The Literature Review Part 5 – The ‘Ground War’: nuts and bolts campaigning techniques

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The ‘Ground War’: nuts and bolts campaigning techniques

As mentioned previously, there are several excellent recent US ‘campaigning manuals’ such as Campaign Craft by Shea and Burton, Winning elections by R.A. Faucheaux, and
No place for amateurs by Dennis Johnson. A recent UK addition to this stable is  The political campaigning book: real lessons from the front line by Lionel Zetter. These manuals explain important foundations such as campaign strategy, research and targeting as well as ‘nuts and bolts campaigning like use of databases, direct mail, doorknocking, phoning, candidate and team training, volunteers, community issue campaigns, use of local media and the like. Errington and van Onselen cite Shea and Burton in the paper Electoral databases: big brother or democracy unbound? They explain how the professionalisation of American campaigns includes the hiring of consultants for database management. Similar (though decentralised) databases now feature prominently in Australian political campaigns as well as MP’s offices. The authors note that “over a decade after their introduction” the major parties are still unwilling to discuss the details of their electoral databases, although they do obtain training and operation manuals of the Feedback database system from Liberal Party sources.

It is explained that “the development of the Liberal Party’s Feedback database was part of a national review of the Coalition’s 1990 election campaign” in which it “was generally recognised that the ALP had out-campaigned the Coalition in key marginal seats”. Lessons were learned from the US Republicans about the superior “development of targeted campaigning” and although the relevant software was not imported, due to “technical difficulties, and differences between the two political systems”, a similar system was developed locally.

The party-control of the Feedback and Electrac systems in Australia contrasts with larger political market in the US, “where the decentralised major political parties, as well as private campaigns for ballot initiatives, have ensured the development of a lively political database industry.”

Voter contact is an essential element of any political campaign, especially for challengers facing greater resources from incumbents. A great selection of examples of different voter contact techniques can be found in Margaret Saville’s book The Battle For Bennelong : The Adventures of Maxine McKew, Aged 50 Something where she recounts tales of doorknocking, community meetings, phone canvassing, shopping centre visits, school fetes and more.

Playford to Dunstan provides some great examples of doorknocking prowess in 1960s Australia. It states that “the major parties geared their campaigns to the obviously marginal seats” and “local strategy in the marginals emphasised personal canvassing” and “troops are out in the biggest sustained doorknocking exercise the State has known”. One candidate claimed to have “doorknocked 90 per cent of the homes in the district” and his opponent “in the two years since his endorsement he had managed to visit every home in the constituency twice.” Another candidate complimented his “seven months of doorknocking prior to polling day” with “over a dozen” public meetings with “an average attendance of 150”.

Much of the literature in the US about nuts and bolts campaigning techniques speaks about ‘voter turnout’ or ‘GOTV’ (get out the vote) and there is a false assumption amongst many campaigners in Australia that our persuasion-focused strategies mean that these techniques are not relevant. Although it can be argued that voter turnout strategies and techniques are not directly applicable in the Australian context, anyone who has been doorknocking in both the US and Australia (as well as in the UK and NZ) will concede that good personal contact techniques are largely universal. Even though they may not be directly applicable, they are certainly (like any good campaign technique from any source) adaptable to an Australian political environment. For example, the technology and investment in a microtargeting survey combined with a doorknocking campaign can be used to maximise voter turnout of partisan voters as well as swinging voters. The survey questions may need to be refined, as well as the scripts for the volunteers, but the fundamental mechanical process would be very similar, as would the cost (in money and volunteers)

In a 1999 study Does Canvassing Increase Voter Turnout? A Field Experiment based on a randomised field experiment involving 30,000 registered voters, Gerber and Green concluded that voter turnout was “increased substantially by personal canvassing, slightly by direct mail, and not at all by telephone calls (from a phone bank).” The research found “personal canvassing has a far greater influence on voter participation than three pieces of professionally crafted mail delivered within two weeks of Election Day”. A very interesting aspect of this paper is the hypothesis that “the decline of personal mobilization has arguably contributed to the erosion of voter turnout in the United States since the 1960s.”

This correlates to the arguments made by others in Australia such as Sally Young and Andrew Leigh that an overemphasis on new campaign techniques such as mass marketing through television has discouraged voter interest in political discourse as they become more personally detached from it and often only see negative aspects via the mainstream media. This also meets with the professional campaigners viewpoint in that although people traditionally complain about disruptive election campaigns and no-one likes to have their busy home-lives interrupted by political canvassers, there is an expectation that all MPs and candidates will spend a significant amount of their time and resources keeping in touch with their constituency, listening to their voters and personally finding out what is happening to people throughout their electorates. Candidates who display these desirable traits should, all else being equal, be more attractive to voters.

