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.

– – –

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.

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  • mickfealty

    Strikes me that all of those readings are far more generous to all of them than any direct polling of the populus would be…

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well the problem with Lucid Talk is that it uses a multi-tier system and leading questions.

    I think the question specifically was to rate the performance of the candidates, most people would assume this to mean in terms of their observable political power … ergo why Martin McGuinness is getting a better rating in the unionist community than David Ford.

    You can easily make an argument for voting AGAINST someone on that basis.

    If Lucid Talk asked poll participants in rank leaders in order of preference or a voting system might given a more critical reflection on personal choice.

    In terms of the main poll, I think Arlene was effectively “a” DUP leader for a long time, arguably from when she became a minister to even her departure from the UUP but the DUP hasn’t radically changed under her leadership from the DUP, she and Jeffrey Donaldson helped to shift away from total Paisleyism.

    Indeed Peter Robinson was a lot more radical under the start of his tenure albeit tentatively in terms of supporting things like integrated education (at a time).

  • the rich get richer

    Is Arlene , Martin McGuinness’s Election “Agent”

  • Rating politicians between 0 and 100 on a sliding scale may not be ideal (I bet the 0 and 100 values get used quite a lot for political opponents on opposite extremes to the person polled). But the relative values give us an idea of the pecking order in the mind of those polled.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Read my comments, I dismiss the survey attempting to do that too.

  • Lionel Hutz

    It’s still a decent bounce for Colum Eastwood thinking of the rating his predecessor had without anything like the exposure Arlene foster has had.

  • Granni Trixie

    So AMcD is the standard by whom you judge? Really?

  • Granni Trixie

    Interesting to bear in mind that a DUP selling point in Westminster election was that a vote for them/ the pact could make unionists kingmakers (in the eventuality of a hung parliament). It points to a pattern where they chose not to rely on their track record or vision to make their case to voters. Surely bogeyman and sectarian tactics points to a lack of self confidence?
    I agree with others – Arlene had a potential to do better.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think Arlene Foster as leader was a great move for the DUP. Very bad news for the UUP.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Effectively it’s a vote for “Not the DUP” is a vote for Sinn Féin, and to beat it down alternative parties to these two have to say a vote for us is a vote for “Not the DUP and Not Sinn Féin”.

    Pretty much every time the DUP says that, it doesn’t want to be the establishment it fought against from its foundation but some sort of bulwark against Irish republicanism.

    The DUP had said they have five points, and yet no DUP representative can recite a single one in their defense.

  • Zorin001

    That Obama poster is 8 years old now, it’s becoming as clichéd as “Keep Calm and Carry On” merchandise. I know we are always behind the times here but can we maybe have something a bit more up to date?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “Arlene had a potential to do better”….

    But in the DUP?

  • Granni Trixie

    Yes on the basis of “we are where we are”. Also,can’t see much difference between the UUP and DUP – each party uses the sectarian card when it suits and doesn’t seem to have moved on in their party’s culture.

  • Granni Trixie

    Yes, except that it is increasingly looking like the opportunity to move away from Paisleyism is being squandered. Could be she is held back by being manacled to the old brigade for support. At the very least I think that the opportunity a new person presents is being mismanaged.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    No real fan of either, although you’d go far in the DUP to find anyone at all like Danny Kinahan or Jeff Dudgeon.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    to be honest I haven’t followed it closely enough to know. I just think that longer term, for the party of Paisley and Robinson, for all their softening in old age, to be now led by an ex-UUP woman from broadly the mainstream of unionism is quite something. It will surely serve them well electorally.

    But I can see that Foster might feel she doesn’t want to upset the old Paisleyites and strengthen the TUV – let’s see how much courage she has. She has the potential to do unionism in general a lot of good by at least keeping that wing muffled on the sidelines, if she can manage it. I’d expect she’ll want to, if only for DUP self-interest: she has the potential to see off the UUP revival but needs to appear a sensible centrist to do so.