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Election techniques and the effects question

Posted by iwagman under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary

Ira Wagman

Although it takes place in public the act of voting remains a private matter.  Like other moments that occur behind drawn curtains, voting carries an air of mystery. We never really know how individuals voted, do we?  Someone can say that they voted for one party, but who knows if they really did?   What people tell a pollster what they were thinking when they voted, how do we know they are telling the truth? The fact that we don’t know what drives voting behaviour on decision day should give us pause to interrogate the various techniques we use during elections to predict or influence that mysterious moment when the “X” marks the spot.

Polling seems to attract the most attention, but there are also advertising campaigns, Facebook groups, blogging and microblogging activities, town hall meetings, and newspaper coverage.  Then there are those campaign strategies.  Last weekend, Michael Valpy’s article in The Globe and Mail outlined how the Conservatives maintain a database containing electoral data that is used to generate character types so that the party can craft its message.  The architect of this strategy is Patrick Muttart, the PM’s deputy chief of staff for strategic planning.  Muttart has drawn inspiration from tactics used in John Howard’s political campaign in Australia by developing a roster of character types to help the party focus its message.  Who are these character types?  First, there’s “Zoe”, an urbanite who eats organic food.  She is not on the Conservative Party’s radar. Also unreachable for the Tories: “Marcus and Fiona”, a couple of double-income, no kids professionals who likely live in urban areas.  With Zoe, Marcus, and Fiona out now of the picture, who should the Conservatives talk to?   Enter  “Dougie”, the tradesman in his 20s who and is more interested in hunting and fishing than crime or welfare abuse; “Eunice”, a 70-year old widower on a fixed income; “Steve”, a small business owner, and “Heather”, a women in her 40s with three children (For more on this approach, see this article from The Hill Times, which is available from the website of a polling firm. The file is in PDF form).

While it is easy to be impressed by the diverse communicative weaponry and creative energy of Canadian political parties, taking a measure of the overall effects of these strategies on the end result is hard to determine.  Do they attract attention?  Yes.  Is it part of the internal cultures of political campaigns?  Sure.  Does it help the parties craft their messages?  Probably.  Do the controversies that take place in the blogosphere detract from serious issues?  It’s not clear, since the parties seem fairly successful at releasing policy statements on a daily basis.  If the media chooses not to interrogate them, whose fault is that?   But these effects are reasonably obvious, aren’t they?   However, when it comes to the big question – whether a pooping puffin, a message crafted to Dougie, an uptick in the Green Party’s national numbers. or a paean to Stephen Harper on YouTube actually impacts upon the final decision, your guess is as good as mine.

What, then, can we make of these techniques of electioneering?  For starters, it helps to keep in mind that such measures are self-promotional in nature.  Polling firms use election work to attract corporate clients; advertising firms work with political parties to get more business; and the world of political strategists no doubt has its own celebrity cultures grounded in aspirations for consulting work for various powerful interests.  During the quiet time after elections, most of the people involved in the process would probably agree  — of the record, of course – that their work is more of an art than a science.  And it would be wise for us to see it this way.

However, imprecise the methods may be, there is the still the inherent belief that some, if not all of these techniques, may have an effect on the final outcome.  Where does this come from?  Blind faith may be one place, but another is our continued fascination with the legend of the Pied Piper (image via).

We remain fascinated by the belief that some people have the power to redirect traffic. In the case of politics, the traffic is not made up of rats, like in the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but of voters. We are fascinated by the potential (or more precisely, the belief in the potential) to move people in a certain way through the mastery of some kind of instrument, be it a flute or a podcast.

Media organizations are seen by many to be the puppet masters of public opinion,  but so are public relations firms, polling operations, and anyone else who acts as a consultant to political parties.  The authority of these actors may derive from a hopeful place, that someone or something can help this or that party gain the edge needed to succeed by connecting in some way with a savvy or disenchanted electorate.   But from that place comes a stubborn and long-held belief, one that sees the use of this or that tool as having an “effect” on voter behaviour.  Such an argument may be persuasive enough to generate work for the service providers of the election industry but the question of whether these things actually work – and how — is conveniently left hanging in the air.  Perhaps this is because political cultures are a lot like our own environments, where we hire friends and people we like or trust to do things we can’t do or need done and endow them with capabilities that cannot be tested or proven.   If that is the case, we should see the various attempts at measuring or reaching out to us not as acts of manipulation but as symbols of desperation, and, furthermore, as a reflection of the rhetorical and audiovisual landscape that now forms part of our political culture.

In the end, this should provide us with some solace. This is because it is just as likely that the people who put a party into power may not be “Steve” or “Zoe”, but those real people who aren’t usually counted: the one who tells people she or he is voting for a party, but votes for a different one instead; the one who has a personal grudge against one of the candidates, and votes for a different party in an act of revenge; or the person who votes in a way consistent with those in his or her social world.  The fact that some of these character types — the venal, the conniving, and the lemming — slip past the keen eye of political observers may have to do with the fact that they bear such a striking resemblance to the people we have to vote for.  Such things are often hard to see from close range.

This should serve as a reminder that although we may often feel as though elections are pre-determined or “modeled”, what remains pristine is the mystery of what we really do in that moment, protected only by a cardboard box, where we mark the ballot, drop it in the box, and slip effortlessly back into the rhythms of regular life.

Ira Wagman is an Assistant Professor, Communication Studies, in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.