Political Business

Lessons on political strategy

Posts tagged political tactics

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Professional outrage

This weeks escalation of outrage over ‘roasting’ demonstrated the extreme end of the political technique in which you define yourself by what you are against.

It was easy fodder. Young men bragged about deliberately getting younger girls drunk for sex. Never mind the reality, it was despicable enough just to consider, let alone achieve.

With so many people in the beltway outraged, it was hard for everyone to get enough publicity and self-definition from the event.

The story required escalation to give the political class more opportunities for self-definition.

So they found new people to be upset at (more young males), new issues to be against (male attitudes to women), new perspectives (young women ‘coerced’ into having sex).

It got better for the political class when two radio hosts asked the ‘questions that can’t be asked’ of a female caller. A new front was opened to use for political grand-standing and furthering the anti-rape issue.

It was manna from heaven when we discovered that the police had not been accurate is saying no one had complained to the police. Well, it was kind of true - one complaint couldn’t be sustained and three people wouldn’t make a complaint official. There was just enough difference in the police position to open a third front on the issue.

I can understand the exasperation and bewilderment of the Police Commissioner at the hysterical outrage whipped up over the matter.

The political class willfully blinded themselves to messy realities of human sexuality to escalate the matter out of its pathos and into tragedy.

The technique of defining ideology by being against other groups or attitudes is useful, but the ease with which outrage can be used means it too often supplants constructive politics. Politicians must be careful to weigh their outrage and constructiveness in equal doses.

I am demoralised by watching the political class lurch from outrage to outrage, leaving behind not a single improvement.

But I have worries about the “being against” technique from a wider view of what’s good for society.

  1. Simplifying issues doesn’t resolve them. Shoe-horning events to fit a simplistic moral ideology runs roughshod over all the levers that really exist to make changes. A society built on respect doesn’t come from political shouting or big-platform government policies. Simplifying people and issues encourages lack of respect. It encourages an environment where people to treat others as if they are stereotypes. It reinforces the American model of ‘there’s me and I’m right, and there’s you and you’re wrong’.
  2. We are pushed to the extreme. The irony of focusing on, and inflating, the worst about humanity, is that we don’t become better people.  Extremes are so self-evidently ‘wrong’ that it’s easy to oppose and learn nothing.
  3. It ignores reality. Reality is so damn messy. When we simplify things we ignore the way life really is. We push ourselves into policies which are just not practical. Politics should be about real life - the art of the possible.
  4. "What-I-am-not" politics is destructive, not constructive. It’s easy to be against something, but what are you really for? What specific things do you think should be different, and how will you bring them about?

Filed under roasting Political Symbolism outrage political tactics moralising

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Political pressure: Akin - recap

Todd Akin lost his 2012 bid for the Senate. Akin suggested during the campaign that women’s bodies could reject pregnancy by rape.

I was fascinated by his intention to ride out the controversy despite even his own Party officials trying to pull him out of the race.

His passion and belief was not enough. He lost by 12 points to the Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill.

He blamed the Republican Party for being his other challenger in the race.

I am also fascinated by the nature of the controversy itself. Both Akin and those who criticised his comments, including Barack Obama, were all wrong about the actual science of conception. In short, conception rates via rape are higher than consensual sex, but miscarriages are also higher. In a strange way, Akin was more right than his critics. The subject is unpleasant, but what’s fascinating is how the public discussion was almost completely inaccurate, and emotionally driven from all sides.

In the above links and others, you can see how the heat of the controversy meant even those who tried to put the actual science forward had to go to great lengths to ensure they were seen to be on the “right” emotional and social side of the debate. The debate wasn’t about facts though. It was made into a debate about attitudes to women. When debates morph like that, it’s incredibly difficult not only to ensure rational accuracy, but to escape the set narrative.

