I have been thinking a lot about the recent Student Union election, mostly because I set up some deliberate “tests” at the beginning of the process to see if my theory of political campaigning was sound; namely, that a positive campaign can beat a negative one.
I should stress that I do not want to believe the conclusions I reached. In my little world of idealism, I want to think that good ideas, a well-informed electorate and a positive campaign free of personal attacks are w7hat makes a winning campaign. Sure, at the federal and provincial and municipal level, this doesn’t seem to ring true, but if anywhere it could be the case, it would be here in the protected environment of a university campus. Where better to find intelligent, well-informed voters? Where better to find idealistic, positive voters? Surely if my theory could be proved, it would be here.
Sadly, it was not. Here is what I have learned.
1. Negative campaigns work—positive campaigns don’t.
Having witnessed the inner workings of both the United and Renew campaigns, I can confidently say that one was positive (Renew) and one was negative (United). I do not say this in any pejorative sense—indeed, I am acknowledging the power of one tactic over the other. This classification is based on facts (below) and not opinion.
The numbers do not lie. United currently has three of six candidates facing disqualification for repeatedly violating the Elections Procedure Code, and in the lead with the most points—as of Saturday evening—is Vickita Bhatt with 62 demerit points (out of 35 allowed). Examples of these violations: slander, pre-campaigning, unauthorized use of Union resources, misrepresentation of fact, etc.*
Renew, on the other hand, is nowhere near being disqualified, with Henry Ssali leading with 24 points (out of 35 allowed). *
What I take from this is that a negative campaign is a very effective way to garner votes. Bending, breaking and ignoring the rules have clearly paid off for United, since they took three votes for every two Renew votes. As long as your candidates don’t get disqualified (or as long as you can appeal forever, or have the CRO report disregarded, etc.), you will win every time. The more negative you go, the more effective it is: in a best case scenario, people will be so disgusted with how negative and corrupt the political climate is that no one else will bother to run.
My hope was that a positive campaign might act as a “breath of fresh air,” re-motivating and encouraging disheartened voters, and so I advised the Renew campaign to run a positive campaign and assisted them in crafting their message with this in mind.
Renew offered a vision and refrained from attacking their opponents, despite many opportunities to do so. Rather than tearing apart the record that United was running on, Renew ignored them and laid out bold new plans: a GO bus line, moving on the Student Centre Expansion (which the current union voted to shelve this year), a transparent club funding formula, moving funding from advocacy towards campus clubs, as well as a plan to increase student club office spaces 20-25% by September by dividing up the old daycare space. These were all positive ideas and would have led to a better campus for all of us—and in the absence of any character or personal attacks against United, I can safely say that Renew ran an admirably (and uniquely) positive campaign.
That is partly why they lost. The personal attacks, character defamation, rumours and insinuations—true or not—put out by United stuck in the minds of students. Although they got demerits for slander, the damage was already done: Renew could not be trusted.
Lesson learned: a positive, idea-based campaign cannot beat negative personal attacks.
2. Emotional Appeals Unify—Rational Debates Divide
The names of both sides—United and Renew—both carry emotional meaning and power. The subconscious ideas and feelings associated with each cannot be underrated: in fact, these names were chosen by both sides for this very reason. Creating an image that can be readily identified is essential for any political group, and choosing a name can be particularly tricky.
Moreover, both teams decided to make a “contract” of promises to students, which is little more than a gimmick meant to emotionally reassure those who might feel that politicians are inclined to lie.
However, what stood out to me was how fragmented the overall United message was. They claimed to be pragmatic idealists, who would bring change to UTM by doing things the way they’ve always been done, who would unite students together once they find out just what the heck they want. The logical contradictions in this message are obvious, and their platform reflected such shaky foundations. Vickita Bhatt was quoted in last Wednesday’s Varsity saying she would scrap funding for DROP FEES and give it to clubs—a central point of the Renew campaign, and contrary to her own support for DROP FEES up until that moment.
Was this flip-flop noted by anyone? No. When Mariam Chowdhury (United) told a lecture hall that the GO bus was impossible, she did not know that her running mate Gilbert would be standing outside the class afterward saying that the GO bus was a great idea, and United was doing that too. Did anyone notice? No.
Renew stuck to several core points, which were neatly categorized, and all tied together into a central vision of “Improving UTM First.” Their platform did not change, and they stuck to the same script throughout the campaign. Did voters notice this logical constancy? If they did, they didn’t care.
It seems that chanting “United” over and over again—even without specifying what we are being united for—is able to persuade more voters than a solid, consistent and coherent platform.
It makes sense, in a way, that this would be so. Rational policies and thinking invites debate. Intelligent discussion leads to divergent views. Division is created by examining and pursuing truth (even though this may ultimately lead to better policies). On the other hand, emotional appeals bring people together. Repeat often enough and voters will be emotionally bound to your message, even though they will be unable to intelligently explain why.
Lesson learned: good policy and coherent platforms cannot beat repeated emotional rhetoric.
*(NOTE: these points are being appealed and more points added as I write this, so are subject to change. My intention here is merely to provide a snap-shot of what works in an election campaign, not predict the final outcome).