Earlier American research, such as Blydenburgh’s 1971 paper A Controlled Experiment to Measure the Effects of Personal Contact Campaigning recorded how several candidates performed in a campaign for local office. The experiment was designed to measure the impact of door-to-door canvassing and telephone solicitation. He cites similar studies in the US dating back to elections in the 1920s and although concedes that variables between candidates and different election types cloud his results, comes to the reasonable conclusion that local campaigning will have a greater effect in contest where the message is not influenced by mass media, such as in local government elections.

Conversely, in Constituency Campaigning In Parliamentary Systems With Preferential Voting: Is there a Paradox? Bowler, Farrell and McAllister argue that “local campaigning has a very limited impact on the vote” and “concludes with an explanation for the apparent paradox of why candidates bother campaigning when it does not make a difference to their vote” by hypothesising that the activity is designed to impress their colleagues and the party as much as it is design to gain an electoral advantage. The paper focuses on data from the 1993 AES. The first possible problem with this analysis is that 1993 was a very unusual election in that it revolved around a very public (i.e. undertaken via the mass media) discussion about the new Goods and Services Tax which the Hewson Liberals were proposing. Secondly, the study categorises “constituency work” as “local campaigning” and even though it includes the disclaimer “the actual degree to which local constituency work attracts votes is still a matter of debate” it does not differentiate between “constituency work” and “local campaigning” in any marketing or voter canvassing context.

An alternate view can be found in the UK, which correlates more closely with the American research. Whiteley and Seyd show in Local Party Campaigning and Electoral Mobilization in Britain that “local campaigning by Labour party members had a significant influence on the Labour vote share in the 1987 election, but not on turnout.”

In another UK article Hanging on the telephone? Doorstep and Telephone Canvassing at the British General Election of 1997. Pattie and Johnston reiterate the findings of Gerber and Green and warn “it would be premature and counterproductive for parties to write off their electoral activists” as “face-to-face canvassing paid electoral dividends.” 146 p 322

Denver and Hands et al in Constituency Campaigning in Britain 1992-2001: Centralization and Modernization”. Write that constituency (local) campaigning in British general elections has been transformed over the past ten years or so. Firstly, national party headquarters have taken an increasingly large role in planning and managing constituency campaigns. Although the pace of change has varied across the major parties, all are heading down the same road. Secondly, campaigning on the ground has also changed. Technological and other changes have led to a decline in the use of traditional campaign techniques and increased use of new methods, especially in `key’ seats.

In her 2005 research paper for the Australian Parliamentary Library Sarah Miskin stated that in the 2004 federal election, “Direct mail continued to be an important campaign tool, especially in the marginal electorates. The media estimated that the two major parties spent $5 million each on this method of wooing voters. A 2001 study found that such spending was justified because direct-mail and letterbox-drop literature was the primary source of policy information for 41 per cent of those canvassed.”

Miskin also cites Errington and van Onselen as having “discussed the sophisticated national databases that the major parties now maintain in order to build profiles of voter interests and target party messages accordingly”.

Errington’s and van Onselen’s paper “Electoral Databases: Big Brother or Democracy Unbound?” is very detailed in it’s explanations of political databases like the Liberal Pparty’s Feedback program.

Miskin also quotes their article in the Sydney Morning Herald “X files are keeping odds stacked in favour of MPs” where they state

Databases are all about helping political parties ensure that their messages are relevant to the recipients. The big parties are already spending less money on broadcast advertising and diverting their resources towards more targeted campaigns.”

Miskin notes the criticisms from some political commentators “that sitting MPs were able to use taxpayer ‘bucks’—in the form of parliamentary printing and mail allowances—to pay for their direct mail.

In an interview with Age reporter Michelle Grattan, Former Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger was quoted as saying that the benefits of incumbency (including staff, office and phone as well as printing and mail allowances) were worth $1.5 million to an MP over three years.

Mills describes in detail how “the advent of direct mail to Australian politics highlights the American derivation of many of our new political technologies.” Richard Viguerie “is the acknowledged high priest of direct mail” and he “encouraged the Liberals to become the first Australian party to use direct mail.” Using Viguerie’s advice, the Liberals became successful fundraisers in the early 1980s, “utilising the American techniques in copyrighting and list management.” Because of the size of the American market, their commercial techniques are naturally more thoroughly tested and proven. In 1984 The NSW Liberal’s Key Electorates Appeal direct mail fundraising campaign won a gold medal from the Australian Direct Marketing Association.”

