has “depositors”, the buyers of raffle tickets and small donors. And it has casual tribal affiliates, people who identify with the party, even if not motivated to give money or time.

The party leadership upsets any of these groups at its peril. Once party loyalties lasted a lifetime. Since the 1980s loyalty is a much thinner thread. Droves of National sympathisers voted Labour in 1987. The money followed them.

Even MPs drift around parties. Stephen Franks, National’s Wellington Central candidate, migrated from the far left fringe in his youth through membership of the Labour party to the economic right as an ACT MP and now to National as a would-be MP.

The decline of loyalty reflected the greater complexity of society as the old “social cleavage” between workers and bosses blurred from the 1960s on as the economy diversified and became less factory-oriented, as tertiary education spread and as baby boomers’ worshipped individualism.

So big parties’ leaders have focused more on what they divine to be the “values” of the majority than on ideology bred from sectional interest. Ideology was fixed. Values are adjustable. National has demonstrated that this year in accepting a wide range of government policies it initially opposed.

While cabinet ministers will usually assert they are guided by principles, they apply them flexibly and sometimes not at all. Government nowadays is more managerial, less concerned with what is in accord with a party’s tradition than with what works.

What works comes in two forms: what achieves a policy outcome; and what locks in votes by meeting voter-customers’ wants. A challenge for modern government is the expectation government services and politics will be customised, just as they expects goods and services they buy in the private sector to be customised.

When these customer-voters don’t get what they want from one lot of managers they go elsewhere.

The trick for party leaders when in government is to generate the equivalent of loyalty cards, complete with rewards.

So, for example, Labour will in the coming campaign detail a long list of services, handouts and concessions to constituencies ranging from arts organisations to wage workers to pensioners to “identity groups” such as gays.

Small parties can also get in on this loyalty rewards act: Winston Peters is adept at claiming concessions for his “seniors” constituency. United Future claims tax improvements and its Families Commission. The Greens will talk up energy efficiency, waste control, flexible working hours, public transport, clean slate rules, tight rules on genetic modification — not so much rewards in money terms as moral wins its core supporters feel good about.

The feel-good dimension is not confined to the fringes. A government and its big-party challenger must market a national interest ingredient if it wants long-term loyalty.

A party must also market trust. The destruction of trust by Muldoon (the “socialist” National leader) and Douglas (the “new right” Labour reformer) severed loyalties. It took Helen Clark’s centrist management to rebuild Labour trust. National has regained its trust only under John Key.

Trust in politics is delivering the goods. When in Australia’s 2004 election campaign an electorally powerful allegation John Howard had made in the 2001 campaign was proved to have been fabricated, he nevertheless won an increased majority. The question voter-customers asked themselves was not whether he lied but whether he was managing the show OK.

So parties, like businesses, invest in brand.

Small parties usually have clear, self-defined brands. Their challenge is to get the brand noticed by their target markets — they sell at the boutique end of politics — and to fend off influences that corrupt the brand.

Peter Dunne was originally Mr Commonsense-in-the-middle, a brand ignored until the 2002 election when middlng voters looking for a way to leg-rope Labour as National’s vote disintegrated suddenly noticed it. But the evangelicals Dunne brought in with him redefined his United Future party after the election as Christian in many people’s eyes — not at all middling. ACT the party of libertarian economics in 1996 was by 1999 conflated with MP Rodney Hide’s self-promotion as “perk buster”. Both have struggled to recover recognition for, and then buyers of, their original brands. They are in the margins of politics.

New Zealand First’s brand is in its title: suspicion of too much foreign influence and too many foreign immigrants. For a time it pitched to moderate National-sympathisers who disliked right-wing economics and to Maori annoyed with Labour but both have moved on. Now it is barely distinguishable from Peters’ own brand, a fact recognised in the party establishing a website devoted to him. When Peters goes, the party will go.

In the campaign New Zealand First will promise to work to extend this term’s gains: it has a list of five specifics aimed principally at older folk who are its mainstay. Campaign manager Damian Edwards is determined Peters will not peak too early, as he did in 2005.

