Political Business

Lessons on political strategy

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Disasters don’t help politicians

There’s a popular myth that disasters help politician’s reputations because they give them a chance to be seen, to be active, and to be associated with the (complicated) emotions of recovery.

Like most misconceptions, it makes initial sense: people like politicians who DO something - who rally and organise people, who actually help make things better, and who embody the communal attitude.

While those components may be true, the fact is that disasters are almost always negative for politicians.

This blog has previously discussed research that shows disasters are moments for political revolution. In one study of US tornadoes, support for the political incumbent fell every time. Another US study showed the electorate assessed the relative roles of politicians and punished or rewarded accordingly.

In one study of political events in the year or two following almost 100 large scale natural disasters, researchers found almost complete upending of the previous political order. It didn’t establish causal links, but the proximity of disaster to the extent of the subsequent change cannot be replicated in other circumstances. We have plenty of other studies that show the dissent and disconent that emerges from disasters.

Now a study in the June/July issue of Social Science Research, has busted the myth the Obama won his second election off the back of Hurricane Sandy.

Two days after Hurricane Sandy the researchers asked almost 700 voters about their exposure to the storm and related media coverage, as well as their voting intentions.

They found that prior to the positive news coverage for Obama (Oct 31), there was no influence of Sandy on Obama’s vote share.

There was also no influence on his vote share the day after his well-publicized embrace with New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie while touring the hard-hit Jersey Shore (Nov 1).

There was a very slight improvement for Obama three days later (Nov 2 and 3).

But by the election, this trend reversed. By then news coverage of the storm had turned to focus on loss of life, slow repairs, and power cuts.

So the researchers said:

"The data suggest that people going to the polls Nov. 6 with the hurricane on their mind would have been less inclined to vote for Obama," 

They said the effect of disasters:

"depends on a number of variables and the effect may change over even shorter stretches of time.

They took the opportunity to chastise the shallowness of pundits:

Yet pundits tend to seize on certain ‘laws’ such as presiding over a disaster makes an incumbent look presidential. But each event like Sandy deserves to be studied as a unique occurrence to help answer questions about the impact of unpredictable, large-scale events as they unfold.”

While it is continuously surprising how pundits use shallow top-of-mind rules of thumb to make their assessments, there aren’t many political advisers who think so deeply either. They were advising their politicians to jump head-long into the disaster.

It’s counter-intuitive, but the evidence suggests that the stronger the politician’s alignment with a disaster, the worse it is for them.

I’d say that incumbent politicians are best to man the sandbags rather than position themselves at the top of the disaster response hierarchy.

Meanwhile Opposition politicians should be, from their position at sandbags down the road, working hard to push the recovery spotlight onto the incumbent.


Joshua Hart. Did Hurricane Sandy influence the 2012 US presidential election? Social Science Research, 2014; 46: 1 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2014.02.005



Filed under disaster disaster response hurricane sandy political disaster natural disaster obama

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Selfies illegal in UK poll booths

UK authorities are warning they will prosecute anyone taking a photo of themselves in polling booths in this weekends EU elections.

Most election day rules treat people as stupid automatons whose minds would be influenced by seeing a politically motivated poster, rosette or eating a cake.

Electoral reform campaigners argue that selfies in booths might encourage people to vote. They could help make voting fun and encourage others to vote.

But the one election day rule which is absolutely essential is the secret ballot.

If the people are so shallow that elections need to be egotistical entertainment, we might as well turn elections over to Simon Cowell and be done with it.

The motive for secret polls is primarily to stop your vote being successfully influenced by others. It allows you to vote as you intend without fear of reprisal. 

The point of fines for breaking secrecy laws is to overcome the value of incentives that might be offered to prove you voted as requested by someone else.

The secrecy is not really about the right of each voter though - because we could (and do) choose to tell people who we voted for. The secrecy is effectively for the country, and for the maintaining the value of everyone else’s vote.

It’s also essential because when votes are paid for, the purchaser wants proof that the vote was bought. A booth photo is the perfect proof.

Westerners safe in the comfort of a slightly longer history of secret ballots than elsewhere may sniff at the idea of inducement and corruption at the ballot box. But the result of corrupt elections is so dangerous that we cannot let this critical element be watered down by a passing fad.

