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Lessons on political strategy

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Grilled pundit

US Election pundits get their failed predictions grilled.

It’s fun, if a bit mean-spirited.

Part of the role of punditry, for most of them, is pushing particular barrows. Their predictions are more often than not want they WANT to happen, not what will happen. They hope that by predicting it, it will come true.

Trouble is, since most pundits are largely talking to similar people, and the punditry circles, they have very little impact on what most voters actually do.

Filed under punditry pundits predictions us politics election Presidential Race picks

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Infographical evidence of the way social media has turned in modern vox populi. There was an enormous amount of social media activity on the day of the US Election.
But note that the amount of social media activity on the election night had NOTHING to do with the actual voting pattern. We only need one poll to give an insight into that: the actual election.
Which is why the Facebook “vote counter” was stupid. Whether people did or didn’t set their status to voting is irrelevant. It neither measures nor contributes to the election.

Infographical evidence of the way social media has turned in modern vox populi. There was an enormous amount of social media activity on the day of the US Election.

But note that the amount of social media activity on the election night had NOTHING to do with the actual voting pattern. We only need one poll to give an insight into that: the actual election.

Which is why the Facebook “vote counter” was stupid. Whether people did or didn’t set their status to voting is irrelevant. It neither measures nor contributes to the election.

Filed under social media obama romney Presidential Race election

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The keys to power

How to predict elections.

There’s the excellent data-route of Nate Silver, and there’s the gut-feel the formula concocted by Allan Lichtman, the academic behind The Keys to the White House.

In 1981 Lichtman developed 13 “Keys” or categories to measure the performance of the incumbent.

His assumption is that incumbents lose power, rather than oppositions winning. This gels with my observations that incumbents whittle away their own advantage over time. My theory goes a step further - I think it’s possible for political parties to succeed on all measures but still finally get replaced because voters just get tired.

Lichtman postulates that if the incumbent has failed in six or more of the 13 categories, it loses power.

It’s one thing to stipulate these categories, but another to judge performance under them. After all, politics is rarely about actual performance, and mostly about perceived performance.

Lichtman has proved himself quite good at assessing performance in the categories - picking every President correctly since he first outlined his 13 Keys.

I think these keys are relevant outside of the Presidential Race, and can be applied to political party governance internationally.

The Keys are:

  1. Party mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections. In an international context, this Key can be interpreted as having not lost by-elections, and local elections where relevant.
  2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination, or to the leader over the preceding term. 
  3. Incumbency: The incumbent party leader or candidate is the sitting President, or leader.
  4. Third Party: There is no significant third party challenge.
  5. Short term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
  6. Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. 
  7. Policy change: The incumbent party has brought about major changes in national policy. I’m not so sure on this one, although I am certain that lots of minor changes build up voter resentment.
  8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term. 
  9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
  10. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
  11. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
  12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. 
  13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

Filed under lichtman president Presidential Race obama romney 13 keys election how to win

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Three ways the US Election changed social media

My analysis of the effects of the US Election on social media was published by Social Media Today.

In short:

1) Using social media for fund raising monetised the format, and using the money for mainstream (and digital banner) advertising, relegated social media to being simply being another marketing channel.

2) The nation turned to social media to see what voters were saying about the election - it was validated at the vox populi. But simultaneously, a lot of content online was a kind of talk radio triviality (think ‘big bird’), and thus relegated social media to ‘light entertainment’.

3) The unification of many users around the Obama message provided a commonality to the online expression which defied the factional individualism that has arisen, and been championed, through the channel. At the same time, the strong use of the medium by right wing ideologues has empowered individuals as de facto affiliates of the Republican party - decentralising membership and control.

Filed under social media Presidential Race election usa obama romney

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Punditry is dead?

Nate Silver is basking in the deserved glow of being almost completely right with his mathematical modeled predictions for the US Elections. The nerd community is celebrating a kind of triumph of science over punditry. My own predictions were based on the ‘polls of polls’ connected to electoral colleges, and particularly Nate’s work over the campaign.