Filed under akin rape pregnancy ethics political tactics

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Pain of shallow photo opps

Paul Ryan’s shallow ‘soup kitchen’ photo opp confirmed aloofness, rather than confounded it. You beat negatives in a political reputation with evidence, not falsehoods. Ryan’s soup kitchen photo opp got called out because it was so manufactured. Although journalists have a tolerance for being manipulated by politicians (biting the hand that feeds and all that), it eats away at their personal integrity. Thus, the soup kitchen photo opp, was a step too far. It appeared to be a set up, and they revealed it to be one. Apparently the dishes didn’t need to get done, and the actual homeless weren’t in at the time.

I can imagine his team organising the event though: they would have seen cleaning already-clean pots and pans as just a matter of timing. He would have cleaned dirty pots if he could have been there earlier - so what’s the difference?  His campaign people would have avoided the homeless people though, because that is uncontrollable.

I like a good amount of uncontrollable in an election campaign - because it allows the true character of a candidate to emerge. You only refrain from uncontrollable if you don’t know PR very well (the voters give politicians credit when they’re seen faced with ordinary or ornery people), or if you are nervous about whether the candidate can hack real life. If they can’t hack real life, then they shouldn’t be a candidate.

Filed under campaigning political tactics paul ryan soup kitchen photo opp character

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Association theory is bunk

One of the less successful political tactics is trying to gain reflected glory.

I call it “Association Theory”. Politicians hope that their reputation will be enhanced by physically or morally associating themselves with people who are successful in other walks of life.

There’s two main ways they try to do this:

1) Association with success. Where politicians link themselves to successful people in sport, business or social life. The intention is to attach some of the success and good feeling credits to their own persona.

2) Association with gravitas. Where politicians link themselves to momentous events. The intention is to gain in stature by being important to the moment.

Politicians have a very valid reason for being linked to matters of national or local importance. In these situations they represent the nation, or its citizens. It falls to them to embody our reactions to the important event. They can express our excitement, fears and hopes.

I want to deal with the first one - the attempts to gain political credits by linking with successful people. This ploy very rarely returns any value at all to a politician’s reputation.

What it certainly does not do is gain implied endorsement from the successful person. Unless that person says something nice back, or physically indicates a friendship, people see the connection for what it is: perfunctory.

It does not pick up feel-good credits either. There’s a sense among pundits that because people respond well to the successful person, they’ll feel better about the politician. That’s as far as that theory goes among most strategists.

There’s no proof that this sort of transferred goodwill happens.

What matters is not the association, but what the politician demonstrates about themselves when they make the connection.

It is possible that a politician could pick up goodwill by the way they spend their time with one the nation’s successful people. Politicians need to think carefully about attending an event. Their physical presence can appear redundant or even detracting for the event (by introducing ‘politics’). So their conduct is important. For example, a politician might be best to invite the successful person to a BBQ. Or pop around to the family home for a cup of tea. That sends signals that might help the politician’s reputation.

Likewise, banal messages of support or congratulations are of no use. They’re perfunctory. Again, a politician needs to signal unique values about themselves. For example, what in the message shows that they really understand the effort, or the sacrifice behind the success? 

Most often the public tolerate the presence or comments of politicians in non-political life, but sometimes they break:

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer booed while giving out medals at ParaOlympics.

Russian President booed while presenting medals at mixed martial art event. http://youtu.be/nS48UuVXbjQ 

Michelle Obama booed when starting the NASCAR event.

So that’s why association theory is bunk. Because the most politicians think of it too simply, and do it poorly.

The golden rule of association tactics is to transcend politics. To do that, most politicians need to transcend their political self. That’s why they find association with success so hard to pull off.

Filed under association theory success speeches political strategy political tactics

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Goff wins second TVNZ Leader Debate

Labour Leader Phil Goff won the second TVNZ debate by adopting a powerful tactic: turning and facing a diffident John Key.

Goff would have given undecided voters many reasons to come back to Labour. Key would not have lost any voters, but it was an unremarkable performance that bodes poorly for his next term.

Goff won by adopting the new physical tactic, using new stories of people on struggle street, and making new accusations about the effect of National policies.

Early on he left John Key squirming in his chair, smiling weakly at the desk or at moderator Guyon Espiner.

John Key again grew a little in confidence over the debate, indicating he had started under-prepared. But there’s no point in confidence without a plan. He took the questions as they came and gave long winded answers.

