Perhaps Douglas Adams had it right. People who want to rule are the least suited to doing it; anybody capable of getting elected should never be allowed to do the job. Nevertheless, election season is once again upon us. It is time for political hopefuls and staffers nationwide to answer hard questions. What wins more votes: making speeches, kissing babies, or digging holes? In the past, economists would have told you that making policy speeches was the ticket to winning an election. Everyone has some innate political preference – left, right, or somewhere between. The argument was that people vote for the party closest to their position.
Over time, Australians have become more likely to identify strongly with one side or the other. Yet we are most likely to be centrists and sit on the fence – at least in our reckoning. Suppose politicians and parties are power hungry: they aim to get into parliament and stay there. If that’s the case, in a two-party system, a party’s best bet is to squarely align its policy platform with the median Jill (or Joe). If both parties get the memo, their strategies will end up making them close enough together to be borderline indistinguishable.
If we look at the 2019 federal election, this will imply that both major parties should have had a little right-of-center policy. The party perceived as being closer to that position should have won. Yet, according to voters, neither party was close to the central. What’s more, the ALP was perceived as being a smidge closer. This would have implied an ALP win. So the theorem doesn’t quite stack up. There are more than two parties. Our votes are more complex than left-right (even if we could agree on what they are). We place weight on different issues; speeches and policies aimed squarely at the middle are (sadly) not going to be enough.
How about kissing babies?
There are some things we can all agree on. For example, babies are cute. Chocolate is delicious. Politicians should be trustworthy. Good economic management is important. Alas, we can’t yet agree that good climate management is important too. So, scratch is trying to determine the right-of-center tax policy the median voter wants. Instead, work on convincing people that you’re good at the things they care about. This is why there’s so much focus on whether a prime minister is “trustworthy”, “likable,e” or “competent”. It’s also why we care about which party is a better “economic manager”.
Whether or not a particular party is good at something is almost irrelevant. The trick is to convince someone you are. Razzle-dazzle, as it were. Political parties seem to spend an excessive amount of money on sparkles. This money can come from donations or private sources. It also comes from taxpayers. Any candidate who receives more than 4% of first preference votes gets reimbursed (in part) by the Australian Electoral Commission. Electoral funding has increased over the years. It shows no sign of slowing. Political advertising does not need to be truthful to rub salt into the wound. The only real requirements are to disclose who has authorized the a and not to mislead voters on how to vote. So – razzle-dazzle away!
Does it win votes, though?
It certainly plays a role. Yet it appears Australians aren’t easily hoodwinked. In a paper about the 2013 Rudd/Abbott election, researchers concluded that left-right alignment mattered more to Australian voters than views about leaders. The opposite seems true in Britain, the U, S, and Canada. It’s more likely some mix between the two. Alignment matters – hence the safe seat. But perceived competence can shift the dial, especially for fence-sitters. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. Politicians will always make blunders, and no policy will ever be perfect. Making speeches while kissing babies is hard – and it’s easy to slip up.
So if it’s a close race, parties bet on digging holes. Money comes out of the woodwork and seems to find its way miraculously to big infrastructure spends on marginal seats. These spends are often on worthwhile projects. Yet they are rarely aligned with national priorities. Like it or not, winning elections has as much to do with marketing as it has to do with economics. MI hopes that Australian voters look beyond spin to substance. Work out the issues that matter to you, read, nd vote accordingly e even if you feel li ke if you you choosinge the lesser evilseveryonete counts.