But I want to point out that his predictions are scientific evaluation of opinion polls which give numbers to variable human emotions.

Punditry picking can go hang, but explaining and guiding those human emotions to a voting outcome requires a far more complex mix of science and gut feel, than simply extrapolating the recording the binary decision they produce.

Filed under punditry nate silver Presidential Race election polling

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Why Obama got a second chance

The US Presidential election was a lesson in targeting your audience.

Obama won because he was smart and concentrated on winning what and who he needed. Romney lost because he had to win over a majority of the nation. It’s a lesson in politics and public relations - identify who you need to win over and go talk to them.

Why did voters choose Obama?

Half the voters didn’t choose Obama, and many did not vote at all (a turn-out of under 60%). Both his popular vote and electoral college vote was down on 2008. He had only 1-2% more of the popular vote. Those who chose to stick with Obama did so because they wanted to believe his narrative about creating a new type of America - the type where a Black man can become President.

Why did they not choose Romney?

They did - half the voters. There will be recriminations about Romney being too moderate. But moderateness got him, and kept him, in the race. The problem was that Romney was divided by the Republican Party itself - which set him up with a divisive selection, then undermined him with hate and hyperbole. The campaign was clumsy initially, as Romney tried to be what he was not (like a global statesman). It got on track when Romney was free to be himself. Since he was only 1-2% short on the popular vote, Romney might regret his tactical approach to winning over the swing states.

The divided nation

An evenly divided nation provides a battleground for gaming the political system. In 2008 Obama took the high road, asking disillusioned middle class (and white) voters to believe his story of hope. In 2012 the story had lost its magic. So rather than win back these swinging voters, he concentrated on getting out the left-leaning vote in States where he needed the electorate college votes. For example, the traditional swing state of Ohio was visited 90 times in the campaign.

It’s not that Romney didn’t look to those pivot States, but he also had to introduce himself across the whole nation - and to Black and Hispanic voters in particular. He had to introduce the idea of himself as a President. That is why he mellowed his rhetoric and restyled his demeanor to appear more inclusive and understanding.

The rest

At time of writing, control of the Senate looks like going to the Democrats, while the Republicans look like holding the Congress.

Republican control of the lower House means Obama’s ability to work and initiate new plans are as limited as they were in his first term.

Going negative

A distinguishing feature of this campaign was the large amount of criticism of opponents. There were 1 million advertisements run during the campaign - 40% more than 2008. By May this year the adverts run by the candidates were already 70% negative. 

It would have been clear early to both camps that running on policy positions was not going to help them. Obama did not have much in the way of gains over his term, and the recession narrowed his options. Romney did not have much in the way of plans, and he faced an incumbent that had promised and not delivered. So the obvious answer for both of them was to make voters dislike their competitor. 

Voters are said to hate negative campaigning, but strategists know that negative works - in the right circumstances. The role of SuperPacs in this campaign increased the amount of  the attack-politics. 86% of adverts run by these groups of separately funded candidate’s supporter groups were negative.

The still divided nation

The US has become intensely divided along left-right lines in the past twenty years. Going back over elections through the 1900s the country easily swung in uniformly behind the “best” Presidential candidate. Review for yourself at the cool 270towin. Some have claimed this is a response to complicated issues, but this doesn’t stand up. You can’t get more high stakes, contentious and difficult than depression, war, cold war, and energy crises. I think, from afar, the USA’s even and intense split is due to having fewer significant issues, while experiencing a cultural crisis in nationhood. There have been fewer things to really worry about in the prosperous nation, so the emphasis has gone into differences in cultural and lifestyle preferences. These differences were previously tolerated. They no longer are; it’s currently a contest of cultural outlooks.

More of the same from here

We should not expect too much from Obama; the recession is set to continue for the better part of his term, Congress is held by the Republicans, and Obama doesn’t have any significant plans.

