Friday entertainment: 1991 NSW ads

As sad as it is, I really do enjoy a good political ad.

Yesterday Bruce Hawker treated geeks like me with a post full of ads from the Labor New South Wales campaign in 1991. In his words…

With Bob Carr again in the news as the new Senator for NSW and Australia’s Foreign Minister I thought it would be interesting to look at some of his 1991 NSW election ads.

In this campaign Carr took Labor from its bad defeat in 1988 to almost winning back government in just three years.

The following ad is particularly familiar, but I highly recommend you check out all of the ads in Hawker’s post.

Early votes

One of the interesting things about the 2011 general election was that we saw a big increase in the number of advance votes cast. Huge numbers of people cast their vote before election day, so they didn’t have to worry about it on November 26th. In the next few days I’ll take a bit more of a look at the numbers. Were these votes helpful for Labour or did they largely fall in line with the national averages?

I have also been taking a look at what happens in other countries, and how advance voting can form an important leg of a get out the vote campaign. David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, writes about their concerns with advance voting numbers in his book, The Audacity to Win

… because we were so dependent on first-time and sporadic voters, we mustered an intense effort toward executing early vote. This effort consisted of radio ads reminding people of early vote and explaining how it worked; a fusillade of Internet ads to push the concept; repeated e-mail and text messaging to people on our list from these states; and a blizzard of door-knocks and phone calls to remind voters person-to-person about early vote. We also tried to make sure all our volunteers voted early so that they would be freed up on Election Day.

It gives me a sense of relief to hear that, scale aside, what we were doing in New Zealand was very much in line with what the Obama campaign was doing in the states.

Some in political circles argue that the early vote doesn’t matter – that the people who go to the effort to vote early are committed voters who will almost certainly show up on Election Day. We fervently believed that if a hurdle presented itself on Election Day – a family issue; a work emergency; transportation problems – nonhabitual voters are the most likely people to throw in the towel on making it to the polls. These are the folks we relentlessly encouraged to vote early and the yardstick to which we paid closest attention – not how many early votes we were getting, but whose.

In New Zealand, for local body elections you receive a daily update of who has cast their postal ballot during the three-week voting period. It’s very useful to be able to target only those you know have not voted. Extending this to the general election would be fantastic.

As we began moving deeper into early vote, one number caused alarm. Carson came into my office one afternoon. “I’ve been poring over the early-vote data,” he said, “and we seem to have a problem. Or what could be a problem, I should say. We’re meeting or exceeding our early-vote goals in most demographics across most states. But younger voters – under twenty-five-are off quite a bit.”

“Let’s move more money and bodies resources to it,” I replied “and maybe try some different messaging.”

Carson agreed but also suggested doing some research among this group to try to fund out why they were not voting early in great numbers. Did we have a motivation problem, an execution problem, or both?

I green-lighted the research, which yielded two very illuminating findings. First, many young voters were so excited by this election that they couldn’t envision doing anything besides voting for Barack Obama in person at the polling location. When we raised with them the possibility of long lines, or the potential to free themselves up to volunteer, they simply wouldn’t budge. This was a big moment for them and they felt it would seem bigger if they voted at the polls. In any case, they were still dead-set on participating, which relieved us.

This is also a big factor in New Zealand. Many of my colleagues on the campaign trail, despite knowing how valuable their time on election day would be, simply couldn’t bring themselves to cast an early vote. They had worked their guts out on the campaign trail and really wanted to savour the experience of casting their vote in their local polling booth. I know I sure did!

Repackaging is not winning

Campaigns have always been a war of words as well as ideas. The belief that Republican mastery of that game was key to their success in 1994 spurred Democrats into a search for their own sleight of tongue that goes on to this day. The architecture of a message matters; but this exercise has been carried to the point where it can become a substitute for thought and persuasion. One expert, George Lakoff, who regularly instructs Democratic senators and members of Congress at their retreats, has urged progressives to make income taxes more palatable by calling them “membership fees” and trial lawyers less controversial by labelling them “public protection attorneys.” The national debt piled up by Bush, he says, should be re-branded the “baby tax.” Most of this hasn’t been tested rigorously; some of it is transparent and needless. Isn’t “debt,” as in “national debt,” a negative enough phrase? But 1994 left some Democrats thinking that they didn’t really have to prosecute the battle of ideas, just find the nomenclature to repackage them…

– Robert Shrum, No Excuses

An interesting example of a failed attempt at repacking a message is National’s “mixed ownership model”. Labour’s success in getting their “asset sale” line to stick was one of the great triumphs of messaging in the 2011 campaign. I noticed almost constantly throughout the last few months of the campaign (when I did manage to catch the news) that the media were referring to nothing but asset sales. Labour won that battle, and the long term impact of this minor victory will be much larger than a simple battle of words.