Political Business

Lessons on political strategy

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The private lives of politicians

In desperation political strategists clumsily attempt to show the ‘real person’ behind their client politician.

NZ Labour Leader David Cunliffe has just tried to come across as likable. The failed leader he replaced, David Shearer, tried to humanise himself and lull voters by guitar. The failed leader before him, Phil Goff, tried it with spades and motorbikes.

The back-story tactic is not exactly wrong. What science knows about people is that we assess character and trustworthiness by past actions, and a little about the company people keep.

But it fails largely because it is used by ham-fisted strategists as a one-off tactic, not a long term strategy, and too often at the point a politician is already failing.

You can see it in my list above of successive Labour leaders: they were desperate because voters appeared not to have initially connected with them.

In response, their strategists search to quickly establish the soul of the politician that should have been established a long time ago and over a long period. Frankly, by the time you’re doing an “inside the real politician” feature story, you’ve already lost.

It doesn’t work because it’s too late, but also because it’s too obvious. We all know from our personal experience what happens when we or others try too hard to be liked - it turns people off.

In setting out to make friends we do best when we take it slowly, gradually, with keenness to connect, but without apparent effort.

More than that though - what works in trying to connect with people is being interested in them, not trying to prove yourself.  What works is asking questions and listening to them.

But at this stage in their desperation, the politician is also too busy promoting their own ideas, and the back story is more of an attempt to show the ideas originate from an authentic ‘ordinary’ person.

The personality strategy has to start when the politician starts. It can’t be introduced later.

That’s because there’s one factor that people rate more highly than history and back story, in their assessment of political character: and that’s the right now.

People judge character most strongly on what is said and done right now.  Faced with a question, threat, issue, or opportunity today, how does the politician respond? What does their response say about their attitudes, ideology, philosophy and trustworthiness?

Politicians need to establish character based on how they act today. Your hobbies, friends, family and past are interesting, but they won’t save you if today’s judgement is deemed faulty.

Filed under cunliffe phil goff david shearer political character character back story personality profile Political Symbolism David Cunliffe personality family politicians past

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The worm works

The ‘worm’ is to return to the NZ election campaign this year, giving insight to reactions as people hear from politicians.

The technique shows voter reactions to political messages as a graphical line wriggling on a positive to negative axis.

It is derided by people who think they arrived at their own prejudices after long intellectual consideration, and don’t appreciate the suggestion that people process information instantly. 

The worm is fascinating because it reveals the ‘success’ of a political message as the audience receives it. This is the point at which all of us measure a message for its relevance to us, its usefulness, and the extent to which is confirms or confounds patterns of experience, or our existing bias and outlook on life.

This is the point at which a message is measured by the brain for rejection or storage. Strong positive or negative reactions also indicate an emotional response to the message, ensuring it is retained. Mild responses indicate assent or rejection, but without much chance of retention.

Political messages ought to be measured as they are received - because that is when people decide what to do with them.

Opponents of the worm make the mistake of thinking this reaction is shallow. But humans are better scientists that most pundits credit. Chemical-electric signals race around the brain at around 358 meters per second processing incoming information against the existing database. Within this time, the brain is arriving at decisions based not just on neurological processing, but psychological processing as well. That is, not just fact-based, but emotionally-based.

The decision-making is sub-conscious, but we are conscious of the results; thus we cheer or jeer at the politician or their message. The worm effectively measures that conscious expression.

There is much more to our scientific processing of information than this instant reaction. We constantly test our hypothesis about people and life and it evolves. But the worm never claims to measure this, and ignoring it out of misguided intellectual snobbery means you miss the most important moments in voters’ decision making. 

Being aware of an experiment effects the result, so participants are likely to over-react (and mechanisms for measuring can lead to bias). So I discount the highs and lows of the worm by about 25%. But the trend is still present, observable and valuable.

Pundits can dismiss instant reaction measurements if they like, but politicians do so at their peril: because getting past voters’ first millisecond processing barrier is the key to success.

Filed under worm polling campaign elections measurement political psychology voters

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Free the elections!

I have no sympathy for the lefties and greenies now getting caught by the same electoral laws they supported to cripple free expression during elections.

I detest electoral laws that regulate expression of political opinions; including those started by Labour and finished by National that require groups to register with the electoral commission to voice an opinion during the election, and to restrict what they can spend to do it.

These laws were proposed by people whose self-identity is that they are alternative, minority, poor, grass-roots and genuine. They are actually middle-class beltway types who just have a point of view, and have money to express it. Now they’re going to Court to effectively request an exemption based on who they are and what they support.