This won’t trouble voters for a little while. More of the same is what half of American voters chose today.

Filed under Presidential Race obama win election romney second chance election day election result

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Goff wins TV3 Leaders debate

Phil Goff seemed to cream John Key in the TV3 debate tonight, but only emerged with a one point victory.

Phil was ready for this debate. He was armed with stories of real life. He was armed with counter-punches to match Key’s predictable claims. He gripped the front of the lectern with bent arms and a smile on his face.

John Key was terrible. He was not emotionally ready. It was visible in his stance. He was in a backward leaning slump, one hand in a pocket and the other ill at ease on the lectern. Although he tried to unsettle Goff by talking over him, he upset his own rythym.

Goff’s success came from the way he was saying things. He had passionate conviction, and some stress in his voice. He found a bit of mongrel.

But it was also what he said. There’s a real difference between saying “Labour has a policy to grow jobs”, and “the Principal of a local school says this poverty is affecting kids in a way he’s never seen before”.

The first is empty aspiration. The latter is rooted in reality. Sometimes the politician doesn’t even need to state a policy off the back of that: just knowing about this reality gives them credibility that they have the better idea of how to deal with it.

John Key went back to familiar Prime Ministerial territory. Most of his speeches follow a pattern where he knits together a broad ‘traders’ perspective on world economic affairs, the NZ economy, and his predictions for what will happen.

He did that tonight, and the result was rambling explanations, tortuous arguments, and a jumble of figures you couldn’t follow.

Key had few easily comprehensible answers to anything. But somehow he clawed his way back. It happened in the 4th segment, on the subject of coalitions. I had been tweeting during the debate that he needed to become physically animated, and suddenly he did. He found his feet taking a “voters get to choose” position on coalitions and talking about how he would work with anyone (except Winston Peters).

Goff faltered. His answer about working with Winston was equivocal, and his criticism of Key and his coalition partners was self-serving.

The last segment was a to-the-camera closing statement. Inexplicably, Goff stopped his passionate criticism of Key and adopted soft-toned, fuzzy focus pleading. It was pitiful.

Following him, Key pulled out the last dregs of his optimistic and boyish charm to make a strangely comfortable, over-animated, ‘vote for me’ pitch. It worked.

So the five rounds finished with Goff winning the first three and Key the final two. That’s a points victory to Goff. The opening rounds were on such critical matters that the pundit in me says Goff had a major win. But the finish from Key was possibly enough to make his current voters stay with him.

On the strength of that performance, following on from the terrors of last week, the undecideds will not stick with Key. Their votes will go elsewhere. That is what will make this coming election result so strange.

One final word on the unfairly-derided “worm”. The “worm”, a graphical representation of the likes and dislikes of uncommitted voters watching the debate, went crazy for Goff and hated John Key. The pro-Goff sentiment seemed to initiate a reset by the Roy Morgan researchers. A quarter way through the debate it looks like they may have re calibrated the detection sets back to neutral. But it didn’t help. Goff set the worm off again, and Key brought it back to neutral. The strength of support for Goff was a very surprising result. It gives strength to the possibility of Labour winning undecideds and last-minute voters.

Filed under political strategy political tactics election election 2011 john key phil goff election debate leaders debate political debate debate tactics

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The value of campaign perspective

Many tactics employed in an election campaign fail because they are driven by emotions of the campaign team, rather than being about emotions of the voters.

A case in point are the tactics employed by the National Leader John Key to counter the CuppaGate saga two weeks out from a General Election.

There have been criticism and plaudits for his decision to lay a complaint with the police, and his claim that it was akin to a News of the World phone hacking.

I’m betting that the police complaint tactic was not a designed and considered response at all. I’m betting that it was a response driven by embarrassment.

I can imagine how it would have played out.

