Friday, November 06, 2020

On asymmetrical warfare

In the wake of this week's U.S. elections - featuring a closer-than-expected contest for the presidency, and down-ballot results which look to disappointingly leave substantial power in Republican hands - there's been an outpouring of commentary criticizing the money that was put into campaigns which ultimately lost.

If there's a lesson we can draw from a broader set of political results, though, it's about the need for all-of-the-above politics - rather than an assumption that a single form of winning support can be counted on to make up for a lack of others.

In the U.S., the division between the air war and the ground war was stark. In the presidential race as well as major congressional battles, Democrats were able to pour loads of money into ads. 

But Biden's initial reluctance to pursue door-knocking at all, combined with a lack of effort to reach communities where it appears particularly important to win and turn out support, looks to have been a major factor behind some of the most disappointing results. And the assumption that text alerts and phoning would make up for a lack of in-person contact looks to have been thoroughly flawed.

That's particularly so since the Democrats' greatest successes look to have come in areas where ad blitzes from above (boosting voters' motivation) were paired with grassroots canvassing (which converted that motivation into turnout).

It appears that a similar dynamic also may have applied in Saskatchewan's provincial election - though the problem for the NDP arose on the former front.

Here, the prospect of an opportunistic snap spring election call in the midst of a pandemic always seemed particularly egregious given the Saskatchewan Party's reserves of corporate donations. The prospect of the government locking everybody indoors, then using its cash reserves to drown out all competing voices through electronic media, looked like about the most unfair and self-serving starting point one could imagine.

The election eventually took place on schedule, and COVID receded somewhat over the summer. As a result, the opposition parties were eventually able to get out door-knocking - albeit with some restrictions which did make communication more difficult. And on election day, the NDP was in its familiar situation of being able to reach target voters with a thorough ground game in priority ridings. 

But by that point, the party was fishing in a depleted and uninterested pool. Large numbers of mail-in ballots and advance voters proved to be more the result of a shift in turnout rather than an increase. For citizens who had seen far more government messaging than contrasting perspectives in the course of the campaign (particularly with what should have been major news going unreported through mainstream outlets in that time), it figures to have been relatively easy to decide that the pandemic offered a valid excuse to stay home. And the result was that the NDP's support on election day fell well short of what the polls suggested.

In sum, neither an air-war approach without a well-thought-out plan to engage with voters in their communities, nor a strong ground game in the face of a massive advertising disadvantage, is likely to represent a recipe for victory. But by the same token, the answer isn't to criticize the people who have built up one or the other, but to ensure the causes we support have enough of both to succeed.

[Edit: fixed & added wording.]

1 comment:

  1. Seems as if the NDP in Saskatchewan (as in many places, really) needs to counter right wing dominance of the mainstream media, and has found no effective counter to that.

    The far right in places like the US has found counters to that problem; unfortunately, most of them, even when they feel like grassroots, have involved a lot of money, whether it's diffusion of propaganda through churches (which are big money media in their own right), talk radio (which involved purchase of a bunch of radio stations) or even social media (the big hard right social media presence was created by lavish infusions of funds from right wing think tanks, in turn funded by big corporations and oligarchs like the Koch brothers).

    Still, the US hard right has used all those channels and institutions to create a sort of community--a community glued together largely by fraud, hate and xenophobia, but whether progressives like it or not, pointing at an out-group can indeed create cohesion among the in-group. But that can work as well or better for the left, because of course positive things can also create community. The Black Panthers pointed out at the white oppressors, but much of their robustness as a movement came from the practical help and empowerment they created in the communities where they were active. There are things the left and the NDP may be able to do to create powerful progressive communities which, as a side effect, would deliver in elections. But it won't be easy.