Niccolò Machiavelli believed a detailed evaluation of our opponents’ as well as our own strengths and weaknesses to be one of the most important preconditions for the preservation or expansion of power.
Although citing the Italian power strategist (‘The end justifies the means’) is sometimes frowned upon these days, even in modern electoral politics, knowing the strength of the weapons (or nowadays, the means and instruments) we face is an essential prerequisite for successful campaigning.
We need strategy and tactics, skill, endurance, resources – and knowledge! The more we know about voters’ attitudes, desires, fears and demands, and the more we know about how and when to reach them with our messages, the more exactly we can plan campaigns, minimize uncertainties and tailor our messages more precisely.
In short: Knowledge is power!
Knowledge is power
The voter need not be an unknown creature.
There is no reason why political campaigns shouldn’t be able to do what business, the advertising industry and political consulting agencies do every day. Campaign organizers are every bit as capable of utilizing the research tools provided by the social sciences. For years now, the introduction of any product or even new beer label has been conducted with more social scientific know-how than most election campaigns – at least in Germany and most other European countries.
Know your potential
A variety of factors determine the outcome of election campaigns: mobilization, themes, individuals and thus also the favor of voters. However, the ‘classic voter milieus’ are not merely becoming more diffuse, but are increasingly disintegrating altogether. It has become far more difficult to predict how members of a given social or occupational group will vote.
While in the 1960s 80 per cent of working-class Germans still cast their votes for the SPD in the last federal election of 2009 the figure was only 24%. In the same election, 28% voted for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, 13% for the Liberals and 7% even voted for the Green Party.
And with increasing frequency, it is the ‘Non-Voters’ party that ultimately wins elections. If all the electoral abstainers who have stopped participating in democratic elections were to gain representation, as the largest party they would provide the head of government. While more than 91% of eligible voters still went to the polls in 1972, by 2009 the figure had fallen to barely 71%.
It is therefore important to mobilize as vigorously as possible, choose themes correctly and position key candidates deftly, thereby reaching potential new target groups. In order to do so, however, we need to know our potential voters inside and out.
Know your strengths: ‘Strengthen your strengths, and weaken your weaknesses!’
Formerly small parties such as the Greens frequently have an especially difficult time bringing their political objectives into alignment with the current themes that determine the outcome of elections. Often enough, alongside the ‘hard’ issues, ‘soft’ indicators or image values such as credibility, assertiveness, a clear profile and a close connection with citizens and their concerns are key to electoral success. Putting on a good performance is one of the most important aspects of campaigning. It may sound strange, but it is generally true: not making mistakes is half the battle.
The earlier you gain an idea of what impression the voters have, the better you can respond to potential deficiencies. NB: negative images cannot be corrected overnight, but good image values can be ruined in very short order!
To prevent this happening, we need to use demographic tools! While we should never underestimate our ‘gut’, i.e., experience, intuition and that little measure of necessary luck – a good scientifically collected statistical basis is the best decision-making aid!
In short: If you can answer the following seven questions about your own voters, you are definitely moving in the right direction:
1. How many voters can envision voting for me?
2. Who are my voters?
3. Where do my voters live?
4. What do my voters want?
5. How do my voters see me?
6. What channels can I use to reach my voters?
7. Who would my voters vote for if not me?
You not only need to be able to answer these questions long before the election, but also to keep questioning and evaluating during the campaign. After all, the impact of a campaign requires constant monitoring. Otherwise, it resembles a hiker in the woods who has lost her compass. She knows where she wants to go, but will have a hard time getting there.
In choosing research tools, we distinguish roughly between ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ instruments.
Quantitative – Painting by numbers
Quantitative tools (such as written interview questionnaires) try to describe reality with numbers. A classic example is the so-called Sunday question: ‘If the election were next Sunday, who would you vote for?’ The results are usually presented in percentages.
Quantitative analysis yields simple but robust statements about voter groups within brief periods of time: their socio-demographic characteristics (gender, age, income, occupation, religion, origins, etc.), which topics they care about, how they assess certain politicians, etc.
To this end, a certain group of persons is surveyed (in direct face-to-face interviews, on the telephone or the Internet) who are representative of the general population (or the party’s own voters). The selection of a representative group is made according to extensive scientific criteria.
NB: the absolute number of persons who need to be surveyed to yield representative results varies according to what you are trying to find out and the overall population. It can range from 100 to 1000. A serious research institute can offer expert assistance. This is another reason to be skeptical of surveys that were not conducted by professional institutes.
What use are numbers?
A quantitative study can be helpful both before and during the campaign.
Before planning begins, the study offers a good basis for answering the seven questions about the campaign’s target group. When planning the budget, it is absolutely essential to allocate sufficient funds for this. Studies of this kind are expensive, but if done right they are priceless. The insights you gain are a compass that can accompany you throughout the campaign. Especially at those times during the campaign when you are unsure about whether you are taking the right path and addressing the right people, a glance at the ‘map of the electorate’, the survey report or the volume of tables can be very helpful.
Such surveys can be very useful during the campaign as well. How popular is my candidate, how did the voters stand on a current issue, and who is cutting the best figure during the campaign? Answers to such questions help not just the campaign organizer, but, if skillfully disseminated, can also influence reporting in the media.
Who hasn’t read about an allegedly ‘internal’ survey conducted shortly before election day that clearly yielded different figures than those published in the media? You can be sure that spin doctors were at work here and deliberately gave the survey to the press.