Most of all, he did not put Goff under any pressure at all. Goff roamed free, widely and wildly.

It wasn’t that Goff was the master of the event. He made plenty of slips ups. Often, just after he had grabbed the airtime and was about to launch into a major point, he’d stall, forget what he was about to say. But then, like an old lawn mower, the spark plug would fire and the piston would kick the engine over. 

Phil Goff’s best moments were clearly scripted. He was ready with a revelation about cost cutting in the police, which had Key floundering to answer. He asked Key if he knew how many people owned their homes in Auckland. Key shrugged his lack of knowledge and looked flat as Goff explained the situation.

During the segment on race relations Goff made a series of accusations about National which Key absorbed without response. Key sat muttering as Goff turned to Guyon and launched into a description of Labour policy.

Learning from his TV3 debate, where he equivocated over a coalition with New Zealand First, Goff this time had a clearer answer. He would not form a Government at any cost, but he did believe Peters would act responsibly.

The only segment that John Key clearly won was on the economy.

Key reached back into his 2008 campaign back to reiterate that he was “aspirational” for the thousands of small New Zealand businesses and people trying to make a go of life. Despite so much having gone wrong during the term, and during this campaign, it is ironic that this old line was his most believable of the night.  Key is at his very best when he aspires and talks optimistically.

An example occurred during the segment about welfare. Goff talked about people not working. Key talked about people who were working. His sentiments were far more attractive (people have a tendency to reject bad news).

This segment on the economy was critical to the debate, and to the campaign. National stays ahead in the polls because more people think the Party is better at running the economy. Goff needed a resonating line in this segment to appeal to middle New Zealand, not just undecided voters. He failed to find one.

It has been said that Key’s campaign opted for photo opportunities over real interaction with the public and media. If that’s accurate, it did not serve him well for these debates. Goff’s campaign has armed him with plenty of sob stories to use against National. It also got him blooded in the push and shove of street discussions.

Key has not had to ensure direct arguments for three years of power, and aside from the Cup of Tea tape, has avoided them in the campaign as well.

So Key entered the Leaders debates completely unprepared to argue. In this last debate his face revealed just how much he resented having to do it.

Goff relished the chance, and was well prepared. There was nothing to lose for him. Key had everything to lose in these debates, and in a different electoral context, he would have lost everything.

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

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Debating worms

The “worm” is good for politics because it enables us to see how ‘real’ people respond as politicians make their pitch for votes.

The core concept is that a device allows a group of people to record whether they like or dislike what they are seeing and hearing.

For unpretentious political strategists the concept is exciting. The immediate, relatively unfiltered, response to a candidate is the most important factor to their success. Sure, there’s many other factors at play in the mind of a voter. But their raw response is paramount.

For political pundits and academics, the tool is threatening. The most common description of the worm, or Reactor as the Roy Morgan research house calls it, is that it is “unscientific”.

The only thing unscientific are criticisms.

The worm is effectively measuring the roar or murmur of approval or dissent of each individual in an otherwise passive crowd.  That’s an unfiltered, unexpurgated, direct sense of whether a politician resonates or not with each person.

There’s nothing ‘unscientific’ about that. In fact, it’s a near perfect measurement of what it measures.

So why are pundits and academics against the worm? I think it is because it gets them too close to the grubby reality of voting.

They fear it makes a mockery of their subject area by reducing it to a pure reactive emotion. Which is precisely what politics is, although the emotions and drivers at work are very sophisticated.

They fear the worm makes it easier for others to understand the field of political science. Which might do away with the need for their paid explanations of its mysteries.

In criticising the worm, the chattering experts reveal their distrust of the public. They don’t believe that an ordinary person could watch the debate and give a reasonable assessment of debating performance. They think the public already puts too little thought into their political opinion, and the worm encourages it.

I think the worm welcomes us to the real political world - where the motives behind voting are messier, less pure, more honest, more accurate, and more complicated than most experts can handle. That’s why most hate it, and I love it.

Filed under political strategy political tactics political polls the worm polling opinion survey

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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