Journalistically speaking, attack is always more interesting than defence. Just ask the Belgians or the French. They should know by now.
Perhaps that’s why so much attention in this and every other election is focused on the swing vote. We love the drama of the battle to persuade the unpersuaded. Why else would every hack worth his or her salt suddenly flock to those strategically vital closely-fought marginal constituencies in the East Midlands? It’s certainly not for the nightlife.
However, in electoral politics as in marketing, the banal truth is that motivating the committed outperforms persuading the uncommitted nearly every time. I remember the first time I read the work of the great Professor Andrew Ehrenberg. Advertising, he argues, is a ‘weak force’ that operates mainly by ‘nudging’ the converted to keep buying your product more often that they buy the opposition’s. It’s a dispiriting argument, but a strong one.
If this point of view has an arch-exponent in the realm of politics, it has to be Bush the younger’s resident psephologist and guru Karl Rove. Bush’s victory in the 2004 presidential election was a mystery to many Brits. Arcane issues such as same-sex marriage and genetic experimentation assumed a greater importance than the chaos in post-invasion Iraq and the collapse of American moral hegemony.
The reason was simple. These were the issues that motivated the committed alliance of right-wing interests Rove referred to as ‘the base’. Rove had built a finely-oiled machine for turning the attitudinal predisposition of the committed into action. The centrepiece of this was his ‘72 Hour Program’, a grass-roots grapevine which went into overdrive during the last three days of a campaign, compelling the committed to vote early and (in Florida at least) vote often.
Motivating the committed may be less glamorous than persuading the uncommitted. But in most western democracies it’s becoming increasingly important. In 1960, nearly 80% of eligible UK citizens turned out to vote. In the general election of 2005, the equivalent figure was barely over 60%, despite the positive effect of the Iraq war in politicising a rising generation of voters. In many elections, the real winner is the Apathy Party.
Or is it? Perhaps we’re still as interested in the issues as ever. It’s just that the prim primary school classroom where we make our cross with a government-issue crayon is so dissonance-inducingly distant from the brightly-lit electronic forum in which the debate occurs. That was certainly the argument of Robert D. Putnam in his influential book ‘Bowling Alone’, which reached the UK in 2000.
Putnam reasoned that America (and by association its 51st state) has become a nation of loners increasingly disengaged from the kind of grass-roots community pursuits that have traditionally sustained political activism. We now engage with politics through mass media, not through town meetings. Yet the mechanisms of party and electoral politics are still rooted in the community-based culture of the hustings and the parish pump. This disconnect, the reasoning went, is at the heart of the phenomenon of declining electoral participation amongst the attitudinally committed.
Certain influential people with addresses in SW1 took the Putnam thesis to heart. With the result that activating the committed supporter base through direct marketing became part of the new general election playbook for all parties.
As someone who worked for one of the agencies involved at the time, I’m happy to admit that the tactics aren’t exactly rocket science. There’s the creation of false jeopardy to combat inertia. (No real need this time round, as there’s more than enough of the real kind of jeopardy around to keep everyone happy.) And then there’s the use of crude segmentation to motivate different portions of the base by pointing the most appealing party spokesperson in their direction. A technique which I seem to recall involved a data tool known as the ‘Bambi / Thumper Switch’.
All this seems almost whimsically primitive now, of course. The electronic world which today’s voters inhabit is itself a warren of vibrant and interlinked communities, defined not by geography but by interest and affiliation. It all makes Putnam’s rigidly un-virtual definition of community look decidedly pre-Obama.
Truth to tell, I’m a little sceptical about the power of social media to win round the wavering and the unconverted. I tend towards media man Ivan Clark’s analysis (in a recent Media Week blog post) which questions whether the bonds of Facebook friendship are really strong enough to convince you of a party’s line on immigration or public sector spending. I just don’t think political marketers in the UK have yet cracked the content code that is the key to broader social media success. WebCameron is a mildly good pun, and Eric Pickles is quite a funny man, but neither of these phenomena has yet made it onto my YouTube favourites list.
However, when it comes to motivating the committed, social media may be the best thing since Tammany Hall. And if my hunch is correct, motivating the committed is how this election will be won. We’ll just have to wait and see.
This article originally appeared in Marketing Week.
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