They have been caught by a law, and an Electoral Commission, that is blind in its application. It doesn’t distinguish between viewpoints, class of support, degree of self-righteousness, or origin of money.

But even though applied fairly, the law shouldn’t exist at all in a democracy that cherishes freedom of expression.

It exists because the greens and lefties originated it, supported it and hassled their peers in the beltway to get it through. They thought it would only apply to ugly insincere vested business and right wing interests.

Politicians really loved the idea because it kills public third party support for their opponents. They prefer an even debating field restricted to official political parties without the hassle of real people voicing their unsophisticated thoughts.

I totally support the right of Greenpeace to argue for an issue and spend money to do it. But when it mattered, they did not support the right to others to do the same.

It’s time for them to voice some truly liberal opinions: support public expression of dissent and support without restrictions.  

Filed under dissent liberalism electoral commission election 2014 election electoral law electoral reform money politcal spending greenpeace

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Corruption starts at home

Our nation’s culture of low corruption and civility is an accident of history that is under threat from its institutions.

It has been revealed that some policemen mis-categorised their region’s crime statistics.

The official police response has four main takeouts;

  1. the policemen were disciplined and the most senior of them has now left the police
  2. it was done because of a misunderstanding about categorisation
  3. it doesn’t matter because the impact was small
  4. it happened some time ago, has been dealt with, so they want to go back to ‘working with the community’.

This response does not work;

  1. if it was just a misunderstanding, why discipline them, and even suggest one left the Police force because of it. Maybe they didn’t leave the police for this reason then - so why try to make it part of the story?
  2. The impact may be small, but issue is that people who uphold the law and want to tell us what to do, have acted immorally to their own advantage.
  3. It may have happened some time ago, but that’s not relevant to the fact that it happened.
  4. You might want to go back to working with the community - but that’s us, and we want you to show you can be trusted. Belittling this transgression doesn’t give us confidence.

Research shows that when people see others get away with immoral actions they are more likely to act similarly.

That means the Police must be particularly severe on members who break rules and codes of conduct (internal or civil).

It means that the Police must not be in a hurry to kill this issue. They have a much higher duty than killing an annoying PR issue. They must take the opportunity to reinforce the low corruption culture that makes this country so livable.

Filed under police civility corruption low corruption culture

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Down-home works best when it’s real

I was fascinated at the lessons from the cooked-up story about the pizza delivery man making waves as a part-time libertarian senate candidate.

Sean Haugh - the Libertarian Party’s Senate nominee in North Carolina - is sitting at about 8% support, almost all achieved from a low budget YouTube campaign.

In a style reminiscent of Ross Perot, he produces campaign video clips railing at the incoherence of mainstream politics while sipping craft beers at a home bar. 

What is attractive about his style?

  1. It’s novel: there’s no cookie-cutter perfection to his delivery. He has a very unique form of verbal expression - distinctive and alluring.
  2. It’s new: he has new ideas, and attractive ways of comparing and contrasting that appear logical.
  3. It’s ordinary: his choice of beers, locations, clothes and expressions are conscious, but not self-conscious - and they connect. He is not claiming to be ‘everyman’, but his connections with ordinary life are closer than most politicians.
  4. it’s smart: he’s a clever and witty guy - coming up with ideas that voters can attach themselves to and use to justify their own dissatisfaction with the mainstream politicians.
  5. It counters the mainstream: his colourful approach, and his assertive pillorying of the main parties is possible because of the drab safeness of his opponents.
  6. It’s not too serious: there’s just enough levity in his material to signal that he doesn’t take himself too seriously - but just seriously enough to be worth a vote.

These are qualities found in many successful political challengers and underdogs, but don’t of themselves mean success.

The key is, as always, getting a very simple message out widely enough to run alongside the name and face, in an environment where voters are, or can be, motivated to change the incumbents.

I’m doubtful, for example, that a youtube campaign can break through to the masses without a massive amount of latent discontent among voters.

Sean will be interesting to watch.

Filed under sean haugh senate campaign carolina political traits leadership underdog grassroots youtube Political Campaign

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Sledge Pledges nice but never work

It’s common for politicians to attempt the moral high-ground, but because they live in a “them versus us” world, they rarely attain it.

A pledge by NZ’s Labour Leader David Cunliffe not to “sledge” (abuse of a personal nature) opponents this election was destroyed on the day he made it by one of his MPs, Clare Curran.

Curran told a student magazine that Prime Minster John Key was her least favourite MP, one National Minister was ‘nasty’, and other National MPs were ‘foul-mouthed’ and ‘homophobic’. 