The Greens have a well-established brand as defenders of the environment. Their challenge has been to remain distinct and relevant as the big old parties have muscled in yet also to avoid being parked out on the fringe — voters loyal to the environment brand are probably no more than 3%.

The Greens’ campaign manager, Gary Reese, see an opportunity this election to broaden the brand into areas inhabited by the non-government and not-for-profit advocacy organisations which push issues such as peace, human rights, animal rights and safe food — for each of which there is a Green MP champion. The campaign will be less heavily policy-focused and promote the MP personalities and the emotive dimensions of these issues.

The Maori party’s brand is Maori rights, self-determination and needs. Its challenge is to broaden that brand so that it can eventually get 5% of the party vote when the Maori electorates go.

Claire Robinson, a political marketing academic at Massey University, reckons the Greens and the Maori party have a valuable added factor: its MPs’ live their brands. “Green” or “Maori” is a way of life, not just a set of policies, Robinson says.

The big parties are the supermarket end of the political marketplace. Their brands must reach a wide range of voter-consumers. They must not become too closely identified in the public’s mind with a narrow voter segment. National made that mistake by making steely economic reformer Don Brash its leader in 2005. Labour may have done with its pro-gay social reform programme.

But the big parties must also make themselves distinct from each other. PAK’nSAVE and New World pitch to different consumer needs while offering the gamut of groceries. Labour and National need to be anchored in different parts of the electoral market while offering the full range of government competencies.

In part this involves reframing the opponent’s brand.

That was a large part of National’s approach in 2005, with its wickedly witty diptych billboards and its television cartoons, portraying Labour as factional, high-taxing, soft on crime and so on. Labour responded by highlighting the dislocation between Brash and National’s traditional conservative brand and scarifying left-liberals about the anti-nuclear policy and the least well off about government service cuts.

We can expect National to go heavy this campaign on the government’s alleged failings in health, education, law and order and the economy. Labour will highlight an alleged “secret agenda” of asset sales, benefit and other spending cuts and debt-funded tax cuts and John Key’s inexperience.

But what is Labour’s brand? Through its first two terms after 1999 it was the party of moderacy and social services, pushing “fairness and prosperity”. In its third term it has tried to become the “sustainability” party. That is unappealing when household budgets are under stress — it sounds like sacrifice, not a brave new world. Labour is probably better known for civil unions, anti-smacking and bossiness.

President Mike Williams, who is also campaign manager — and the man who introduced electoral-roll-based targeted direct marketing to New Zealand electioneering in the 1980s — says Labour will present itself as a proven manager and one from which “what you see is what you get”.

Though National campaign manager Steven Joyce is coy about details, the brand National wants is “the government of the future”, with “fresh” Key injecting energy, notably in infrastructure, telecommunications, science and education, while not disturbing much that Labour has put in place.

If elected, National and Key would need over time to refashion this brand into “competent manager” to earn subsequent terms.

The election campaign will tell us little about how it would do that. As Lockwood Smith said, sotto voce, at the National party conference last month, the party is “swallowing dead fish” pre-election. Eating the pudding for proof of its management competency is for after the election.

But first, the election must be managed. That means navigating the shoals of the Electoral Finance Act (EFA).

That has involved a running battle between National, bent on discrediting last year’s handiwork of Labour, New Zealand and the Greens, and the government, trying to twist off its own hook and dump responsibility on to the Electoral Commission, the courts and the police. v This even ran to National unsuccessfully trying through the courts to have the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union declared an integral part of the Labour pary and therefore unable to register as a “third party” and spend far more.

The EPMU is an integral element in Labour’s campaigning and political marketing. In some elections it has turned over its large cadre of paid organisers to helping the Labour machine. Many of its members volunteer. It is running a vigorous campaign on workers’ rights that by implication steers wage workers away from National.

Other unions also actively assist Labour: the Dairy Workers Union, for example, reaches into places where Labour has traditionally been weak. As a result, Labour is unlikely to be short of footsoldiers this election. Footsoldiers both increase contact with voters and save money — 50c a letter if hand-delivered to 20,000 households comes to $10,000.

