Robocalls: Where cynicism meets apathy
If the robocalls scandal does turn out to be a large-scale subversion of basic democratic rights in Canada, no one should be feeling very smug. It happened in part because we -- and I mean we as citizens -- helped create the conditions for a cynical stunt like this to work.
In the past few days, I've stood back a bit to see where the issue of robocalls fits in the context of the book I'm writing (which is about how we've turned into consumer-citizens with regard to our politics here in Canada.) Here's where my thinking is at, at the end of a very weird week or two.
The less you know about politics, the more important your vote may be on election day.
This blunt truth of modern-day Canadian politics has guided the federal Conservatives for several elections now in this country.
Patrick Muttart, the savvy communications strategist behind many of the Conservative party’s past successes, lays it out in a new, academic text on the art of political marketing in Canada.
“Close campaigns are decided by the least informed, least engaged voters,” Muttart told political-marketing expert Jennifer Lees-Marshment, one of the editors of Political Marketing in Canada, newly released by the University of British Columbia Press.
“These voters do not go looking for political news and information. This necessitates brutally simple communication with clear choices that hits the voter whether they like it or not. Journalists and editorialists often complain about the simplicity of political communication, but marketers must respond to the reality that undecided voters are often not as informed or interested as the political and media class are.”
Romantics and idealists may blanche at this stark analysis of the Canadian political landscape. But it’s crucial to understanding why all political parties are so dependent on the massive voter-identification databases and robo-calling operations that are dominating the headlines these days.
It works this way: politicians have had to learn more about their voters precisely because their voters care less about politics and the daily debate of the Ottawa “bubble.” If Canadians have tuned out politics, the people working to grab their vote need to know what it is that they do care about, to lure the apathetic voters to the ballot box.
And that’s where the political marketers come in, using the same methods of persuasion that merchants and commercial people employ to capture consumers. Just as the big-box stores and loyalty-card companies are gathering up and recording your purchase preferences in their databases, so are the political parties. The Conservatives have CIMS, the Liberals have “Liberalist” and the New Democrats have “NDP Vote.”
Voting has become more like shopping in modern Canada with each decade since the Second World War. And robo-calls are the hard sell in a political marketplace where it’s difficult to get people buying anything -- or even to enter the store, to continue the metaphor.
In the last election, for instance, Ipsos polling showed that 42 per cent of Canadians admitted that they weren’t paying attention to the campaign. And even when people do claim to be interested in politics, it pays to take that with a grain of salt, apparently.
Muttart, who was essentially the marketing chief for the Conservatives from 2004 to 2008 -- the person who crafted the party’s appeal to “Tim Horton’s voters” -- is now in Chicago doing private-sector marketing. He wasn’t a strategist or even in Canada in last year’s election. (Correction: He was a part-time strategist, who famously departed mid-campaign.) But his approach to politics is widely shared by the governing Conservatives.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former communications director, Dimitri Soudas, did a presentation on “branding” political parties in Ottawa this past week, in which he demonstrated that voters often exaggerate their level of engagement in current affairs. Quoting from StatsCan figures, Soudas said that while 92 per cent of Canadians claimed to watch TV news and 70 per cent claimed to read newspapers, in fact the real figures are around 50 per cent for both.
This is why, Soudas explained, Conservatives concentrated their advertising buys on more popular, non-news TV shows. It’s also why the Conservatives pay close attention to giving citizens the same clear, strong imagery that Canadians are accustomed to seeing in their consumer brands.
“The Conservative brand has had a net positive impact on the consumer, or as he or she is called in this domain, the ‘voter,’” Soudas told his audience of PR professionals.
But just as the Conservatives aren’t the only ones with robocalls and databases, it isn’t just Conservatives who have mastered the voter-as-shopper approach in Canada. This has actually been decades in the making -- and it goes hand-in-hand with voters’ increasing disengagement with political parties.
Hard as it may to believe now, most Canadians used to know how they were going to vote by the time elections were called. Political parties had stable bases of support; loyalties forged sometimes over generations. The proportion of “floating voters” -- people trying to make up their minds during the campaign -- accounted for only a fraction of the electorate in elections in the 1970s, for instance.
In a 1971 interview with the Canadian Press, pollster Martin Goldfarb said that his art -- still new to this country then -- was useful only for appealing to the 10 per cent of the electorate who had the power to move the fortunes of the parties either way.
“I think our research could be enough in a close election to win or lose. If it’s tight, we make that much difference,” said Goldfarb, who went on to become the Liberals’ official party pollster for the next two decades.
Nowadays, the political dynamics are far more volatile. The people who describe themselves as undecided, all the way up to voting day, has hovered as high as 30 or even 40 per cent during many of our recent elections. If Muttart is correct, these people may be not so much undecided as simply uninterested -- making it all the more difficult to motivate them toward the ballot box.
And of course, the corollary is that it’s all the easier to keep them away from the voting booths too. The slightest inconvenience -- a changed polling location -- may be enough to suppress the vote.
That’s the subtext under all these allegations of fraudulent phone calls, misdirecting voters away from legitimate polling places. Someone (or many people) cynically calculated that it wouldn’t take a whole lot of effort to suppress unwelcome votes for their political rivals. That’s as much a comment on the disengaged electorate as it is on the plotters behind the scheme.
The massive Elections Canada investigation now under way will perhaps prove whether this calculation was correct -- that driving voters away from the ballot box may have changed some candidates’ fortunes on May 2, 2011.
That would also prove, in turn, that Muttart is correct: that in the post-partisan, consumer-citizen nation that defines Canada today, elections are decided by the people who aren’t paying attention to politics. The people who aren't reading this blog, for instance.
Postscript: I notice today that the government is announcing measures to help the consumer-citizens of Canada. That is, at least in part, a reflection of where we think people's priorities are these days: Never mind all the democracy talk -- there's shopping to be done!