Running a positive campaign is a feasible strategy, but Cunliffe’s ‘pledge’ turned strategy into public grandstanding. I’ve said it many times; strategies should be lived, not talked about publicly. Anyway, the pledge was going to be undermined the moment an MP got heated about their opponents. 

Many politicians approach politics tribally. They identify themselves with a group, and with its ideas. Because their livelihoods and egos depend on the success of the group, they willfully forget that quite reasonable people can have completely different ideas about how to live. To believe in the superiority of their idea, they denigrate those who don’t share it.

Research suggests this ‘better than others’ belief is more likely from left-leaning politicians than conservatives. So it was more likely that a sledge pledge from a party which preaches tolerance, diversity and peace would be undermined by members being nasty about fellow human beings.

Cunliffe’s idea was nice, but he should never have mentioned it publicly, and it was never going to work anyway.

Filed under sledging denigration criticism Political Motives sledge pledge pledge cunliffe curran Political Debate

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Is voting too stressful?

A US study hints that New Zealand’s strong voter turnout in national elections is because we handle stress better.

Work by University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and Rice University, has shown that stress hormones are predictors of political participation.  Reports of the studies claim it shows tolerance of stress is a predictor of voter turn-out.

The study concluded that cortisol is related to a willingness to participate in politics - as it is with willingness to participate in most social engagements.

Researchers analysed the saliva of over 100 participants who identified themselves as highly conservative, highly liberal or disinterested in politics.  Cortisol was measured in saliva collected from the participants before and during activities designed to raise and lower stress.

"High-stress activities led to higher levels of cortisol production, but that political participation was significantly correlated with low baseline levels of cortisol,"

"Participation in another group-oriented activity, specifically religious participation, was not as strongly associated with cortisol levels. Involvement in nonvoting political activities, such as volunteering for a campaign, financial political contributions, or correspondence with elected officials, was not predicted by levels of stress hormones."

It’s hard to believe the physical act of voting is intrinsically stressful. But maybe its the requirement to make a decision - and a decision on which much of the public debate seems to rest?

This was an American study, where less than 50% of the public vote in national elections. In New Zealand, between 70 and 90% of us do.

Do New Zealanders handle political stress better? Is our approach to election day less dramatic? Or are we more relaxed about the outcome?

One thing on which we are certainly now clear from these sorts of studies; the old-school assumptions about voters are wrong - socioeconomic status has far less impact on voting or political leanings than biology.

We are in fascinating new territory for political strategy.

Filed under biology survey science political opinion socio economic voting patterns voting day voting psychology psychology political psychology

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Boys say go

The fuss over David Cunliffe’s apology for being a man revealed the extent to which the nation’s leaders are modified by the beltway.

At the moment, David Cunliffe can’t get an even break. Like Ed Miliband, his hapless goofy UK counter-part, the media is fixated on mischievously misinterpreting everything Cunliffe does.

It’s easy and predictable, because like Miliband, Cunliffe is running through a banal right-on political liturgy. He is allowing the media to cast him as a paint-by-numbers Labour politician.

In another time, apologies for being men have gone down well with feminists. Cunliffe was reading from a successful old Labour script. But that was then, and now bolshie interest groups in the community are demanding more.

Cunliffe doesn’t have the networked crew to tell him what interest groups or the public want, nor the inventiveness to create something new.

To be fair, it appears that his speech went down well at the Women’s Refuge forum, including his remarkable request that men “out there”, “stop this bullshit”. Nice - now go along to a pub in Hamilton East on Tuesday and say that.

His use of the common vernacular was a pandering attempt to co-opt the the ordinary man in an effort to win over this conference attendees. I doubt many ordinary men would be impressed to be used that way, but I also doubt they even gave it a moment’s thought.

John Key’s comment that Cunliffe’s apology was ‘quite insulting' showed him to be as much a product of the beltway as Cunliffe.

"Insulting" is a beltway word - claimed to be felt by people on behalf of a group, when they’re aiming for some sort of advantage.

Few men would have felt “insulted” by Cunliffe. We might have thought him a dick, or an embarrassment - and that doesn’t give him any strength to insult us. Moreover, most men are only familiar with insults that are delivered directly and question your masculine self-image.

While Key described Cunliffe’s words as “odd” and “silly”, he felt obliged to also pander to Cunliffe’s target market and quickly added “the issue of violence is a very serious issue,”

Both men were guilty of pandering, but in politics it’s all about how you do it, so only one got caught out.

Filed under cunliffe john key feminists apology labour women men Political Symbolism campaigning

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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