Archives – November, 2011

Positive Works

After the 2004 federal election, where I was the pollster for Jack Layton and the NDP, a prominent media pundit pronounced: “Negative works!”   This is a phrase that I’ve heard countless times in the political business.  The problem is, it’s not a complete thought.  Does it mean negative campaigning works…

… all the time?

…no matter how you use it?

… no matter what else is going on in the campaign?

The answer to each of the above questions is, of course, no. But those who say “Negative works” are implying that it’s always an easy recipe for success. If you need votes, go negative and the votes will magically flow to you.  The truth is, it doesn’t usually work that way.

When I say “Negative,” I’m not talking about statements or ads that say “our opponent has this position and I don’t agree with it,” or that highlight contrasting positions between contenders, which is a necessary part of almost every campaign. I’m referring to harsh attacks, mostly through advertising, which are usually character based and often pound on seemingly minor “wedge issues.”

It was funny to see “negative works” used to explain the 2004 federal campaign. The Liberals and Conservatives both used a substantial amount of negative advertising, and the NDP did some too, and all the parties were disappointed with the outcome. The Conservatives were hoping to win and didn’t, the Liberals wanted a majority and didn’t get it, and the NDP finished less well than expected. So who, then, did going negative work for?

In the recent Vancouver election, Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson (with whom I was working) ran a positive campaign focused on Vision’s track record, programs, and building awareness of our candidates.  The other guys (the NPA), ran a nasty, mudslinging, personally-focused negative campaign – complete with unsigned letters, name calling, attack ads and chicken suits. It was done so poorly and ineffectively that to call it a negative US style campaign, as some did, is almost an insult to negative US style campaigns. It was more of a brain dump of negativity and hostility. They hated the Mayor and it showed. That’s an emotion, not a campaign tactic.

The result: Vision won 18 of the 18 positions we contested, beating the party that has largely governed Vancouver since the 1930’s including controlling city council from the mid 1980’s to 2002. But…“Negative Works!”

….unless, I suppose, it’s done by an angry person in a chicken suit.

The successful results from Robertson’s positive campaign are by no means an exception. Many successful Canadian and US campaigns have been positive. You can’t get more positive than Obama’s “Yes We Can.” And look at the enormous positive profile Jack Layton achieved for himself and the NDP leading up to, and during, the last federal election. Much of that was from Jack’s positive personality, campaigning and approach over the years. Dalton McGuinty became Premier of Ontario without running a single negative ad. We underestimate voters if we think they don’t want this, or won’t vote for it. Or that they won’t vote against the contrary approach. Its time campaign lore caught up with campaign reality.

Some imply negative is the magic bullet, but in my experience it seldom hits the target. Although “negative works” is almost a creed of our profession, there is often little data that proves that attack ads and other negative tactics actually move the numbers. Numbers always move.  Ads always run. You still have to prove one causes another and mostly the proof isn’t there, or points to the contrary. The truth is, like any campaign tactic, it depends on the situation.   

No doubt the Federal Conservatives hurt Michael Ignatieff’s image with their pre-election attacks against him in the last federal election, but the steady and significant Liberal decline, over four successive federal elections, suggests that something more was at work here. I could understand why the Liberals would want to claim that Ignatieff lost the election due to unfair attacks, but if I were them, I would look deeper. In Ontario, Tim Hudak used the Federal Tory attack model to attack Dalton McGuinty for months in advance of the recent Ontario election, in a barrage of nasty ads to brand him “the taxman.”  These attacks didn’t help Hudak; in fact he lost the lead he had, and his chance to become Premier, even though he was thought by many to have the chance of winning.

It is true that negative campaign tactics are often part of campaigns in the US, but not as often as people think, and not without concern about their potentially damaging counter-effect (usually carefully watched through tracking polls), and especially not without strategy. But even then, the US system and voter sensibility is different, and the sheer tonnage of advertising available to most campaigns means the campaign dynamics are different. While it’s true that some voters can be persuaded by a negative attack (and in some campaigns a negative approach is the correct one strategically), they can also be dissuaded from supporting those who made the attack. 

In our Vancouver campaign, more than a third of voters said their impression of Suzanne Anton worsened during the campaign, and when asked the reason their opinion went down, 28% said it was because of her negative campaign tactics, and 22% because Anton didn’t outline a positive program. So, being too negative and not positive enough created 50% of all worsened impressions of our opponent. That’s a lot, and that was before the final week’s over-the-top barrage of negativity. Anton’s denials that they were running a negative campaign only made it worse: she got a dishonesty tag added to the mix. Did Anton’s negative campaign cost her and her candidates votes? Without a doubt.

While it is true that Anton finished with a somewhat higher percentage of vote than some of the early public polls showed, this was inevitable given her low recognition and starting point to begin with, and the higher turnout propensity amongst the demographics where she had her highest support. But there is little evidence that her negative campaign caused that change or that it helped her more than it hurt her.

On the other hand, Robertson had a positive campaign focus with a commitment to end homelessness, to address the crisis in housing affordability, and to raise the environmental bar on how we live in our city. And doing this while running the city well and in a fiscally responsible way was the balance most people were looking for – doing the best for residents and being, whenever we can, an example to the world. This positive picture inspired many voters to ignore the onslaught of attacks and vote for Robertson and Vision.

The truth is: Positive works…

…when it’s done right, when it’s appropriate, most of the time.

