Political Business

Lessons on political strategy

Posts tagged obama

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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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Obama’s underdog mistake

Obama fell for the oldest of self-deceiving narratives; support the little guy.

David against Goliath is an expression of one of the core narratives generated by our brains: we love the underdog. We have an instinct to see an individual or minority as good, and the established order as bad.

I reckon we love the narrative so much because it helps alleviate our guilt that we regularly comply with the establishment and majority.

It appears that even the US President is susceptible to the naive simplicity of that narrative.

He assumed that the Syrian rebels were good and the Government was bad. He assumed therefore that use of nerve gases was by the bad Government, not the rebels.

But Syria, and rebellion in general, is not an episode in the Star Wars saga. If you’re the rebel forces you need to win. Lose and you lose your life. Thus, you see your enemy as very bad. So, you do what it takes to win. If you’ve got access to nerve gas, you’ll use it.

Gas was used in the first World War. It was an option in the second. Even then, the Allied forces used all manner of other nasty weapons. How different is gas to carpet bombing of residential suburbs? How different is it to being burnt alive by incendiaries, or flame throwers?

It looks like nerve gas is being used by both sides in Syria. Welcome back to ugly reality Mr President.

Filed under barack obama obama narrative david vs goliath underdog syria gas rebels

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Fear-mongering doesn’t work (mostly)

Politicians are getting better at the least constructive part of their job: getting publicity.

Take a look at the reaction of US politicians to the Boston bombing. Scrambling to make political capital, Obama’s allowed himself to be photographed in control of the situation from the White House. Other Washington politicians called for the surviving brother to be tried as an enemy combatant, and others for more government surveillance of the public.

Politicians are social entrepreneurs. Their capital is uncertainty. They use it to make votes.

They attempt to get the votes through publicity, And they’re getting better. Aided by media hungry for content, politicians find that expressing new, alternative or alarmist views attracts attention. Facts aren’t necessary.

Their skill at gaining attention is not helping them, nor the public agenda.

For example, despite attempts to ratchet up fear following the Boston bombing, it seems that the average American is not alarmed at all.

The Washington Post has published polling data that showed only 6 percent of Americans had changed their behaviors after the Boston bombing. Only 5 percent said they stayed at home or left work early following the bombing. 66 percent of respondents agreed that terrorists will always find a way to launch an attack.

A PEW poll showed only 4 out of 5 Americans think that terrorism is part of life and that the Government cannot do much more to prevent them.

Left to their own devices, the public is generally rational and measured.

For example, a PEW and Smithsonian poll shows that despite the doom and gloom spread by some politicians, Americans are very optimistic about the future.

This gap shows that when politicians try to generate uncertainty they are often disconnected from the good sense of the people they represent.

It also shows that in many cases, the politicians’ attempts at fear-mongering do not have the impact they seek. They may even be counter-productive for their political aspirations.

Filed under obama fear-mongering boston terrorism politician publicity vote winning voter apathy

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Rand Paul’s gorgeous filibuster

To this political junkie there’s nothing more beautiful than Rand Paul’s current filibuster.

Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is protesting against Obama administration plans to give the President the right to kill Americans on American soil, without process. Paul claims it is unconstitutional.

In the US Senate a Senator can hold the floor as long as they are speaking on a topic, until they agree to allow another to speak. This means that a Senator can stop the Senate from continuing their business as long as they can continue to speak.

Rand Paul got up during the Senate confirmation of John O. Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Filibusters are gorgeous points of light in the dullness of political process. For a moment, the machine is stopped by a politician standing for a principle that matters to them. And they hold it against the collective power of the Government. 

Part of the spectacle is the role of supporters. The filibusting Senator can relinquish the floor only for questions, after which he resumes talking. As I write, supporters of Paul are giving him short breaks by asking him (very long) questions.

What is particularly impressive from Rand Paul is the content of his filibuster. He’s not reading from the Bible or other long books irrelevant to the point, like others have done. He is steadily moving through a series of arguments, using evidence and reading from relevant sources.

The issue of assassination of American citizens has gathered steam over the past months. Republicans have found a matter of constitutional principle which covers more political opinions than the right to bear arms. Moreover, it confounds the average voters’ expectation of the principles of Barack Obama.

Rand Paul has found something long missing from Republican rhetoric: passion and compassion, intellectual robustness and conviction, and a policy position that appeals to middle America.

Filed under rand paul drones filibuster senate assassination obama

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The secret code of politics

Politicians have adopted the code language of the corporate world, and it’s hurting their connection with voters.

