How elections are won (the economy, stupid)

After working on well over 40 election campaigns around the world, I now know the simple secret of winning them:

Work for the side that’s going to win.

You see, election results are invariably predetermined before the campaign period, making the task of the campaign to force an error if you’re behind, or avoid one if you’re in front.

And another thing: elections are always about the economy.

We have had 112 years of Government in Australia. 70% of the time conservatives have held the steering wheel, although in the last 50 years the ratio of right to left control has been 61 to 39.

When you step away from the scandal of the day, the collective wisdom of millions of often disengaged Australians has consistently delivered a left-leaning Government to bring about social change when we feel we can afford it, or a right-leaning one to run the shop properly when we are worried we can’t. Most of the time we choose a solid economy; social change is a luxury purchase with a shorter shelf-life.

Do enticing policies make a difference? Well, yes. We hold the curious belief that when people bribe Government it is corrupt, but when Government bribes people it is democratic.

Do the ads, the debates, the launches, the photo-ops, the media bias and the frenetic schedules of travelling teams change the result? Why yes they do – but it is a very small difference in comparison to the state of the economy and long-run perceptions of political performance.

So what is the economic context of this election?

There seems to be consensus among many economists that Australia is heading into a rough patch. They talk about the collapse of commodities because China is putting less focus on building, they suggest that discretionary retail is in deep trouble, that building has problems, that manufacturing has fallen from 25% of our GDP thirty years ago to 7% now. The still-high dollar has savaged exports and high labour costs make us one of the most expensive places to do things anywhere in the world. We’ve already seen Ford closing, and more closures are likely to follow.

Thus far Australia seems to have side-stepped the global financial crisis. Labor claims it was its brilliant economic management and stimulus spending that did it. The Coalition argues that it was because the country had money in the bank, and could rely on digging up bits of Western Australia to supply the Chinese boom.

Under former Treasurer Wayne Swan Australia spent somewhere around $150 million a day more than it collected in taxes every day, seven days a week. That’s spending around a million bucks every six minutes, 24/7.

Although they can’t nominate specifics, most voters believe the country faces economic challenges, which favours the Coalition. When this is coupled with perceptions of a poor record of implementation by the current Government, and the disconcerting impression that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd may well be all cowboy and no hat, the context has always been ghastly for the incumbents.

These perceptions are magnified in marginal seats.

The tide of democracy seems highly likely to sweep a Coalition Government back in, we seem set to allow them to borrow the Government benches until we tire of them and toss them from office.

Politics in a robust democracy is tidal Governments that have served long terms become arrogant and disconnected, believing they know what they are doing and have less need to be informed by voters. We respond to this by hurling them from office, rewarding the other side that has been listening and reflecting societal aspirations more accurately.

This cycle of acceptance and rejection is the hamster wheel both parties grip on opposite sides, spinning inexorably from victory to defeat and rationalism to humanism as voter attitude change outpaces political comprehension and behaviour.

Figure 1


So what will the result be? Forget the statistical inaccuracies of individual polls, the best indicator of results is normally those on sporting betting sites – few predictors are more accurate than cash. The Coalition have always been very comfortably ahead in these odds.

So for the Coalition to lose at a time when Australia feels the economy needs nurturing, something very big has needed to happen –  thus far it hasn’t, and with days to go it looks increasingly improbable.


Toby Ralph
BY Toby Ralph ON 5 September 2013
Toby Ralph calls himself a marketing bloke and sometime propagandist. He has run advertising agencies, controlled or had input to more than $500m in communications campaigns and sits on several small boards. He has worked on over forty elections across three continents. He is a regular guest on Gruen Planet, ABC Radio National, 3AW and Weekend Sunrise, a frequent public speaker, written for Crikey! and On Line Opinion and guest appearances have included Insight, The Contrarians, The Project, 5AA, 2CC and Q&A. Toby is 59 and lives in South Yarra, Melbourne. You can reach him at