Campaigners must mobilise their committed supporters

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Mobilising and motivating your committed supporters is the key to winning campaigns.

The upcoming Federal Election is focusing minds amongst unions and campaigning NGOs. The reality of an Abbott Government looks like an increasingly likely risk. Many hard-fought gains across a number of policy areas could be wiped out.

The seductive trap for campaigners in the face of this is to run a mass-media campaign, focused on public relations efforts to get stories in the mainstream newspapers and TV, direct mail in letter boxes and advertising on TV and radio. To win however, unions and NGOs must return to the grassroots: personal campaigning that emphasises one-on-one conversations and engages committed supporters.

Engaging with the motivated is not only easier than trying to pique the interest of the disengaged voter, but it is more effective at reaching those uninterested swing voters through word-of-mouth.

Elections in most industrialised nations are won by the party that captures most of the swing vote — the group of 10-15% of people who are uncommitted in the weeks and months leading up to Election Day. Marginal electorates are marginal precisely because they contain a larger proportion of swinging and undecided voters than “safe” seats.

During election campaigns, armies of campaigners flock to those marginal seats to have conversations with disengaged, uninterested and apolitical voters. Small forests worth of direct mail is sent to their homes. The airwaves are saturated across the nation just to reach that 10% of voters who decide the outcomes in a handful of key electorates.

The banal truth however is that all this political marketing and advertising is a weak force that can, at best, only hope to nudge a swing voter towards one party or another.

This is why attack advertising is effective. If you can’t get a voter to be interested in your policies, you can at least discourage them from your opposition’s. What’s more, negative advertising is often perceived as more honest or factual that “positive” advertising.

Unfortunately, most of those crucial swing voters are not traditional consumers of media. They aren’t watching TV news or reading newspapers. So mass campaigns will often waste time and money on sending uncustomised, generic political messages to people who aren’t going to change their voting intentions.

There is a truism in advertising that (paraphrased) goes “Advertising is a weak force that aims to keep nudging existing customers to keep buying your product more often than they buy the competition’s.” In the modern era where we are exposed to thousands of advertising messages each day, advertising as a force to change minds is weaker than ever.

The reason that political parties and other groups spend a fortune on advertising is that it is more tangible than a conversation. Candidates love seeing the ads, consultants find them easier to make. It is simple to calculate “share of voice” or CPM. It also plays into the media narrative. Journalists love the drama of the battle to convince the unconvinced, even while they deplore the fact that the rest of Australia is ignored. The irony is delicious.

To win — and to wisely use limited resources — the simple truth is that motivating your committed supporters is more effective than trying to persuade the disengaged.

Unions intuitively know that emphasising campaigning on the committed pays dividends. For most campaigns — bargaining or public policy — unions will initially aim to identify and engage delegates and potential activists. These activists — who don’t need to be convinced to care (they are predisposed to action already) — can then be trained and mobilised to talk to the disengaged.

The electoral success of various election campaigns can be tied to this approach. For example, George Bush’s victory against John Kerry involved Karl Rove’s mobilisation of conservative activists around the bogey-man of gay marriage and post-911 fear and patriotism. The fervour of these conservative activists out performed that of the mediocre Kerry ground campaign.

Similarly, the Rights at Work campaign of the ACTU in 2007 saw a vast network of union members become community activists. This grassroots army was able to reach thousands of disengaged people in marginal seats and inform them of the assault on their workplace rights.

Compare this to 2010, with almost no grassroots campaign to speak of. We saw one of the lowest voter participation ever in Australia, combined with a record high informal vote.

Mass campaigns lead to greater disengagement and apathy precisely because it is impersonal and often disconnected to the real concerns that people have.

For unions and NGOs looking at September 14 and wondering what to do, the answer is clear, albeit unglamourous.

A focus on identifying, engaging and mobilising the committed will lead to far greater impact than trying to persuade the uncommitted. What’s more most NGOs should not neglect the “safe” seats. While doorknocking and street stalls in marginal seats are more likely to find undecided voters in those marginals, campaigning should still take place in the safe seats — that’s often where most of your activists live!

These tactics aren’t rocket science. There isn’t any kind of secret sauce or mysterious strategy. It’s just much harder work and (for consultants and hacks) less exciting than drawing up TV ad schedules, direct mail and social media strategies. Knocking on a door and having a conversation, seems in comparison wonderfully simplistic.

Beyond election time, the investment for unions and NGOs on building an activist volunteer base will continue to pay off. Whatever the campaign, it makes sense that having more activists, more delegates, more volunteers, will increase the effectiveness of your organisation.

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