The professionalisation of politics into a career more than a calling, has been accompanied by adoption of corporate phrases and concepts. I was reminded of the issue in a recent BBC story which noted the jarring effect of the term “self executing” in Obama’s 2013 acceptance speech.

The rise of these coded phrases is due to an all-too human effort by those in the political world to upgrade the apparent sophistication of politics. We all want to feel proud of the work we do, but politics is unpopular. It’s also just a little too grubby and sordid for many would-be professionals - all this vote catching and and shoulder rubbing with the masses.

People in politics have adopted corporate-style language so they can present their chosen career to themselves and their peers as requiring a high degree of smarts.

Politics has undoubtedly become more self-consciously strategic; the art and science of politics has improved. Politicians and their staff do attempt to think deeper about the vote-related part of their job. In a sense, this blog is itself representative of the maturity of the political profession.

The irony of the use of corporate language in public settings is that it indicates just how unsophisticated politicians are, and how self-conscious they are about showing off.

You see, strategy should ALWAYS stay behind the scenes. If you want to connect with people, you talk in their language, not yours.

Politicians are simply copying a common mistake of the corporate world - because the problem occurs there as well, when internal code is used in communication with those outside their world; those who are often the targets of their code and strategic concepts.

Truly sophisticated professional strategies are never publicly expressed. Instead, they should define a completely different tone, manner and method of communication that connects with the audience.

Obama made a major mistake when he used the term “self executing” - not only did it chill the emotive and inspirational language he was using to reach out to people, it revealed the people behind him, who they hang out with, and a self-conscious attempt to appear smart.

The political world will be be something to be proud of when its exponents can plan and execute smart, sophisticated concepts, but use simple, understandable, common language to bring it about.

Filed under obama code language professional politicians phrases self-executing political strategy

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Finding humour in politics

There’s humour in ordinary life, but none in politics. That’s got to change.

Politics is about serious matters. But then, so is almost every other field of human activity. Yet humour can be found in every walk of life, but rarely in politics. Why are politicians so damn serious, and what is it costing them?

I was uplifted by the reply of the office of the US President to the petition that America build a Death Star. No matter what you think of the current administration, it can’t be all bad if it has the confidence, wit and goodwill to give a humourous official reply to a light-hearted petition.

It made me realise what politicians lose by failing at humour; they lose their humanity. And their humanity their connection to voters. Part of being “human” is generosity, self-deprecation, and objectivity. Humour says you can do those things. Lack of humour, or sarcastic humour about an opposition, says you can’t do those things. 

Why do many politicians lack humour?

In part it’s the environment in which they work: high expectations and demands from the public, high levels of inquisition into their professional and personal lives, high stakes debates, and human issues where there’s little reason for light-heartedness.

This can clearly be beaten.

Take Barack Obama. He regularly displays what feels like genuine good humour.  He’s able to get into the zone because he knows it is important to his public support.

NZ Prime Minister John Key makes a habit of good humour. He’s not funny. He’s simply light-hearted. It’s disarming, defusing, and connects him to people. Light-heartedness oils the wheels of everyday conversation.

Which is why so these politicians are so successful, and most others are not.

They take themselves, their opinions and their goals too seriously. They raise them above the needs of others, including their voters. They spend so much time fighting to win an attrition battle of opinion they forget how to lighten up.

Democratic politics is ultimately about popularity. And that is not determined by being right. It’s determined first by being liked. And we all like those with a smile on their dial.

Filed under obama politicial humour john key popularity funny

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Affirming lifestyles

Modern politics is eschewing economic and societal matters for the politics of lifestyle.

Politics is the crucible of national culture; it’s the battleground between interests where common or majority values are forged. But modern professional politicians are confusing private and public interests. It’s all part of the socialisation of the personal, and the escalation of emotion over fact.

I’m talking about the political tactic of “lifestyle affirmation” - where politicians do and say symbolic things that affirm the value of particular sectors of society.

The difficulty for Western politicians is that we live in pluralistic communities: people have wildly varying preferences, lifestyles and opinions. These are often at odds with each other. It’s tolerable in private. It is awkward, and even conflictual, in public.

Take the irony of Barack Obama’s inauguration speech. He invested a lot of emotion into affirmation of the homosexual community, but controversyhas arisen because he left out trans-gender people.

This is always the risk of affirmation politics; that by bowing to the pressure of one group, you denigrate another, offend another, or insult by omission. 

The real danger of affirmation politics is that politicians hand their moral power to the disaffected. They turn themselves into tools of special interests.

It’s not only a shallow tactic, it’s short term. When you’re affirming so many lifestyles, the power and meaning of the tactic dies.

Filed under lifestyles obama affirmation politics homosexual gay marriage

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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