I have no trouble with photos being taken anywhere - inside the electoral hall, outside - whatever. but not in the voting booth. The booth is the one place sacrosanct to democracy; the place where despite the pleadings of politicians, the frippery, snobbery, and self-aggrandisement and self-justification, each voter gets to call it for what it all is; to keep the show going, or to start again.

Filed under elections polling booths polling booth voting voting day secret ballot privacy simon cowell

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Facial features help female politicians

A US study claims to show that female politicians do better if their face is more obvious ‘feminine’.

The Dartmouth College-led study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science asked participants to categorise the faces of U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections between 1998 and 2010 as male or female.

Software detects tiny movements in a computer mouse to indicate levels of confusion a person has in processing biological and social gendered cues in faces — such as shape of eyes, cheekbones, jawlines and brows, length of hair, and makeup.

The slower the reaction in categorising the gender of a female politician’s face, the less likely she was to have won her election.

Asked to judge whether they would vote for the politicians, armed with no other information than the face, participants were less likely to vote for the women who created the greatest difficulty in categorising their gender.

…Female politicians with more feminine features tend to win elections, while those with more masculine features tend to lose. The mouse-tracking technique further revealed that whether a female politician was going to win or lose an election could be predicted within just 380 milliseconds after participants were exposed to her face.

The researchers use the study to argue that there is:

a discrepancy between traits used to evaluate male and female politicians.

The key finding is that this bias is one indicator of political success - meaning preference for more “feminine” facial traits is probably a small component of people’s judgements.

Let’s look first at why the finding is relatively insignificant, then look at what we can learn from it as political strategists.

  1. It’s a natural thing. This bias is deeply rooted - alongside many other forms of bias. The logical, rational, reasoned, voter does not exist. You might wish it different, but it isn’t and won’t be.
  2. People do not judge each other in a vacuum. In the real world voters use many cues to make their decisions.
  3. Feminine does not equal attractiveness, and attractive candidates have a greater advantage. It does not equal trustworthiness, and trustworthy candidates have a greater advantage.
  4. You can tell a lot from faces. People make judgements from faces because experience (and DNA) tells them they can. It’s effectively an unsophisticated and subconscious form of cold reading. Psychologists are finding that people can spot criminals and good parents based only on the face, are finding that attractive people are more likely to adhere to conservative values (because they think its the way to be seen as attractive).

None-the-less, the study shows that a preference for ‘femininity’ does play a part in voting preferences.

Unless philosophically opposed to using any and all cues to connect with people (which would make for a strange politician) female politicians  should take at least two steps to signal their femininity.

  1. Use official photography that accentuates feminine aspects of their face (softer lighting cuts down facial angles)
  2. Adorn their face with gender-cues such as clearly ‘dressed’ hair and at least one form of make-up.

Perhaps you could simply see it as taking a few steps to look your best.

Filed under female looks appearances attractiveness physical attractiveness femininity study

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Why people hate politicians and what they can do about it

Politics brings out the traits we most dislike about ourselves.

A recent UK poll revealng the extent to which politicians are reviled has sparked some holiday navel gazing.

An Independent article claimed that people dislike politiians because they are always acutely partisan.

An essay in the Dec 2013 political quarterly argued that the way politicians behave turns people off. The irony is that what seems clever and necessary to them, like point scoring, fence sitting, selective use of facts, and photo opps, is precisely the activity that loses them voter support.

This amounts to a somewht naive call for niceness, or in the words of one pundit, “political civility”.

The issue should be of more concern for politicians because they ought to want to be in a noble and respected career. And because somehere in the solution are lessons for how to win at politics.

The discussion has again flushed out concern for the professionalisation of politics. Those who take up the career find it being conducted in a cynical fashion, but don’t have enough experience or other skills to play the game differently.

This is true, but the source of the awkwardness lies in the humanity of  politicians.

The political sphere is a kind of acid wash, flushing away the softer parts of our natures, leaving behind only the most stubborn of human traits.

We are all self-justifiying, self-righteous, and prone to criticism of others. We all tend to agree with information that fits our beleifs, and hang with people who agree with us. But in normal life these are balanced by family, friends and colleagues - just enough so we appear reasonable to others.

In politics there is little balance. For your ego to survive it must build itself up and cut others down. That can create a personna that is unreasonable and unattractive.

