02 September 2008

Why election campaigns are for idiots and why attack ads work

Election fever stalks North America. The U.S. has been at it for months and now our prime minister desperately attempts to justify a trip to the polls. Soon we will join the Americans to be immersed in political campaigning. Political junkies will be in their element. But what's in it for the rest of us? My answer is not much.

Consider, for simplicity's sake, the electorate divided into two groups: those voters who are well-informed and those who are not. Most of the well-informed will have made up their minds about how they will vote even before the writ is dropped. Some will be committed to a particular party while those who are not will have had four, or in the current case, two years to observe the parties' policies, personalities and behaviour. Little will be added to their knowledgeable and thoroughly-considered views in the few weeks of electioneering.

That leaves the ill-informed. Some of these people will also be committed to a particular party, so their vote too is a foregone conclusion. The only group left to sell a message to during the campaign is an uncommitted, ill-informed minority. In other words, the idiot vote.

A minority it may be, perhaps quite a small minority, but often a critical minority. In the last federal election, the Conservatives won 36 per cent of the vote and were elected to a minority government. If they had won only three or four per cent more, they would probably have formed a majority government, three or four per cent less and they wouldn't have been able to form a government at all. In the last presidential election in the United States, George W. Bush won with an edge in the popular vote of less than three per cent. That's all it takes -- a few percentage points either way.

This is why attack ads work. They insult intelligent, well-informed voters, but they don't target intelligent, well-informed voters. Quite the opposite. They target the idiot vote, those people who can be sold by simplistic, simple-minded, sound bites. If attack ads capture this vote, they can win an election.

A candidate or party may be able to win enough votes to overwhelm the idiot vote, but if the election promises to be close they can't take the chance. This is why at election time, promises flow freely, attack ads proliferate, lawn signs sprout overnight like mushrooms, and politicians you haven't seen for four years knock on your door to explain in 30 seconds why you should vote for them. All to win the idiot vote. Such is the stuff political campaigns are made of.

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