Why we hate election campaigns

What seems to be the world’s longest election campaign is grinding to a conclusion. Polling in marginal seats strongly suggests the Coalition is likely to be filling the Government benches, but things can change because before the keys to The Lodge are slid to the victor, everyone must endure a month of electioneering.

These days election campaigns, like politicians, are universally unloved, and to explain why, I need to tell you about the voting population. In a more typical election of 100 electors, 35 will vote Labor, and 35 Liberal. They are pretty stuck in their ways, and are unlikely to switch. That means that the race is between these two parties, but they are neck and neck in the polls.

There are another 10 people who are going to vote for a minority party. It could be Grey Power, it could be Green Power or it could be Cold Power. Their second preference goes to one of the major parties, but broadly, they split evenly between the two, meaning Liberal and Labor are still neck and neck.

There are a final 20 people left. They are the soft and swinging voters.

Of the 20, typically four of them will be what we call ‘thinking voters’. They consider the issues; they weigh up the policies, read the reportage, watch the news and make a balanced, sensible decision. These people don’t interest marketers; by this stage marketing is far too trivial a tool to change their considered opinion. Once again, two fall to Liberal and two to Labor.

This is where we get to the guts of electioneering. It’s neck and neck and we’re left with 16 people. If one Party wins nine of them they get the Government benches and big white cars, if they get only seven, they lose.

And what is it that binds these 16 highly-powerful individuals together? Who are these heavy-hitters who get to decide who runs the country?

The short answer is that they’re ‘politically disinterested’. The thing that unites them is their dislike of politics and mistrust of politicians. They won’t read policy headlines, they won’t believe promises. They won’t trust a word a politician says. To them a politician is a professional liar in a shiny suit that gets paid too much for doing it.

In Australia, central to the notion of democracy is the decidedly undemocratic requirement that voting be compulsory. Our 16 swinging voters wouldn’t turn up at the booth if they didn’t have to, but fear of a fine for not doing so has the unintended effect of making them the ultimate arbiters of who actually governs.

It’s completely inappropriate.

It is this group at which the majority of election campaigning is directed. They are the most persuadable target group, so electioneers spend most time, effort and money persuading them to vote for us.

Actually, that is not exactly true. These people can’t be persuaded to vote for someone. They won’t embrace anything a politician says, they won’t believe their promises and even though they don’t know what their policies are, they know that they are nonsense.

To them, voting is a negative, not a positive act. It is a vengeful act of punishment, not an endorsement, so the trick is to get them to despise the other guys more than they despise us. We can’t win, but we can most certainly help the other team lose.

One of the better electioneers, Petro Georgiou, explains that if there are two brands of baked beans on the shelf and the customer is forced to buy one, the easiest way to make them buy yours is by telling them there’s rat poison in the other one.

HL Mencken was clearer still: “Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right.”

This means that the majority of election messages are carping, negative complaints about the failings of the other side, designed to magnify the contempt our 16 disinterested voters feel toward them. And the other side of politics, of course, is doing exactly the same thing.

The other 84 largely pre-persuaded voters watch the ugly war with an incredulous eye, not understanding why Parties don’t tell a positive story instead of complaining all the time.


Toby Ralph
BY Toby Ralph ON 15 August 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 toby@tobyralph.com.au