Walter Wymer is professor of marketing at the University of Lethbridge. His academic work has helped develop the field of nonprofit marketing.
Political parties want to win elections and to put their ideas into practice. Political candidates want to win elections and obtain a political office. Candidates will try to convince voters that they are good and that their opponents are bad. Candidates will work with their strategists to formulate messages that will appeal to specific demographic groups of interest. They know that a certain proportion of voters always vote for a specific party and a certain proportion are not ideological, but rather cast their votes based on an impression of the individual candidates.
Political races are won or lost based on a candidate’s ability to create a favorable image of themselves and an unfavorable image of opponents. This explains why campaigns spend a great deal of time and resources on sending out negative messages about opponents.
Individuals who pay a lot of attention to politics understand the basic philosophies of each party. They have a greater appreciation for the underlying views and desired policies of candidates and their parties. These high information voters are not affected by platitudinous ads. For political insiders, it can be difficult to understand that many voters lack this understanding. Low involvement voters’ political attention is limited to campaign season.
For example, in the U.S., political insiders are baffled that working class voters can vote for candidates who favor tax breaks for the rich, reducing social programs for the poor, and are vehemently anti-union. These low information voters are not ideological. They vote based on the attitudes toward the candidates. They obtain their attitudes from what they read in the newspaper or see on television. In short, low information voters can actually vote against their own economic interests and against their own values. How could this be? The answer is that many voters will only hear marketing messages from candidates whose objective is to win rather than accurately communicate their policy positions to voters.
While in consumer marketing, one may say “let the buyer beware” and if a consumer makes a bad choice, that’s their own bad luck. However, since we are actually talking about the representativeness of our democracy, we cannot afford to have such a cavalier attitude.
Since candidates’ goals are to win, they will develop a marketing campaign to achieve this end. The media, then, is the institution that must help voters look beyond marketing messages. The media needs to not just report what each campaign says, but to help voters understand the ideologies of the parties. The media needs to help voters understand the past record of the candidates. The media needs to help voters understand what candidates are likely to do if they are elected.
I remember the Bush versus Gore U.S. presidential election in 2000. The media faithfully covered the campaign as if it were a sporting match, which candidate was winning, which was losing. Each candidate had a prior record. Bush had been a Texas governor. Gore had been a U.S. Senator. Rather than help voters understand each candidate’s record, the media reported what each candidate was saying about the other candidate. Bush positioned himself as a compassionate conservative, an environmentalist who would regulate CO2, and an isolationist who would avoid foreign entanglements. What Bush actually did was quite different from the campaign’s messages. During the 2000 campaign, the political reporter Molly Ivins wrote a book about George Bush. I was unable to read it until after Bush had been president for two years. Ivins had been a political reporter in Texas while George Bush was governor. She had observed him for a considerable amount of time and effectively captured his style and accurately predicted what type of president he would become.
The point is that reporters who cover politics know the politicians, their style, and their priorities. Rather than covering an election as if it were a horse race, educate voters on the leadership style of candidates, their political beliefs, and policies they will promote. Buyer’s remorse among voters leads to apathy, an unrepresentative government, and a weaker democracy.