7 Comments November 25, 2011

Pre-Occupied: How the media and the NPA got it wrong in the Vancouver election

This is the fourth Vancouver election in a row where I have been a pollster (the last three for Vision Vancouver), and this was the oddest I’ve seen here – or anywhere else I’ve worked for that matter.

One issue, Occupy Vancouver, set the tone and dominated the coverage throughout. Many media commentators said that the election was a referendum on Occupy – that it was a “defining moment” or a “key leadership moment.” One reporter told me his editor was “obsessed with Occupy.” No doubt he was – but the people of Vancouver weren’t.

In our polling, Occupy Vancouver never even showed up on the list of top 15 unprompted issues for voters.  Nor, by the way, did chickens. Separated bike lanes were there, but the number of people who were pro bike lanes was always significantly higher than those opposed. The actual top issues were affordability, homelessness, and transit. Environmental issues in various manifestations were prominent as well.

As for how the Mayor handled Occupy Vancouver, though some public polls referred to a significant percentage of people who thought the Mayor was handling Occupy poorly, those polling reports never said which people didn’t like the job he was doing —  which most of the time is key to understanding a poll politically.  In this case, those who disagreed with the Mayor’s handling of Occupy were in large part the same people who opposed much of his agenda – people who were voting overwhelmingly for Suzanne Anton anyway, i.e. her base.  There’s a pretty good chance that if they thought the Mayor did a poor job on Occupy, they also hated separated bike lanes.

The NPA hammering Occupy Vancouver may have motivated those voters more (although motivation was already an advantage with the smaller, angrier, more concentrated NPA base).  But at the same time, Anton’s focus on Occupy also hurt her with some voters: many felt she was politicizing the issue for her own political gain. While these voters were mostly in the Robertson camp, they could also be found among Anton voters, and significantly among the undecided as well.  Mostly though, for the vast majority of voters, how the two contenders handled the occupation issue wasn’t a vote-deciding issue at all.

And the NPA would have seen this too (that is, if they had accurate or useful polling, something that remains uncertain).  So why the NPA preoccupation with Occupy?  Here are some theories:

  1. A mistake: they believed the media and their own hype (a common campaign error).
  2. They had little else that was working so were prepared to try something new.
  3. They were internally divided, with some believing correctly that a campaign on bike lanes and chickens was a ticket to nowhere. Focusing on Occupy may have helped solve the argument.
  4. They were banking on Occupy blowing up much more, with a raid or riot, thereby changing the campaign dynamics — a change they desperately needed. Fortunately that didn’t happen. The Mayor’s steady hand on this, and on other tough issues he has inherited, is why a lot of people want him to stay their Mayor.

It did get Anton on the news, and the sheer volume of extra coverage probably did help her somewhat, given her low recognition and approvals at the beginning of the campaign. Almost any coverage had to have some positive effect, given her starting point.

And no doubt some voters, although not a large number, disagreed with the Mayor’s position on Occupy from the left or the right, and he lost a few votes as a result. But not many.

So, if Occupy Vancouver wasn’t the vote-decider that the NPA wanted, what was its effect on the election?

Its most significant effect was to block other news coverage. Vision’s agenda and record are well supported by the public in Vancouver, but they didn’t hear much about that agenda – at least not from the news media.  It was even harder for COPE, who had less access to the media to begin with (and very little after Occupy), and fewer resources than the other parties to go over top of the media with paid advertising.  Occupy may even have hurt the NPA. Focusing relentlessly on it may have stopped them from searching out more significant issues that might have actually resonated with voters.

But all this was minor; for those that speculated that we in the Vision campaign sat around terrified of Occupy Vancouver and its effect on the election – they were wrong. Given Occupy’s prominence, we obviously did have to spend time on it, and watch it carefully. And that was frustrating at times.

Media coverage of elections is problematic at the best of times – and this wasn’t the best of times.  The occupiers are mostly gone now, and the mud is being bulldozed back into place on the art gallery lawn. In the end they didn’t have much effect on the outcome of the election (nor unfortunately on the problems of income inequality, but that’s another story). But the media’s relentless focus on Occupy Vancouver’s every move, and the politicians’ every reaction to it, did limit more useful information from reaching voters, and we all missed an opportunity for a more substantive political debate, something that – at least in part – election campaigns are supposed to be about.

20 Comments November 23, 2011

Welcome to my New Blog

Dear Reader,

Today I’m starting my personal blog. Since I’ve built up a pretty good list of Facebook friends, twitter followers and LinkedIn connections, I figured I’d better start contributing more to the discussions. Like most of you I sometimes can’t do that in 140 characters, so we could think of this blog as my way of cheating twitter, as least in part.

I’m launching this blog in conjunction with my company Stratcom’s blog which we started this week. I’ll use this personal space for social and political commentary, and maybe the odd partisan jab which probably doesn’t belong in the company blog.

Both blogs will focus on strategy and techniques in the non-profit and political world. But in mine, I’ll do some political commentary and I’ll look more closely at polling, media and election campaigns, and the intersection of the three. This particular topic deserves a lot more discussion with advent of cheaper (and often weaker) polling techniques, and the media’s increasing fascination with – but not necessarily understanding of –  all things “horse race.” There is more, I think, that needs to be said here, and that’s in part what I intend too.

I’ll start with some discussion of the recent Vancouver municipal election (where we did the polling for Mayor Robertson and Vision Vancouver) and the media coverage of it will be fodder for some of my first posts. Watch for those next week.

I hope to hear from you too, so please follow and comment, and retweet!

Bob

Leave a Comment November 18, 2011


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