There’s a growing school of pyschological thought that over half of what we are is defined by other people. The actions of politicians are reinforced by the company they keep; even their foes, staff, pundits and media.

I felt recent leaders of the NZ Labour Party were doomed not to survive because their reference points and advice came from people trapped within the same inauthentic and separated political world.

Politics accentuates the less attractive features of the human psyche. Yet, there are few other careers in which your success depends so much on being liked, or on being persuasive.

The secret to civility in politics is balance; to gain perspective on oneself, one’s job, one’s ideology, and what society and a nation needs, and doesn’t need. The solution is to break from the destructive political environment. The solution is simply to get out more often.

Filed under political dissonance political traits why people hate politicians labour

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Is there a Ghandi in modern politics?

Politicians do not have the luxury of explaining away the inconsistencies between what they preach and what they do.

We manage to live with ourselves because our ego is great at pretending to ourselves that we are consistent, capable, and rational.  An effect called cognitive dissonance subconsciously invents creative reasons why we do or think things that are different from our conscious picture of ourselves.

Now imagine that your job is to espouse ideas. You are a politician These ideas will be closely linked to how you think the world should be. They will in turn be closely linked to how you think you act to make such a world possible.

Your ideas are recorded or observed by many other people. You make speeches. Appear on television. Talk to many people.

Your ideas appear to be listened to, or at least talked about. The more interesting your ideas, the more you are talked about. So you become more specific. You begin criticising people for having different ideas.

You begin to espouse these ideas more widely and more forcibly. It’s your duty to tell other people about these ideas. You need the resources to get the ideas out.

Before long the idealism for your nation and about yourself becomes a crusade.

But you never stopped being human. It is likely that there is something you do, or have become while on your crusade, which does not match the person you think you are, or the type of world you argue for.

Hence, Len Brown was able to have an affair and use a lot of his work time to indulge it, despite claims to dedicate his life to Auckland and to family.

Hence, Al Gore travels the world, using carbon-belching vehicles, and owns three large houses, while telling everyone else to lower their carbon footprint.

Hence, Ed Miliband used limos and expensive hotels to travel the UK arguing against the wealthy and misuse of taxpayer money.

Ghandi ostensibly lived the life he espoused or move out of the life that his electorate lived. He may or may not have done - I don’t know. But our admiration for his persona  demonstrates how unique it is for any of us not to be altered by politics.

The lesson for politicians is not to believe your ideas so much that your duty to pursue them outweighs your duty to live by them.

Filed under hypocrisy hypocrite Political Motives miliband ghandi gore len brown

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Voters gonna hate

Rush for the middle to blame for voter rush for the door.

A Guardian / ICM survey this week showed that voters in the UK are increasing disengaged from politics. It found 25% of them were bored by politics, and half say politicians make them angry.

It’s ineffably weird to see politicians fret over public disengagement.

They create half-baked pop-psych theories to explain it. They blame it on people themselves. They propose programmes to make people change.

Politicians never conclude that they, or their service, is not worth hiring.

They never conclude that they have chosen a little appreciated - okay, a much despised - career.

They never conclude that low votes and disengagement means they are currently irrelevant.

It’s not up to the public to like politicians enough to vote for them. It’s up to democratic politicians to be liked, and to put up with vilification that has always come with the job.

Lower engagement is a sign of good times. People have confidence in the ability of themselves, and of the commons, to make life worthwhile. The political struggles of the past have created a social order and an economy which makes political organisation unnecessary. Technology has created physical well being which gives each of us a sense of individual empowerment.

Politics is left with the realm of cultural order and values rather than actual physical and economic improvement. Only those who care about how others live their lives are passionate about this sort of politics.

A Guardian column speculated that the homogenization of political parties and dearth of issues has driven passion out of mainstream politics.

I agree: many professional era politicians and their aides seem remarkably inept at their chosen career. As a result they opt for banal positions on unremarkable issues.

Mainstream Parties have always tried to occupy a middle-ground. It’s the best way of appealing broadly enough to gain sufficient votes to govern. But professionally manned middle ground has a cynical foundation. The middle ground isn’t held to reflect popular opinion, nor to win to put significant policies into effect. It’s held just to win.

No surprises then that many voters choose not to help politicians play this game.

