He’s polled for Scott Morrison, Jeremy Corbyn and now Liz Truss. But strategist Mike Turner says political campaigns – and voters – are changing. Andrea Vance reports.
It’s not just the economy, stupid. The sign on the wall of US presidential hopeful Bill Clinton’s 1992 HQ was a policy message rendered simple and has characterised political campaigns ever since.
Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in an election defined by economic distress. Once again, economies throughout the world are spiralling.
But compelling research produced in Britain in the wake of the Brexit divorce from the European Union suggests traditional assumptions no longer apply. Modern politics no longer divides simply across lines of social class, left versus right, globalist versus nationalist, or even liberal versus authoritarian.
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Voting patterns are more complex, with many of these beliefs values cross-cutting. The theory has the power to revolutionise how political parties work to gain our support.
“It seems to me that most of the Western world is shifting,” says Mike Turner, lead author of the Fractured Politics report. “We’re moving gradually away from the economy on to these social values. A drip-drip-drip over time.”
The findings challenge the way we look at elections and referendums. Demographic factors like age, education, class and where we live now have less of an influence on our vote than values and identity politics, he says.
As many of us have become wealthier and better educated, these values are more enduring than policy preferences and are deeply held. In short, we can afford to care more about the society we live in.
Turner points to Boris Johnson’s 2019 election victory – which saw the Red Wall of Labour’s heartlands fall to the Tories. And the Teal Seats, which upended Australian politics in May’s election.
Interviewing 27,000 people over a year, researchers identified 10 clans, ascribing them names ike Proud and Patriotic State, Modern Working Life, or the Notting Hill Society. Some were pro-Labour and others pro-Conservative, but there were also ‘swing clans’.
Two of the biggest groups were Proud and Patriotic State and Common Sense Solidarity, and shared a desire for left-wing economic policy, such as renationalisation of industries and wealth redistribution. But they were fundamentally divided on immigration and multiculturalism. And that put them on different sides of the Brexit debate.
Turner is working on a similar project based on the Australian electorate, and hopes to publish his work in the summer.
There, the ‘teal candidates’ were independents who ran on a strong climate platform in formerly safe Liberal seats. They represented a voting base with conservative fiscal politics combined with green views on climate. (Teal comes from the blend of Liberal blue and green.)
Turner saw their power first-hand – he was working as campaign pollster for Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party.
“The number one issue by a country mile was the cost of living,” he says. “There was still a huge number of people that were interested in the traditional tax and spend issues, because the cost of living was incredibly important for them.
“But the ones that made the difference were in these new Teal Seats. You have to be in particular social strata – you can’t necessarily be feeling the pinch of groceries going three times the original price – for integrity in Canberra to be your number one issue.
“A lot of these people don’t necessarily care if they’re taxed a little bit more to pay for the things they are concerned about. They are happy to pay for more welfare or healthcare because they believe it’s a good thing for society.”
This is the ‘luxury belief class’. Once physical needs are met people become more preoccupied with social status. We used to display our social status with luxury goods. Today, there is an emerging trend towards flaunting ‘luxury beliefs’.
Affluent and well-educated, this class can prioritise issues like the environment, equality or a decline in faith and trust in democracy over their wallets.
Currently, voters must enter a big political tent with other clans in order to achieve some form of representation. But that leads to tensions over competing priorities. The research suggests political parties must work harder to identify and accommodate these clans, to build better coalitions within their support.
Turner knows his onions. He recently parted ways with the C|T Group, formerly Crosby Textor, the election gurus credited with masterminding the Brexit referendum win, and the British Tories successful re-election. He is resolutely tight-lipped about the world’s most notorious political consultancy, but Australian media have reported the split was amicable.
Alongside Sir Lynton Crosby’s protégé Isaac Levido, the pollster also worked on Morrison’s winning campaign in 2019. He charted his slide to defeat by Labor’s Anthony Albanese. It wasn’t a surprise, he says. “Most of the people close to the numbers were fully aware, but there was certainly a belief from people at the top that we could turn things around.”
The Australian newspaper recently dubbed him “savant-like”. He’s now ‘doing the numbers’ for Liz Truss’s campaign, one of two MPs vying to take Boris Johnson’s place as UK prime minister in September. This week the Englishman was in New Zealand, meeting clients for his new Sydney-based venture: Freshwater Strategy.
Those on the left of the political spectrum might be tempted to dismiss his wisdom because of his associations with the Tory-aligned outfit that helped raise National’s John Key to power. But he has worked across the divide, most notably polling for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK’s 2017 general election.
Turner, an honorary research fellow at Plymouth University who also worked for Britain’s Office for National Statistics, says he gets the most satisfaction working with corporate clients, particularly on climate change issues.
His insights have implications for political campaigning. The path to victory will start earlier, he says. “You have to set the characteristics for what the election is going to be fought on way, way out from election day. You can’t just expect the campaign to deliver you a win. We expect campaigns to last three, four years.”
He points to Australia’s federal election. “Labor planned their highly-disciplined strategy a couple of years out and stuck to the line. This was not an election based on policy. This was not a big ideas election. This was a values and identity and character-based election. And they were weaponising those key emotions to great effect.”
The portion of people willing to change their views is getting smaller, he says. Leadership is increasingly important, as is pushing emotional buttons.
He also predicts the death of social-media-driven campaigning and a return to more traditional methods.
“Memes are great for political junkies. It energises the base. Campaigns are hard and when you’re working on a campaign, you want your digital team to be producing fun, positive or hard-hitting content to motivate you to carry on. But as for genuinely changing your mind, it’s laughable – it doesn’t deliver.”
People who are active on social media about politics are already wedded to their views, he says.
“And there is a fatigue. People are wise to what social media companies are doing. There’s this dark forest theory that people aren’t their real true selves on social media, and you are marketing to people who are projecting a view of themselves.”
The internet and our phones have changed the way we interact – these connections have superseded older institutions like churches or bowling clubs. That reinforces echo chambers, as we tend to gravitate towards those who don’t challenge our beliefs.
But it has also created a culture of peer-to-peer advocacy: think Yelp or Amazon reviews.
This will shape campaigning, he says. “Relationships are things that should be leveraged. Who is better to change my mind? Is it going to be the campaign? Or is it someone who knows and understands me?”
Turner says the Great Schlep – where Jewish grandkids flew to Florida to visit their grandparents and persuade them to vote for Barack Obama – is the model for future campaigns.
“Ultimately, people are wise to National or Labour saying vote National or vote Labour. People are cynical about it, quite rightly.”
He foresees a return to pounding the pavements, and town hall or street corner meetings. “It is about reconnecting your personal relationships and leveraging those with voters.
“If we meet people, a lot of the mystique about whether they’re a good or a bad person just fades away. Voters think: I know this person. They are a good egg. And that means a heck of a lot more than whether or not we should be raising income tax by a percentage point or whether we should be labelling toilets gender-specific.”
To be smart, parties need to start thinking about leveraging those connections on a larger scale.
“It’s about saying: who’s in the room, speaking up for me and the party and what I stand for. That is, without a doubt, the thing that’s going to be coming to New Zealand to Australia, and is already in the UK and the US.”