Voter profiles

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…voters in Lindsay and Macarthur didn’t swing huge in 2007 because they responded to the “your rights at work” campaign or because they particularly wanted action on climate change. Although if asked by pollsters they probably gave these as reasons.

Nor was it because Labor had suddenly worked out how to win them over. It wasn’t about values and battlers or which party leader likes the footy.

They swung because that’s what they do when the swing is on.

They swing when it’s time.

Peter Brent, who writes the Mumble blog, discusses the perils of focusing on bell-weather electorates in outer Western Sydney — in particular the famous “Lindsay test” that Karl Bitar insisted on being applied to all policy announcements. He ends with the conclusion that, broadly speaking, campaigns don’t matter, demographics do.

Needless to say, I think he is very, very wrong on this point (after all, how does someone become “pro-Liberal” or “pro-Labor” without some kind of promotion and marketing — in political terms, a campaign).

However, Brent does raise an interesting point, which is the wrong-headed insistence of focusing on one section of the community over others, when electoral mathematics means that major political parties in Australia must achieve majorities. The idea of pitching announcements, policies or campaigns at a small segment at the cost of all others seems to me to be destructive to that party’s success. This is for a range of reasons.

Firstly, while you need to get swinging voters to support you, you also need other types of voters as well. Political parties need to create voter assemblages of different groups.

Secondly, there isn’t a “generic” swinging voter — the mortgage belt outer Western Sydney swingers aren’t like the inner city swingers, or the rural swingers, or the issue swingers, or the young first-time voter swingers.

Thirdly, narrow-cast, swing voter targeting erodes major party brands, which are built on majority politics, rather than minority politics. Targeting the swinging voters is minority targeting, which damages the brand equity parties have in the majority.

So, how can we look at voters, if not through the prism of the “Lindsay test”.

There is a lot research into consumer behaviour and choice. While this research is largely for consumer goods, rather than politics, I’ve argued before that marketing theory and tools can be useful for political campaigns. I think this research can help understand voter behaviour in a more nuanced fashion. When parties better understand voter behaviour, it means they can campaign more effectively.

Below are two diagrams which illustrate the consumer behaviour model roughly fitted for voter behaviour.

Voter decision making process

This first diagram shows the three “consumer types” and how they make decision based on engagement with a brand. These are based on the consumer involvement model for decision making. It proposes that there are three types of engagement when someone makes a consumer decision: utilitarian, low involvement and expressive.

Utilitarian decision making is one that is typically high involvement, but “rational” and partly price sensitive. A commercial example may be buying a medium priced car. The consumer desires a new car, and will typically do some research to determine which brand of car best fits their needs. They will make trade-offs, such as safety features versus cost or versus luxury features (like a built-in GPS). Price is important, but the lowest price is not necessarily the main determinant. The behaviour is “instrumental” — that is, it is to fulfill the gap between the desired state (having a new car) and the current, actual state (no car, or having an old car).

Low involvement consumer behaviour is for staple items — food, toiletries or other commodity items. The motivation for the purchase is that the essential goods or services have “depleted”. E.g. you’ve run out of food or toothpaste, and need more. Few consumers spend a lot of time researching the features of the product or service, beyond a cursory glance on the supermarket shelves. They will typically accept a less than optimal product if the one they want isn’t there (e.g. they will switch brands of toothpaste from Colgate to Aim if there’s no Colgate). They are price sensitive, and low cost will often be a major determining factor in the final purchase decision.

Finally, there’s expressive consumer behaviour. Expressive consumers are ones who make in depth purchases where there is a high engagement. An example may be someone buying a house or a luxury good, like a BMW or piece of original artwork. In this case, the decision to purchase precedes any kind of research, and the research itself serves to rationalise the purchase decision. A person who wants to buy a BMW does research to justify their purchase — the safety, engineering, design, service, etc — the research does not drive their purchase decision. Often, they will feel a relationship with the brand and identify with the brand’s values. They will only be satisfied with that particular brand — alternatives, like a Volvo or a painting by another artist, aren’t acceptable. Often cost is secondary; they may delay their purchase until they can afford it.

Now, let’s overlay these consumer profiles with voters.

Each category of voter engagement creates two kinds of voter — a swinging voter and a “rusted on” voter.

The rusted on utilitarian voter

This category of voter is someone who makes their voting decision based on a specific issue. The issue (or issues) is the primary driver of their voting decision, but they are loyal to the party that represents the best fit with that issue. For example, the Greens Party and forestry, or Labor and education. However, they are loyal to the “feature set” — that is, the policies of the party — rather than the party itself. So long as they view the party as best fitting or addressing their issue, they’ll vote for that party.

