Focus

I, Politrobot

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“How are you going to conduct your election campaign?” Davit Kovziridze, presenter of the Internet TV program “Hard Talk with the Heavyweight,” asks politician Adria Urushadze. The talk show guest is a single-seat candidate from the United National Movement ruling party who is fighting to win the hearts of voters in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district. The presenter presses the politician on whether he is a leftist or a rightist; what amount of support he hopes to garner; whether or not he likes the current Parliament; whether or not he favors legalization of prostitution; whether or not he observes religious fast and, if yes, why… But who cares about the questions? The candidate responds to each query like a robot on auto pilot. Over and over, he repeats that Georgia will never turn back to the past and that his goal is to bring“more benefit to people,” which just happens to be the ruling party’s political slogan.

Andria Urushadze is one of many candidates from the ruling party that respond to a simple question about the weather with scripted statements about reviving agribusiness, increasing employment and ensuring affordable health care. During the election campaign, the ruling party sticks fast to that tradition, its candidates revolving inside so-called message-boxes like hamsters on a wheel. Some manage to pedal quite skillfully; others look comically clumsy falling over themselves to work the same clichéd phrases into every media interview, every conversation.

The National Movement elevated the discipline of message-delivery to new heights in the run-up to a very tense presidential election in 2008. It was decided back then that party speakers would use language strategically to “delight hearts” of voters and thereby help the ruling party to win. Since then, message-control has been a conspicuous feature of every election campaign with leaders of the ruling party refraining from expressing any opinion that deviates in any way from packaged party messages. In short, they are over-cautious and stuck on message.

“To speak bluntly, since… you have so many potential enemies, you can't afford to make any mistakes. You must conduct a flawless campaign with the greatest thoughtfulness, industry, and care.” That is not a campaign tip of consultants to the National Movement. That timeless advice can be found in Commentariolum Petitionis, a handbook on electioneering supposedly written by Quintus Tullius Cicero as a guide for older brother Marcus Tullius Cicero’s 64 B.C. campaign for consul of the Roman Republic.

Here are several of Quintus Tullius Cicero’s tips to ensure a successful election campaign:

1. Promise everything to everybody. Tell people whatever they want to hear. People like less those who refuse to promise than those who do not deliver on their promises.

2. Know the weaknesses of your opponents and exploit them. Thus you will distract voters from any positive aspect of your opponent.

3. Flatter voters shamelessly. That is disgraceful behavior in personal relationship but very helpful in the run up to elections.

4. Give people hope. Even the most cynical voters want to believe in someone. Voters who believe that you can make their life better will become your most devoted followers, at least until after the election when you will inevitably let them down.

We cannot speak from first-hand knowledge about how “flawless” the 64 B.C. campaign was, but we know for sure that Marcus Tullius Cicero won that election by a landslide. We also know that his younger brother’s advice on electioneering resonates even in the Twenty-First Century A.D.

A modern political campaign is a complex process. Like any major construction project, it cannot be engineered without a clear-cut plan. The locomotive of that plan is the election-campaign message.

Political consultants advise candidates to convey campaign messages that are clear, comprehensible and convincing. It is important to communicate consistent messages. Messages must be tailored to suit voters in both emotional appeal and value-laden terms.

That approach is based on a theory about uninformed voters which rests on the simple notion that human beings, as reasonable creatures, actually make every decision proceeding from their own self-interests. Comprehensive knowledge of the political process is of no benefit to them. Voters have to deal with too many other problems to listen attentively to politicians, let alone to absorb whatever they have to say – unless it directly affects their everyday lives. Politicians seeking the support of modern voters must instill a communication discipline which will ensure that they tell voters, in a concise and persuasive manner, exactly what voters want to hear.

To determine what to tell voters, a politician must study voters, who they are and what they want. The first thing a politician needs to find out is all there is to know about voter demographics; that is, age, sex, cultural identity, employment, property status, political sympathies and other characteristics of the population in the area where the campaign is planned. Next, a politician needs to identify problems which are of common concern to all voting groups within the relevant election district. Based on analysis of that information, an election message is developed.

