SWAPO Party set to hold its Congress this month, where over 600 delegates are set to elect the new leadership for the next five years. So far, eleven candidates are vying for the top four positions.
Even if one wonders if there is enough time left to come up with an effective campaign strategy, I know for a fact that running a political campaign is one of the most challenging and exhausting activities possible. For this reason, the proper organization of a political campaign can avoid some unnecessary challenges and with a little forethought and planning, one can be prepared for all the twists and turns and, in many cases, control the situation.
Many said the campaign should be issued based and not target individuals and even if we have experienced politicians who know how to campaign, I nevertheless wanted to look at how to run an effective campaign. In this regard, according to Stephanie Lynn from Jakarta, Indonesia who developed in March 2009 a manual for running effective campaigns, there are three types of political campaigns that have nearly no chance to achieve victory on Election Day due to their own internal failures.
The first is the campaign that does not have a persuasive message to deliver to voters and does not have a clear idea of which voters it wants to persuade. This type of campaign lacks direction from the beginning and the situation will only get worse. Second is the campaign that has a concise, persuasive message and a clear idea of which voters it can persuade but lacks a reasonable plan of what to do between now and Election Day to persuade these voters. This type of campaign wastes time, money and people as it wanders aimlessly toward Election Day. It is often distracted by the days’ events, by things the opponent’s campaign does or by things the press says, spending more time reacting to outside factors than promoting its own agenda.
Finally, the third kind of campaign is one that has a clear message, a clear idea of its voters and a plan to get to Election Day but it fails to follow through on the plan, not doing the hard work day after day to get elected. This is a lazy campaign that makes excuses as to why it cannot do what it knows must be done and in the end makes excuses as to why it lost. The winning political campaign is most often the one that takes the time to target voters, develops a persuasive message and follows through on a reasonable plan to contact those voters directly.
All campaigns must repeatedly communicate a persuasive message to people who will vote. This is “the golden rule” of politics. A political campaign is a communication process – find the right message, target that message to the right group of voters, and repeat that message again and again. Unfortunately, the actual planning process is much more difficult than simply following one rule. There is much more that goes into the process. The campaign team should go through a step-by-step process to develop a written campaign plan.
The first step in developing a winning strategy must begin with a realistic assessment of the political landscape in which a candidate will be running. There are a number of factors that should be understood as completely as possible as the candidate prepare to write a campaign plan: It is important to first determine the type of election in which the candidate will be running and what will be the rules of the election. Much of the basic strategy depends on this information.
Once a candidate has determined the basic election rules, he/she should start to gather as much information on the voters as possible. What is the demographic composition of the voters? How would one describe the supporters and those voters a candidate hopes to persuade? Often one can gain valuable information about the current election by looking at information from past elections. What were the results? How many votes were needed to win? How did candidates with similar backgrounds and messages fair in past elections? Did they run effective campaigns or make mistakes that influenced the level of support received? Similarly, did the opponents run effective or ineffective campaigns in the past?
Next, one should look at the factors that will affect this election, namely the various issues that concern voters and other campaigns. Is there the opportunity to work with other campaigns in a coordinated manner? What effect will other campaigns have on the election? One campaign’s message should complement, or at least not contradict, the other messages.
Once a candidate has determined his/her own strengths and weaknesses, the next logical step is to repeat the process for the opponents. By not taking the time and doing the hard work of opposition research, a candidate forfeits the ability to be prepared for what the opponent will say and do and to build the contrast between themselves and their opponent.
Too often campaigns forget to calculate how many votes will be needed to guarantee victory. They then spend their precious resources of time, money and people trying to talk to the whole population instead of the much fewer voters they will actually need to win. This process is called “targeting the voters. We have seen this in the past people making rallies and talking to the wrong audience. More often, they did not have a simple clear message to win but were just reacting to what others were saying.
Having determined a target audience for a campaign, one should make an effort to understand the members of this target audience thoroughly. For Instance, what are the core values that unite the voters in a target audience? What do they value more: Social protection or economic opportunity? Are voters optimistic or pessimistic about the future? Do they feel better off or worse off now than in the past? Do they want change or stability? This is how one determines their attitude and find out what are the important issues that will make voters sit up and take notice of this election.
Another issue is what qualities do voters most want to see in their leaders? Are they looking for stable, experienced leadership, or do they want someone young and dynamic who will shake up the establishment? Would they prefer leaders from the intelligentsia, or do they want leaders who can relate to the concerns of the common person?
Once a candidate has decided who his/her target audience is, he/she needs to decide what to say to persuade them to vote for him/her. This is the campaign message. It tells the voters why a candidate is running for this particular office and why they should choose them over the opponents for the same office. A campaign message is not the candidate’s program of what they will do if elected, it is not a list of the issues the candidate will address, and it is not a simple, catchy phrase or slogan. All of these things can be part of a campaign message, but they should not be confused with the message, a simple statement that will be repeated over and over throughout the campaign to persuade the target voters.
A message must be delivered in language the voters use and understand easily. Too often politicians want to impress the voters with how smart they are, using technical words that either the voters do not understand or have no real meaning for them. Creating a visual image in the minds of voters is much better. Talk about people, things and real life situations to describe abstract ideas, such as “economic policy.”
Politics is an emotional business and politicians who appeal to the hearts of voters generally defeat those who appeal to their heads. This does not mean that one should abandon the intellectual basis or underestimate the intelligence of the voter.
This means that one must find a way to tie the campaign message to the core values of the voters and make it clear that he/she understands the problems they face every day.
Linguist and rhetoric scholars argue that, in order to persuade a political audience of one side of and argument or another, the facts must be presented through a rhetorical frame. Politicians using framing to make their own solution to an exigence appear to be the most appropriate compared to that of the opposition. Counter-arguments become less effective in persuading an audience once one side has framed an argument, because the opposition then has the additional burden of arguing the frame of the issue in addition to the issue itself.
Once the campaign determines what message will persuade the target voters, the next step is to decide how to say the message. For instance, a campaign can hand out literature wherever people gather in large numbers. Another way is through visibility which is anything the campaign does to catch the voters’ eye. This can be billboards by the side of the road, signs at supporters’ houses, posters on poles, stickers on cars, decorated cars driving through key neighbourhoods, the candidate’s name on t-shirts, etc. The campaign can also create events to gain exposure. These may be press conferences to highlight the campaigns stand on an issue.
Politics and elections are such rare and important events that they actually receive considerably more press than many other events. Furthermore, because the press is a source of information outside the campaign, voters often respect it. If one uses newspapers, television, and radio to get the campaign message out, he/she needs good relations with the reporters, a compelling reason for them to tell their story, as well as an easily understood point to the message. We know that some newspapers are meant to promote only certain candidates while targeting others and one wonders if this “news capture” is good for intra party democracy if concocted in war rooms to make some people look good.
We want to hear how the candidates will renew the party and bring it closer to the people. We want to hear how they will bring unity and allow for constructive criticism and not stifle debates. We need leaders who will speak frankly and courageously about issues that threaten the social-cohesion of the nation and the party and not appear to favour certain factions or groups.
Most importantly, we need an honest message of hope in these trying economic headwinds. Never has the occasion been so ripe and presented itself for the candidates to stand above petty politics and unify the party and the nation rather than be seen to join the bandwagon of tearing each other apart.
We are looking forward to wide-ranging discussions, highlighting divergent views and intense debate and trust that the party and the nation will emerge from this process with a united, common vision of the country’s developmental trajectory. May the best candidates win.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen.