Hearts and minds and votes

For my masters research I’m interviewing a range of campaign directors and party officials to try and describe the decision making process behind the creation of election materials.

One of the themes that keeps coming up, and it’s an idea that’s been around for a long time, is the “vomit principle”, where you have to say something so many times you want to vomit before people in the wider community will have begun to hear you. It’s a pretty straightforward and reasonable idea.

But when it comes to anything that isn’t a slogan, you get hacks and insiders - both well informed and not - completely disregarding this principle and substituting it with pontifications about how “punters” and swinging voters won’t notice or won’t care. It’s as if the principle of repetition applies only to slogans and key lines, and that each election cycle the settings on punters’ attention spans gets re-set, ready to input new three-word phrases.

No one event, no matter how huge, is large enough to change a person’s vote all on its own. When a person changes her mind about which party to support, it’s because a series of things happened to get her to that point. So why the need to make the knee-jerk point that “this won’t change minds and votes” when Gillard makes a speech that resonates with many, many people? We know that.

So, OK, this one thing won’t change anything. Except, what will it take, what kind of thing is big enough to change votes and swing and election? Nothing, you say? So yeah, nice analysis: this event, like all other events, will have little measurable impact.

***

Did you know that in every electorate in Australia there are people who vote for parties other than the one that wins the seat? Even in very safe Labor seats there are Liberal voters, and others who change their vote every election. For real. In addition to this, there are many people who have friends and families and workplaces which are not in the seat that they live in. They have networks that extend across seats and many people in these networks also vote for different parties. People who always vote for one party have friends and family and colleagues who vote for other parties or who are swinging voters.

Have I just blown your mind? If you did already know this, however, then well done, you officially know something that many of our opinion columnists and political analysts do not know. I mean, they must not know it, because they seem to think that swinging voters live in their own little bubbles where they are not influenced by anyone who is informed or passionate about politics.

I am a member of the Labor Party, but in my own family I have no idea how the rest of them vote, although I’m fairly certain it isn’t for the same party each time. But because they are not permanently attached to a copy of The West and the evening news, they sometimes speak to me, and people like me, people who are not part of the swinging voter class. People networks are messy, and the idea that an issue only matters if it’s aimed at unengaged voters completely ignores the fact that engaged voters also have mouths and now some of them have iPads and they can all talk to each other.

***

Tony Abbott has a political strategy that involves confusing issues a lot. He poses in many workplaces with smiling people whose workplace rights he would like to take away. He cries about pensioners paying more for electricity but he would also prefer they didn’t even have pensions, or at least not quite so much of it. He talks about how much he loves women but he also wants to force them to have pregnancies and child births that they don’t want to have, which isn’t very “loving”.

In short he’s a hypocrite and a liar and this week the Prime Minister actually got up and spelled that out with facts to back up her case. She not only brought righteous, passionate feminism into the political debate, she also made a really large chip in the image Abbott has somehow, inexplicably, built for himself. Regardless of the actual substance of her speech, this could mark the beginning of a very successful attack on Abbott’s overall campaign strategy. If you want to talk tactics and all the hack stuff about election winning, this is a pretty important thing.

***

Politics isn’t just about polls and elections though, even though that’s the stuff insiders like to talk about. But for most people, they enter politics with some ideas about how the world should be, and they want to make a difference. Many of those who get power find themselves stuck in the cycle of trying to keep it and get more, and that’s sad and depressing, even if understandable. It makes it hard for those of us who are outside of that because we can focus on the issues without needing the power. Our job is to support and persuade and sometimes to yell at the people with the power.

So when they occasionally, for reasons of expediency, or genuine belief, or just because they just got so tired that their underlying feminism just pours out of them, this is worth celebrating just by itself, for itself. We are all so used to expecting cynicism and lies that we read between the lines at the expense of the actual lines themselves. Sometimes a feminist speech is just a feminist speech, and the words are what matters.

***

So to sum up: no, one event won’t change anything, but all the events in total matter, so we should focus on increasing the ratio of good stuff to bad stuff. Elections may be won on the swinging vote, but that isn’t the point of politics, it’s just the reality of what it takes to get you there. The rest of us still matter, and the issues we care about still matter. And also, we know the swinging voters, so give us better stuff to talk to them about.


(Tony Abbott looking at boxes via)

Notes

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