John Key would be fuming at the Herald on Sunday revelation that there was a tape of the conversation, and that the content was embarrassing. He would know the content was likely to be be at the least unflattering. There he was holding a huge media stunt he might have been talked into. And there, on the cafe table for all to see, was a recording device picking up all the random things he said in the discomfort of that moment.

He would be fuming at the cameraman. He would be fuming at media. He would be fuming at his own people for allowing the recording device to have been left there.

What would you say if you were one of the advisers responsible for that blunder? You’d divert blame. You’d blame the media. You’d join your boss in ranting against the unethical behaviour of the journalist. You’d infer all sorts of things about how that device had been left there.

In that situation no one in the advisory team would have been thinking calmly. The natural tendency is for the individuals to protect themselves, and for the group to turn together to find and face the enemy.

Thus, the campaign team may have decided to attack the enemy by complaining to the police. In their own minds it got each of them, and their group, off the hook.

It was possibly argued that the move would isolate the journalist, change the subject, warn off other journalists from using the content, and maybe even allow a claim that a police investigation prevented discussion of the matter.

We have seen that the tactic did not work. The media got fired up. They  continued to ask questions. Pundits speculated about the content. The issue obliterated all other election matters for at least four complete days.

The tactic, and its possible motivations, demonstrates the value of;

  1. Independent political counsel: it is essential to have a strong willed advisor who assesses and responds to situations without the blindness engendered by group  thinking and desperation borne from loyal ‘beleivers’.
  2. Self-awareness: being a political professional means being aware of your own emotional weak spots, so you know when to allow others to make a strategic or tactical decision.

Filed under political strategy john key cuppagate cup of tea john banks election election 2011 political tactics

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Winston wins minority leaders debate

Winston Peters “won” the TVNZ live leaders debate on 16th November 2011 by being an elder statesman who still had fire in his belly. Aggression turned to assertiveness. Policy opposition turned into passion and opportunity.

Peters won the debate because he shouldn’t have been there. He was the only Leader without a Parliamentary presence. But his presence in the debate made all the difference. Without him there the line up would have been lifeless. 

The others leaders performed within their capability. No one disgraced themselves. They all would have appealed to their existing voter group, but they would not have won converts from swinging voters.

Three of the leaders have reason to be a little disappointed with themselves.

  1. Russel Norman looked good: young, tall, fashionably establishment and lean. But he was uncomfortable with the format. Lined up behind a lectern too small for him, he wrestled with his ring finger and found the times for comment too short for his lengthy and earnest explanation. 
  2. Don Brash failed to establish any sort of consistent theme or identity behind ACT policies. Almost every other leader used Brash as a means of establishing what they were not. Brash never established what he was. He could have played the same trick back on them - for example by joyously welcoming the idea that the Maori and Mana Party would not work with him.
  3. Tariana Turia did better than she thought she was doing. She was also uncomfortable in the format, and perhaps with the undignified need to appeal to voters; she grimaced, grumbled and hunched.

Winston seemed to physically grow as the debate unfurled. He needed to grow, as early on, shoulders hunched at the lectern, he looked like a greyscale mirror image of Tariana. His shoulders dropped as his confidence and comfort returned. The success was that he didn’t over-reach himself. His was effectively a new voice added to those with which the audience was recently familiar.

Therefore, his position on a coalition partner - that he would go into opposition to hold the Government honest - was the only new option on offer for swinging voters.

That’s why he won the debate: the old passion now as compassion, and so astonishingly refreshing.

One final point on the show’s format. Frankly, it was not ideal. TVNZ did very well to handle it within the constraints of the format.

But with six leaders and so many topics meant the Leaders couldn’t expound on policy or exchange disagreements. Strange as it might seem, voters might be better served with a moderated free-for-all.

There might have been more time for that had they dropped the dumb questions from journalists, and comments from two ‘expert’ pundits. Yes, I say that only because I think they should have used me…  

Filed under don brash election election 2011 leaders debate political debating strategy political strategy russel norman tariana turia winston peters debate winner tvnz leaders debate