In last week's Spectator
, Peter Oborne wrote about the Conservative Party's strategy for winning the next election. It is based on the observation that, roughly, there are three categories of voter: those who will vote for you no matter what, those who will vote against you no matter what and swing voters who may or may not vote for you. Any campaigning aimed at voters in the first two categories is a waste of effort, so it makes senses to concentrate on the swing voters, and, in particular, the swing voters in marginal constituencies. All of this is obvious and uninteresting. The story in Oborne's article is that the Tories have purchased a state-of-the-art database, called Voter Vault, and are going to use sophisticated statistical profiling to identify who the swing voters are, so that they can be targetted by canvassers and individually tailored campaign literature. The Tories' database, is supposedly better than Labour's, and was used successfully by the Republicans in the U.S. presidential election, hence the excitement.
It occurs to me that this campaigning strategy should be useful not only for the politcal parties. We should expect most voters to be rationally ignorant
and have only a vague idea of the parties' policies, other than those that are continually discussed in the media. On minor policy issues, therefore, the parties will have considerable freedom to choose their policies without threatening their support in safe seats. However, if the parties are targetting their campaigns at swing voters in marginal constituencies, then we might expect those voters to be much better informed about the parties' policies than average. It follows that the parties are likely to choose some of their minor policies to maximise their support amongst those swing voters, safe in the knowledge that they will not affect their support amongst the rest of the electorate. Consequently, the swing voters in marginal constituencies will have a disproportionate influence over the policies offered by the parties, and hence followed by the government.
Now, imagine that you are the member of some interest group that would benefit if the government pursued a particular policy. You might be a libertarian who wants the drugs laws to be liberalised, or an environmentalist who wants recycling to be made compulsory. Or you could be a businessman who wants a tarriff to protect you from foreign competition. Or perhaps you are just Paul and you want the government to rob Peter. How should you persuade the government to do what you want? You might lobby or bribe ministers and MPs, or give donations to party funds. Or you could mount a publicity campaign to persuade voters that you have a worthy cause and they should vote for a party that promises your favoured policy. If you adopt the latter strategy, the above analysis suggests that it might be more effective to target your publicity at the same voters that the parties are targetting in their election campaigns. Is there any evidence that special interest groups are doing this? Or, if this election strategy is only a recent thing, will we see the interest groups doing it in the near future?
It is sometimes argued that one cause of bad policy is that popular ideas tend to be those which can be expressed as simple, emotionally appealing slogans, which bears no relation to whether the ideas are any good. Thus, an interest group whose favoured policies depend on such ideas will have an advantage in mass publicity campaigns over competing interest groups who favour different policies, which can only be justified by sophisticated arguments. But this advantage is not so great if there is a small number of voters, or only a small fraction of them are important in an election. It's easy enough to buy advertising time to remind millions of people of your simple slogans every day; educating them with a sophisticated argument is not an option. With far fewer voters, the simple slogans are still as persuasive, but the sophisticated argument might just become affordable. If, for example, we were to send each of the swing voters identified by Tories' database a free copy of, say, Free to Choose
, would we see the parties move to a more laissez faire
economic policy? Or is that wishful thinking? Are the numbers still too large for that sort of thing to be feasible? Or would targetted campaigning become the bane of the swing voter's life and Free to Choose
would end up in the bin with the rest of the junk mail, in which case we would be back where we started and the simple slogans would win through once more?