Public opinion surveys conducted in the past few years show that election promises made by the National Movement since 2008 are a mirror reflection of priorities identified by that segment of voters which the ruling party needs to win over in order to win elections. The populist slogan of the ruling party – More Benefit to People – is a direct appeal to people who say they see that work is being done but they do not see that it benefits them much personally. According to opinion polls, realizing personal benefit is the top interest of voters, followed by affordable health care, strengthening villages and gainful employment.

The ruling party selects negative campaign messages strategically as well. For example, having determined that undecided voters consider a major weakness of the opposition to be its association with the unpleasant past, the ruling party promises repeatedly that “Georgia will not return to the past.”

A political party must first find out what voters wish for and then repeat those wishes back to them in the same language. In general, it is important for a political party to understand that the most effective political rhetoric is not poetry but marketing. The central idea here is to promise what the customer/voter demands and not to wax poetic about the aspirations of the seller/politician.

Public attitudes are identified by sociological surveys and not by reading newspapers or chatting with those in one’s own milieu. Attitudes of the electorate may push political candidates to select messages that do not appeal at all to them or, conversely, to avoid even mentioning certain topics.

The more developed and informed the society, the more important is the discipline of messaging. In countries with highly developed political cultures, it is impossible to communicate conflicting messages for different audiences. An inconsistent phrase can end a political career. That can happen at warp speed with the Internet and modern technologies instantly exposing any and all inconsistencies.

Taking such circumstances into account, modern consultants advise politicians to answer questions not in the way the questions require but in the way the election campaign demands – with voter-targeted messages. Political candidates must keep in mind that, owing to new technologies, every sentence they utter has the potential to travel around, if not the entire world, then at least the entire election district. Therefore, they must never step outside that so-called message-box.

In Georgia, the only political force that has realized the importance of messaging discipline so far is the National Movement. The key adversary of the ruling party is engaged in metaphysics, promising voters to make dreams come true. Fulfilling Georgian dreams may sound catchy in political son Bera Ivanishvili’s rapping, but it says nothing to voters about tangible personal benefit. True, members of the Georgian Dream political coalition talk about free health care and building a strong village, but what they say about those issues is not very different from what the ruling party says.

As regards the opposition’s negative messages – be they accusations of launching the August 2008 war or corruption – opinion polls show that they correspond only with the attitudes of voters who would vote for any political force save the ruling party. The number of such voters is not significant enough to win the elections while undecided voters who must be won over are not interested in those topics and do not share the position of the Georgian Dream. Such negative messaging alienates undecided voters from that political force.

The underdeveloped political culture of opponents and society renders a great disservice to the ruling party: Even though the ruling party introduced the discipline of election messaging, it cannot yet boast of its quality. For example, it would never cross the mind of a British or American politician to accumulate political capital by promising to alleviate the tax burden on voters and at the very same time call for large-scale social benefits. Yet, that is what the ruling party does and no one holds it accountable. Or, more accurately, those who try to hold the ruling party accountable are not strong or loud enough to be electorally significant.

It would be good if the key opponent would reprimand the National Movement for that. But consistency is not a strong suit of the Georgian Dream coalition. Its candidates simultaneously promise integration into NATO and sorting out relations with Russia, amazing European democracy and alarming xenophobia, the Soviet past and a better future.

It seems that Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili has too little time to point out inconsistencies in the rhetoric of the ruling party. Better he should spend his time telling people how the Georgian president, longing to see him, wanted to drive up to his house disguised in a Lada Zhiguli or what his philosophical musings have revealed about the defference between the nation and its culture? Surely those revelations are exactly what voters need to be convinced of his qualifications to run the country.

Besides inconsistency, the campaign of the ruling party suffers from another significant flaw. Some of its candidates apparently consider “employment,” “affordable health care” and “strong village” to be magical words. Their frequent – even ill-placed – ritualistic articulation of those catch-phrases is intended to hypnotize voters into checking ballot position “5” for the ruling party on 1 October. In reality, the success of a political message depends on how well the politician manages to establish contact with the society.

Before voting for a candidate, voters must see that candidate as “made of the same clay.” But voters will never make that connection with a candidate who considers them stupid or who tries to win voters’ hearts by pandering to them and repeating pre-packaged political messages ad nauseam. Credibility is the key to connecting with voters. Voters have to believe that a politician actually believes what he or she is saying. Otherwise, that politician will be too long on message and too short on votes.

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 114, published 17 September 2012.

 

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