Most people, most of the time, aren’t paying attention to politics.
This is not a criticism of voters. People are busy doing ordinary but important things; raising their children, working, caring for older relatives, watching their favourite boxset. Politicians have no right to the public’s attention, they have to earn it.
Successful campaigns know this and relentlessly repeat their key messages so, in those moments when a voter does engage, the ‘right’ message gets through.
Obama’s 2008 campaign based on ‘Change We Can Believe In’, Vote Leave’s attention-grabbing ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’, and even Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ have all understood this and subscribed to Warhol’s wisdom that “repetition adds up to reputation.”
The Conservatives’ 2017 campaign is based on a simple premise: that most voters much prefer Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn. Her oft-repeated promise to deliver ‘strong and stable’ government is designed to contrast her perceived strongest features with Corbyn’s weakest and, based on new Populus polling on the slogans and events voters have noticed, it is working. So far, 58% have heard the Prime Minister’s ‘strong and stable’ message and can correctly attribute it to the Conservatives.
In contrast, fewer, just 39%, noticed the Prime Minister’s accusation that EU politicians and officials are attempting to affect the outcome of the UK’s General Election. Even fewer, just 28%, can recall the Liberal Democrats offering a second referendum on the terms of the UK’s exit agreement with the EU.
Tricky sums and angry voters
Last week also saw several campaign ‘gaffes’.
In general, while gaffes are of interest to political insiders and provide much needed content for rolling news and Twitter, they rarely change elections. Instead, gaffes normally confirm voters pre-existing views; the ‘Prescott punch’ that the then Deputy Prime Minister was a straight-talking politician, George Osborne’s pre-Budget Byron burger that he enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle, and Gordon Brown’s bigot comment that he was ill-at-ease with ordinary voters.
In this election so far, more than half (54%) of voters can recall Diane Abbott’s difficult LBC interview, in which she struggled to give costs for Labour’s plan to recruit more police officers, and around one-in-five (21%) for Malcolm Baker confronting Tim Farron over Brexit.
For most, these events will serve to reinforce views rather than challenge them. Labour supporters will see the controversy around the Abbott’s interview as more evidence of a media biased against Labour and looking to debate style rather than a shortage of police officers, while Liberal Democrat supporters will see a party leader at ease debating critics. For others, this will be still further evidence of a Labour party that can’t be trusted to get it sums right, and the Liberal Democrats as an out-of-touch, metropolitan party.
The fog of war
The language of political campaigns borrows heavily from the military; from campaign war rooms, to air and ground wars. Campaigns suffer from the fog of war too.
Busy voters can misunderstand key points or misattribute policies and speeches to the wrong parties and leaders.
About a third are yet to hear ‘strong and stable’ and there are some who have heard ‘strong and stable’ but don’t yet associate it with the Prime Minister, while – to the Shadow Home Secertary’s relief – 14% who had heard of the difficult interview didn’t associate it with the Labour party.
Finally, we asked about ‘Joe, a plumber, quizzing a politician about taxes on small businesses’, an allusion to another election, nine years ago and thousands of miles away, as a control question. 6% said they’d read, seen or heard about Joe in the context of this General Election.
This is a useful reminder that voters, only briefly engaging with the campaigns or half-catching the headlines, can become confused or misremember.
It’s also another reason why clear, repeated messages are key.
Populus interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,033 GB adults aged 18+ on the 5th to 7th May 2017.