Many of us know from experience the commotion that changes of about two percentage points from one month to the next can set off. Few people know that, statistically speaking, two points often means that nothing has changed, or they choose to ignore it. After all, it is far easier for the media to write ‘party takes a dive’ than ‘party surveys for XY are still within the margin of fluctuation’.
Spontaneous opinion polls as bus surveys
In order to organize such surveys of only one or two questions at short notice, polling agencies offer so-called omnibus or bus surveys. Here, each client can book a ‘seat’ and pose their questions. The large number of clients makes these studies feasible. Independent surveys are usually beyond the budgets of political parties, especially towards the end of an election campaign.
When and where? Quantitative research tools
What: Telephone surveys, Internet polls, interview questionnaires
For what: Voter potential analysis for campaign planning, adjusting the campaign to current events, increasing competence values, compiling socio-demographic profiles for micro-targeting or fundraising campaigns
When: Before and during the campaign
Qualitative methods – getting closer to the electorate
Qualitative methods, in contrast, depend on the observer’s impressions. Generally, this involves longer, more detailed conversations, interviews or group discussions that offer the client an excellent overview of the individuals’ reactions to and assessments of a particular subject, message, claim or poster. These qualitative research methods, while relatively subjective, yield astonishing information and insights.
When can we dispense with numbers?
Ultimately, the ‘qualitative’ tools cannot provide usable representative results and ‘hard’ figures. They are nonetheless important campaign aids. The most widespread instrument is the so-called focus group – a moderated discussion among a small group that addresses certain questions along predetermined guidelines. Socio-demographic criteria are used to ‘cast’ the group in advance. This discussion is recorded both in written notes and on video or audio. The client can also attend the discussion, usually incognito behind a two-way mirror, or (more rarely) as a ‘participant observer’ in the same room as the group.
For the observer, these discussions are often a revelation, since campaign organizers all too frequently forget to discuss their brilliant ideas with ordinary people. And by the time posters are hanging all over town, advertisements have been placed and campaign spots are hitting people’s television screens it is often too late. For that reason, focus groups in closed, semi-anonymous spaces save us from many mistakes or confirm our strategies. And some top candidates might find it useful to follow a discussion of their public appearances, or to see the puzzled faces when their names are mentioned. After all, self-perception is generally relatively far removed from the way outsiders see us. NB: Those who want more details should consider a ‘mirror process’. Here, the candidate’s own personality and demeanor are ‘mirrored’ and then processed in coaching and training sessions.
When and where? Qualitative tools
What: Focus groups
For what: Image values, testing messages, poster motifs and campaign claims, evaluating candidates
When: Before and during the campaign
Media resonance analysis
An additional tool that can be used to evaluate campaigns in progress, in particular, is so-called media resonance analysis. We are all familiar with the classic press review or newspaper clippings file, which offers an (albeit incomplete) overview of whether one’s own press efforts are working.
This is an important tool, but inadequate for the professional and up-to-date monitoring and evaluation of a campaign. After all, the person who compiles the clipping file is always unintentionally subjective.
Media resonance analysis seeks to analyze press reports ‘qualitatively’ and to present the results in quantifiable figures. This includes not just counting the number of times the candidate is mentioned, for example, but also assessing the general thrust of an article: is the tone positive or negative for us? Is it more neutral? Is it the result of our own press work? How far do our own messages reach?
Even if you should be careful not to confuse media resonance with public opinion – media resonance analysis is the best and quickest way to discover whether your own media work is bearing fruit, and helps to discover at an early stage which media trends demand a response.
Professional agencies also offer media resonance analyses. Apart from newspaper clippings, they can include television and radio reporting as well, if desired. If your funds don’t run to this kind of analysis, at the very least you will need an extensive press review, which you can prepare yourself with relatively little effort. Also helpful are the ‘alert’ functions of some Internet search engines, which automatically send you a message when certain search terms appear in new (online) press publications.
When and where? Media resonance analysis
What: Clipping files, press reviews, ‘alerts’ from Internet search engines, content analysis, complex media resonance analysis
For what: Assessing the scope of media work, discovering media trends early on and if necessary responding to them, evaluating the situation of the press and commentary on one’s own campaign.
When: During the campaign
I. Research and analysis are not extra frills; they are basic prerequisites for a successful campaign. For that reason, never neglect them. Budget for them from the beginning, and budget generously.
II. Not all tools can be applied with equal success at all times. When planning your strategy, take a comprehensive quantitative approach in the form of a broad survey. In order to prepare for this survey, make an extensive analysis of all publicly accessible sources: studies by universities, polls by newspapers and television stations, publications of the EU Commission (Eurobarometer etc.)…
III. For strategy, the following generally applies: Make a plan and follow it through. Operate pragmatically. Pause at the markers along the way and evaluate. Take account of, but don’t overestimate, unforeseen events. Readjust and adapt – when necessary!
IV. “The only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself.” This quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill makes one thing clear: Opinion polls make politics. The campaign organiser is therefore well advised to make a careful study of survey techniques, statistics and questions of representativity. Whether it is a matter of unmasking the tactics behind such statistical tricks or making politics with them – if he or she prefers not to do this personally, investing in the right personnel is definitely worthwhile.
V. After all, nothing is more costly than a lost election.