Filed under voter apathy disengement professional politics

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Honesty is cultural, not political

New Zealand’s rating as the world’s least corrupt society is due to its culture, not its politics.

Our low-corruption society is a precious thing. It gives each of us certainty and  security - the factors most valued by humans.

It protects the elite from revolt. It protects the middle class from crime and elitism. It protects the working class and poor from crime, hardship, and lack of opportunity.

Honesty is a cultural thing. People are innately honest, but remain particularly so when that is expected of us, when those around us act that way, when we are conscious of close connections to others in our community, and when we believe we are being observed.

These things are true of small, prosperous, countries where you find strong levels of employment, enterprise, self-reliance, sport, participation, strong commonalities in values and experience, and small scale community activity.

Honesty is rooted in cultural values we might never fully appreciate. Research has shown, for example, that the higher the rate of tipping, the more corrupt the country.

Honesty is not a political thing. It is not something that is mandated, although it can be reinforced. It is not something that is made by laws on crime, or institutional transparency. It is not led by rhetoric from politicians. It is driven by action of ordinary individuals.

Our politicians are not corrupt - because they are generated from our culture. But politics has the power to poison culture.

Honesty can be knifed by politicians blurring the lines of probity; by saying one thing and doing another; by taking convenient options rather than hard ones; by acting as if words and vainglorious ideas are hard graft; by talking as if no one can be trusted without authority’s sanction; by creating structures that dominate or replace community organisation; by dividing society into victims and abusers; by pushing an ideological agenda at the expense of others; by fueling dispute and disparity; by bureaucratising charity; and by adopting the rhetoric of community bonds as a campaigning tool, as if they’d invented it.

We must step extremely carefully into our future, because if we weaken our culture of honesty, we lose what makes us a very special and unique place.

Filed under honesty culture ideology corruption

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Liberals aren’t as unique as they think

A new study explains why liberals have more trouble with each other.

Research has shown that liberals tend to think of themselves as more unique from their peers than they really are. Conservatives tend to think of themselves as more similar to their peers than they really are.

It’s a tantalizing explanation for the apparent difficulty in left-wing movements coalescing, while conservatives clump together disturbingly easily.

It matches with my observation of the easy “oppositionality” of left-wing people. They seem to readily find or create differences between them and their peers, as well as anyone else.

It has been noted that the New Zealand Labour Party is regularly riven with factions. In contrast, while differences of opinion exist within the National Party, they hold together.

The researchers think the findings explain the difficulty of the “Occupy” movement in finding common ground. The Tea Party, in contrast, has held together remarkably well despite a disparate and self-selected membership.

What is most fascinating is the suggestion that ideology is actually based on ego. The liberal ego is wants to be different from others. The conservative ego wants to be more like others.

So is politics, and difference, all in the mind?

Filed under ideology liberals conservatives oppositionality unique difference

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It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The strategy of politics is to own the theory and marginalise inconsistent data, then when you’ve almost won, forget the whole thing and find another problem. Mark Blackham.

Filed under quote data data politics political strategy

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Dressing up politicians

Politicians dressing up for their visits to where the real people work generally look like goofs.

Try out this great selection of politicians playing “dress-up like real people”.

I despise these exercises because;

1) the politician is quite clearly dressing up to pass through for a photo exercise. The dress up emphasises the effort they’ve made to fit in, and the fact that they’re posing for photos.

2) they look out of place. It’s not just the shiny new work clobber - it’s the fact that their office-soft features, and impractical mind, is generally ill at ease in the situation.

Politicians look much better in-the-field when they dress down their usual gear, rather than change the uniform.

I’m in favour of workplace visits that don’t include photographers. If a politician really cares about what people think, or wants to really talk to them, why do they need photographers or media present? Even if politicians are actually doing the visit just to be seen to be doing it, the act of doing it NOT as a photo opportunity has a much more powerful effect on the voters who experience it.

Political fieldwork is now play-acting at being in touch, rather than actually doing it.

It’s even worse than that. Politicians have come to need media presence as a crutch for public engagement. Cameras help create the illusion of relevance and importance. It’s helpful though, because rather than rely on engaging voters with the force of their ideas and personality, politicians  are utilising the effect of celebrity to encourage the public to engage with them. Otherwise they fear, quite rightly, that no one would bother.

Filed under media opportunities photo opportunity public meetings