That takes on an added importance, Williams says, with the tighter restrictions donation and spending limitations under the EFA. And footsoldiers get people out to vote who otherwise might not — in 2005, he says, Labour got more of these voters out and got the votes of three out of four of them. Repeating that this election could be critical.

Labour is even using Australian unions to spread the message among the tens of thousands of Kiwis who are members. That potentially is a useful hidden vote. The Greens are also active in Australia, drawing on connections with the Green party there.

Footsoldiering is the hard sell of political marketing. Campaign managers, especially of the big parties, draw on all the ancient and modern marketing techniques: newspaper print advertising (a particular focus for New Zealand First, with its older constituency); telephone canvassing; focus groups and quantitative pollling to identify risks and opportunities and to test key words and ideas; push polling to implant negatives about the opposition; robot-telephone messages; text messages; advertising in all its forms from billboards to Google; direct marketing of tailored letters and emails; viral emails; Facebook, YouTube and other social networks; interactive websites; even a liberal-left group in Wellington called Drinking Liberally.

Oh, and meetings: mall walks, flea markets and growers markets, business and factory visits, small neighbourhood groups, lunches, dinners, conferences — even hall meetings and especially the big campaign launch meetings which precede the canned television openings. All that is straight from campaigns of 50 years ago.

But not handed down with that tradition are spontaneity and contest: hecklers, once welcomed, are screened out. There is an exception: the Aro Valley Community Hall meet-the-candidates show in Wellington Central is raucous, rumbustious and rowdy. You have to be early even to get a listening post through a window. For the rest the marketers, minders and word-massagers rule.

Or try to rule. Sick of being manoeuvred and manipulated to report parties’ manicured pap, the news media began in the 1990s to make their own agenda, to try to force parties to respond to readers’, viewers’ and listeners’ preoccupations.

The result has been combat: parties trying the manage the message — particularly the message embodied in the leader, who, like Moses, brings down tablets of stone — the media trying to make the leaders answer questions about issues of the day and the parties trying to use other communnication channels to go round the news media and get an unmediated pitch direct to voters.

So we get a stiff Michael Cullen and a buttoned-down Key on YouTube. Are they out of place? Yes, in the official versions. But YouTubers and other cybernerds have their own way of welcoming them. In blogs and videos, there is a cacophony of satire and denigration — even the odd serious observation. These are the unmediated messages of the new politics.

Welcome to politics in the cyberworld. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in this world, using interactive website techniques to raise lots of money in small amounts and to stimulate sympathisers to become active supporters and organisers of small events and networks.

How well this translates to campaigning here will need to await the 2011 election. Nearly all the parties have got varying presences on Facebook and YouTube and have some interactive dimension in their remodelled websites — for all its oldfashionedness, New Zealand First’s website invites blog-type comments. But the main parties’ campaign managers are wary of the potency of this activity, with good reason: much of what goes on in the blogosphere is trivial, trite and unsuited to the tough stuff of politics. “We’ll move in that direction but we have to work out what works,” Joyce says.

Greens may be the exception: their brand has a particular appeal to idealistic young people, so Reese has a digital strategy group and a team of volunteers. The Green website is by far the most welcoming and user-friendly, offering quick channels to various ways of supporting the party or just exploring. While Labour has some bright young cyberthings, it lagged even National in website development this year.

We can expect more effort over time even from the big old parties. The underlying message is that campaigning is in transition, a transition potentially as profound as the one in the 1960s from the whistle stop hall meetings and the next day’s newspaper headlines to television beamed into living rooms and a focus on the 6 o’clock news to get across the message of the day. The 6 o’clock news is still the prime focus, Joyce and Williams say, but campaign managers now have to spread the message in more diverse ways. Newspapers have regained some of their past centrality, with instantly updated websites. The speed of the news cycle has got much faster, forcing nimbler campaigning.

Transition poses headaches and opportunities for managers, of elections as of business. Campaign bosses do not have it easy in the 2008 election.