When your leader is your greatest electoral asset, use them

How does a party choose to promote itself during an election campaign?

One school of thought says by the time the campaign begins, it’s already too late. All politics is local and the battle for votes is won in an area over preceding years. If local representatives – elected or not – have put the work in listening to concerns and bringing about practical improvements in an area, and have knocked doors and delivered newsletters to publicise their efforts, as well as a spot of turning up at church fêtes and school sales, then voters may reward them with a high preference.

Yet voter mood is also affected by national or regional matters. Party campaigns seek to lift the focus away from individual candidates and shine a light on broader issues. General Elections are frequently ‘fought’ on campaigns based around the economy and immigration. Policies are proposed and manifestos are littered with pledges and promises. The best ones are sometimes even chiselled into tombstones or printed on cards. Parties seek a mandate to deliver these new policies … though make less of a fuss about how well the promises from five years ago were delivered.

But when your biggest asset is not going to be your record of delivery, and your shiny new policy ideas won’t impress, then parties still have a couple of other tricks left in their playbooks.

  • Negative campaigning can rubbish opponents, though needs to be balanced with a credible message that explains why the party pointing the finger is any better.
  • And if your leader is popular and a trusted brand, you can put them at the centre of the campaign and use the leader as a proxy for the party and the party’s local candidates. So you end up with messaging that says “Vote Cameron because he looks more confident like a Prime Minister than Ed Miliband”.

Last weekend, the DUP used their spring conference to put new leader Arlene Foster at the centre of their campaign. Her early messaging as leader had been widely acknowledged as sounding softer and more progressive in tone. But the message switched on Saturday.

Vote for Arlene and make her First Minister rather than Martin McGuinness. It’s an old tried and trusted unionist technique to stir up fear in their faithful electorate to encourage turnout and use the image of a nationalist politician as a way of shifting votes between unionist parties.

And to quote from the party’s press release announcing that Jim Wells would after all be the DUP’s South Down candidate (mentioned in the News Letter):

At this election a vote for Jim Wells is a vote for a strong DUP team to keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward and to elect me as First Minister. [emphasis added]

The results of October 2015’s LucidTalk political leaders rating poll showed that that none of the five main party leaders exceeded 40 our of 100.

LucidTalk BIG100 October 2015 leader rating

In October, Mike Nesbitt had the highest rating of the five party leaders. Peter Robinson languished behind with 22, only ahead of Alasdair McDonnell with 18.

LucidTalk BIG100 February 2016 leader rating

Fast forward five months and two leadership changes later …

  • Arlene Foster has leapfrogged over Mike Nesbitt to top spot in the leaders’ ratings. This really takes the shine off the UUP hopes of a widespread lift in their vote share.
  • There’s much less of a bounce for the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood who should be worried that he’s rated alongside Arlene Foster in the eyes of nationalists and barely ahead of David Ford.

ForwardWithArlene bannerThe DUP campaign is about Arlene Foster.

So was the #ForwardWithArlene hashtag this weekend. As was the imagery.

When you look at how the public rate local political leaders you can see why the DUP have chosen this strategy.

Arlene Foster is clearly a huge electoral asset for the DUP. The decision to go with Arlene over Nigel Dodds for party leader was a sound one.

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October’s polling was conducted online by LucidTalk for 60 hours between 10am Monday 19 October and 10pm Wednesday 21 October 2015. 2,517 completed responses fed into the analysis. Results are accurate to a margin of error of +/-3.9%, at 95% confidence.

February’s BIG100 polling was conducted online for 100 hours between 4pm Monday 8 February and 9pm Friday 12 February 2016. 2,886 completed responses fed into the analysis. Results are accurate to a margin of error of +/-3.9%, at 95% confidence.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.