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How Campaigns Use Research to Drive Votes

In this latest edition of MV Spotlight, Senior Advisor Jennifer Espey underscores the importance of research, during political campaigns, to drive votes.

Before I discuss the Machiavellian use of research during elections, I must preface by saying: research is a tool to create visibility, voice and value for diverse experiences of society. If a perspective isn’t made visible, it can’t possibly be valued or have power in the public space. Research makes the invisible visible through measurement.

Every major provincial or national political campaign is built on research.

Understanding how voters are thinking helps parties build a platform and craft a narrative that is responsive to Canadians. Voters rely less and less on party labels and more on more on a judgment made during the election. “Which party best represents my interests, speaks to my values and offers to create the Canada that I want?” Research reveals how Canadians answer those questions.

Parties conduct research consistently, but usually a year and a half out from an election, each party will undertake a large baseline study to understand the currents that shape voter choice. Do they believe the government is doing a good or bad job and why? What personal interests and values most influence how voters are thinking about the electoral choice? Based on a survey of voters large enough to understand the choice at a very targeted level, this research will frame how each party launches its campaign effort, what issues it will highlight, and what the line of attack will be.

Campaigns are of course dynamic affairs. Sometimes because your opponents move quickly and counter-attack hard. Sometimes because an unexpected event occurs. During the 2006 election, when the RCMP announced an investigation of the Liberal government, I woke up at 4 am to see data that showed our vote falling 7 points in one week. Since an entire campaign is designed to capture three points here and 5 points there, it was a very dark week. Because of the research, we recovered enough to hold the Conservatives to a minority.

During elections, research is THE way of understanding what should be done NOW to win

The strategy for debates, for campaign events, for leader announcements and response, for war room communications, and for advertising are all research driven. Research identifies how much parties can increase their vote and what will drive votes to them – which policy, which announcement, which narrative. Research also tells parties what isn’t worth talking about – so they don’t use finite resources to communicate what doesn’t matter. And research shows parties the vulnerability of their vote and how to protect it. It is this ability that makes research the bedrock and real time director of a campaign.

In my federal and provincial election research programs, we were conducting research 24 hours a day. We used qualitative research like focus groups for issue understanding, understanding how the leaders were seen and why, and for advertising testing. Debate night, we’d convene 30 targeted swing voters to dial their pleasure or displeasure with what was occurring in the debate. These swing voters told us what we wanted the post-debate narrative to be.

The very important overnights

It is the overnight polling that feeds the real time response of a campaign – the strategy team, the war room, the campaign bus, the media and advertising teams. Every night’s polling will decide the next day’s activities.

The overnight polling tracks the vote and how the vote is distributed, which feed the seat prediction model. It also tracks swing voter populations such as particular regions (905) or women in the suburbs. The Liberals always analyse populations on both sides – the shared vote pool with the NDP and the shared vote pool with Conservatives. This is where they pick up or lose votes – on their margins.  Not since the Conservative-Reform marriage, have the Conservatives been this worried over their right flank. I guarantee the Conservatives have been busy analysing their PPC-Conservative shared vote pool. Of course, BC voters are in a league of their own in terms of how they switch parties.

Overnights also allow us to explain why the numbers look that way and how to change them. I will not discuss all the criteria that voters consider when making their choice but I will discuss two elements.

We test the resonance and power of the competing narratives. The narrative (what is the point of this election? why us?) affect voters’ choices. Parties have competing narratives. Trudeau called the election with the narrative of ‘we’ve done so well during the pandemic, choose us to rebuild’. But by launching the election without a compelling reason for an election NOW, he has spent the election battling the ‘he is irresponsible and selfish to call an election during a pandemic’ narrative. Narratives matter – they shape the ballot box question. I have, through many federal and provincial elections, had narratives work but seldom last through an entire election.  Each party has its own narrative, the media create narratives, and at the end of the day the voter creates one that makes sense to them. Hopefully it is the one we’ve communicated.

Second, as we will continue to see this week, the role of policy is paramount. Every night we are testing the influence of policies on vote choice – and we are relentlessly (hopefully) discussing our policies that drive votes to us and hammering on the opponents’ policies that drive votes away from them. Policies are the offering of what parties will deliver to voters, but they are also proof points of their narrative – why they should be elected. And they are proof points of the party leader’s leadership, they “get it, care, and will deliver” what you want.  Given where the battlegrounds are, into this final week, I suspect childcare, assault rifles, vaccination and vaccine passports (or not), climate change and health transfers are the policies that will make the headlines. But elections are about strange things happening and that’s why the research is continual.

Right now, each party is looking for 3 pts or 5 pts from a combination of target groups. Is it possible to get those points, if so from whom and where?  And, what do the messages have to be to get the job done. The manna of the overnight polling has never been as essential as this last week.



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