Mills writes that “the secret of direct mail is emotionalism. Direct mail copywriters have an old formula called AIDA, an acronym for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. According to one direct mail specialist, the message has to be extreme…” But this extremism in language can backfire in an Australian context. Mills writes that “the moderate success of the (Liberal fundraising) election mailing was marred by the resentment caused amongst some swinging voters by the forceful language used in the letters.” This is particularly concerning given the compulsory voting laws in Australia and highlights a weakness in adopting American campaign techniques without some consideration of the need to adapt or modify them for the Australian political landscape.

New technologies are anticipated. Recent use of sms as a local organising tool, for internal communications such as to alert candidates and volunteers to campaign messages and activities are becoming more widespread. Although there have been examples of sms use in public campaigning, it is still in its infancy, mostly likely restricted by the ability to send out a thoughtful and intelligent message in 160 characters or less! Sally Young writes about a recent example in a Gold Coast by-election in which nightclub owners supported an independent campaign against the incumbent Mayor, who was proposing to restrict club opening hours. The nightclub owners collected mobile numbers during a promotion with their clients and used those numbers to send several messages to their clients including “Gary Baildon thinks your vote won’t count because you’re young and go to nightclubs. He wants you in bed by 3am. Don’t let him tell you what to do! Vote him out!”

Plasser notes that the new campaign techniques, as modelled on lessons and observations from the US, have not replaced traditional Australian campaign techniques but have, as Warhurst describes, “been superimposed on the latter and has displaced it from the focus of attention.” He writes that “although there seems to be plenty of evidence that Australian campaign styles have moved closer toward the US model” there is also “convincing evidence for the viability of prevailing country- and culture-specific Australian campaign styles, determined by regulatory frameworks, the alternative preference vote, compulsory voting, public finance of elections, and the party-driven dynamics of political competition.”

Not all that is written about local campaign techniques by political parties in Australia is accurate because the parties have until recently gone to great lengths to maintain competitive advantages over their rivals by keeping details about various techniques confidential. In his book on the 1987 campaign Warhurst writes (based on a couple of different newspaper reports) that the ALP used “a telephone survey called Polfile” and in one electorate alone “sixty-five separate personalised letters were sent to electors selected through telephone surveying”. Most likely this second-hand account describes the use of a direct mail and database program called Polfile (the clunkier predecessor to the ALP’s Electrac, which Errington and van Onselen have written about extensively). Polfile is not a telephone survey, although it can feasibly be used to generate the contact or calling lists for such a survey, as can any list based on the electoral roll and white pages, both publicly available through commercial sources such as those described earlier.

Previous notes about the 2005-2007 ACTU YRAW campaign have referred to its importance in framing debate during federal election and the online component, but it is important to remember that its success was largely based on its mobilisation effort.

Under the sub-heading “UNION MOBILISATION—SOME IMPLICATIONS” in the article Election 2007: Did the union campaign succeed? Spies-Butcher and Wilson explain that “In America, politics in recent years have been shaped by greater mobilisation of the union vote for the Democrats under a reformist AFL-CIO leadership that won office in 1996 (and their new rivals in the ‘Change to Win’ coalition). Union mobilisation of the vote is an offshoot of political unionism that (recognises)… the union movement depends not only on a strong shopfloor presence but on a favourable legal and political environment as well.” The lessons of union mobilisation in the US were applied successfully by the ACTU and its affiliates in Australia in 2007. “Like the American labour movement, the ACTU has offset its declining natural constituency by more strongly mobilising its remaining membership, renewing it in the process. And so the tactics the ACTU employed during the 2007 election were much closer to those of a grass roots mobilisation than to the simple increase in resources, or targeted promises, that accompany other marginal seat campaigns. This is important both in highlighting the continuing power and importance of the union movement in Australia, and in opening up the possibility of the broader significance of electoral mobilisation by social movements. Perhaps the era of activist electoral politics is not yet dead, but waiting to be remobilised.”

Andrew Leigh’s home-grown studies (with some theoretical underpinning from US and UK research) demonstrate very elaborate investigation into demographics and electoral behaviour. Using “a large repeated cross-sectional dataset from 1966 to 2001” Leigh undertakes innovative research which shows partisan tendencies based on various demographic characteristics such as wealth, neighbourhood, age, gender and immigration.

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