Why Negative Ads Don’t Work, but Sticking to Principle Does
It all comes down to Bentleigh, a Liberal strategist told me on Saturday night.
He was close to swaying from exhaustion and the release of tightly coiled stress. Or near-release, as the outcome was not yet decided.
It still isn’t. Counting will continue today, but so far the Libs are 423 votes ahead.
So what lessons can be drawn from the cliffhanger result, and a likely Lib/Nats victory? Early chatter from the commentariat has focused on the giant-slayer achievements of Baillieu and his team.
Brumby’s strategy has come under the microscope, and some have trumpeted the end of the Greens in the wake of the party’s failure to make any gains in the lower house.
Take a step back, however, and a different picture emerges, one that points to the importance of ethics in modern election campaigns and the governments that result.
While Baillieu’s achievements in winning so many seats in one blow are indisputable, the result is a Parliament split right up the middle.
Victorians seem to have chosen a chamber where the centre-left and centre-right parties are more or less equally represented.
While it’s far too early to call results in the upper house, one scenario is that the Greens retain the balance of power, another that the Coalition will hold it by one. Again, this suggests that a moderate and consultative approach to policy and process by the party that forms government would be both fair and wise.
Electors don’t like negative ads but campaign strategists insist they work. But the failure of a final week TV blitz – reviving Labor’s long-time criticism of Baillieu’s business interests – to impress swinging marginal seat voters has turned this political wisdom on its head.
These voters may also have been impressed by Baillieu’s decision to eschew clever election tactics and simply refuse to preference the party of the left – the Greens – on principle. This suggests that the rise of “values voters”, usually discussed in relation to the Greens may be a broader phenomenon.
This is not surprising. While electors in state polls may be mainly concerned with matters pragmatic and economic, they know that whatever a party’s policy and promises, they must be delivered by flesh-and-blood humans.
This means that despite the well-known cynicism of Australians about all parliamentarians, voters must place some trust that they will do as they say.
Of course, trustworthiness may just be one facet of a politician’s moral character that voters consider. Lightning can strike when voter judgments about moral character dovetail or conflict with other campaign messages and tactics. This may be what happened in Victoria.
Labor’s negative campaign blitz reinforced voter perceptions that Brumby was more arrogant and less trustworthy than his opponent. My own suspicion is the previous relationship between the two men – they were in the same class at school – saw such tactics play particularly badly.
In contrast, Baillieu’s decision, against conflicting internal advice, not to preference the Greens undercut the view of some electors that he was “weak” or “stood for nothing.”
Close contest shows negative ads don't work and sticking to principle does The Age