The swinging utilitarian voter

A swinging utilitarian voter is one who is engaged, to a greater or lesser level, with the policies of each political party, listens to announcements during campaigns, and tries to make a decision based on what is “best for them”. The issues they care about may be ones that are “up for grabs” — for example, they may care a great deal about the funding for a local sports pitch, so the voter will vote for the party that promises to fund it. They will make their voting decision as a trade-off between what they view as two equally matched parties and policy offerings. These swinging voters are susceptible to the “pork barreling”  promises.

The rusted on low engagement voter

Rusted on low engagement voters are the “traditional voters” for parties; people who are habitual party voters. For example, people who “always vote Labor”. They aren’t engaged with politics or the party, and they do no research or assessment of policies. They only vote because they have to — it’s not something they seek out. Their voting behaviour is based on familiarity with the party, so they have a strong brand loyalty.

The swinging low engagement voter

This low engagement voter is the most difficult voter for political parties to find or communicate with. They have no party familiarity, no interest in politics, and do not do any assessment of party policies; they make up their mind based on availability of the party on Election Day (so the presence of people handing out how-to-votes is important). Their decision to vote at all is because they have to — but many may vote informally, or cop the fine for not voting. They see no difference between parties; they are completely switchable, so there is no brand loyalty.

The rusted on expressive voter

The rusted on expressive voter sees their voting behaviour as conveying their values or beliefs. They are likely to strongly identify with the party, or with a party leader. They are partisans (but need not be party members), who seek out research or information to justify their support for that party. Often, they will have a strong emotional connection to the party, or they may be ideologues and identify with a political philosophy rather than the party.

The swinging expressive voter

The swinging expressive voter is an ideologue whose voting decision is based on their political ideology. For example, they may be strong environmentalists who support the Greens Party because of their commitment to conservation rather than to the Party itself; or they could be a social conservative supporting the Liberal Party. The swinging expressive voter may change their vote if they feel a party ceases to represent their value set or beliefs. This could be progressive voters changing from Labor to the Greens Party over asylum seekers or same-sex marriage; or it could be a Fraser-style Liberal who no longer feels the Liberal Party under Abbott represents them.

Voter "policy" usage model

The “voter usage” model shows the post-voting engagement expectations for each category of engagement.

Utilitarian voters are sensitive to their expectations being met. This would be meeting promises. Their loyalty to the brand/party is through performance — that is, not just achieving the promises but for politics, this is also general performance and competence. Performance in this case is relative to the voter’s assessment of the performance of the other brands/parties. Their brand relationships are through recommendations and word-of-mouth. Importantly for brands, a satisfied utilitarian customer can be charged a premium — that is, there is brand equity. In voting terms, the party can expect future votes from this person.

A low involvement voter is really looking at the absence of negatives. In consumer terms, they want the chocolate they bought to not be poisonous or the kitchen knife not to be blunt. At a political level, lack of scandal and basic competence would result in satisfaction. Loyalty comes through habit, and because of the low engagement there may be inertia in voting habits — they’ve always voted for the Liberal Party so it is second nature. The relationship, because it is not sought out, is superficial and little more than a tendency towards the party.

Finally, the expressive voter expectations are to do with the voter continuing to see the party align with their values or ideology. So long as there is that alignment or harmony, they are satisfied. Their commitment relates to how they feel about the party — so when the party strays from the voter’s values, their loyalty may weaken. Similarly, because they are highly engaged, their relationship to the party can be very committed, but also very critical. They may tolerate or forgive lapses on policy areas outside the voter’s core values — and they can be passionate advocates.

Peter Brent wrote that voters in outer Western Sydney swung in 2007 because “the swing was on”.

In my view, this is a simplistic interpretation. Voters are variably engaged with politics and political parties, and are affected by the broader environmental and economic conditions, but most voters are influenced to some degree by the campaigns that seek to engage them in the democratic process. To voters in Lindsay or Macarthur may have more swinging voters — but they swing for different reasons and respond differently to events and campaigns.

By better understanding the different categories of voters, political parties can tailor their campaigns better and use resources better. Hopefully, we can get beyond “Lindsay tests”. Of course, the consumer engagement model doesn’t precisely fit across the voter experience or the political process. It is at best, a rough rubric that I think is illuminating.