Friday, August 19, 2011

In politics vagueness works

Here’s some free political advice: If you’re running for elected office don’t ever give voters dozens of reasons not to vote for you.

Now you might think that’s stupid advice because, after all, what candidate or party would ever do such a ridiculous thing?

But believe me, it happens all the time.

It happens, for instance, every time a candidate releases a detailed and specific policy platform during or before an election.

These are the platforms candidates will proudly hold up at a news conference and say something like: “Here is an extensive list of my specific promises which I will enact to get the country/province/city moving again.”

Sometimes they even have special names: Contract with America, Red Book, Pledge to America, Changebook.

It’s a nice idea, but also an incredibly risky one.

It’s risky because every specific and detailed policy idea in your contract or book or pledge has the potential to anger or frighten or confuse a voter.

A voter might say to himself, “I really liked this candidate but then I read his 75 Point Platform, and I don’t like point 15, I hate point 56 and I would never vote for a guy who would carry out point 62.”

And there’s another danger of coming out with a detailed plan: It gives your political opponents potential ammunition to use against you.

Indeed, given that most voters don’t follow policy questions all that closely, it’s pretty easy to put a negative spin on any proposal or promise that’s new or untried or in any way controversial.

For instance, during the 2011 federal election the Liberals released a “Red Book” which promised to hike corporate tax rates and to end tax breaks for oil sands development.

This gave Conservatives an opportunity to pounce, which not surprisingly, they did.

Indeed, almost as soon as the Liberal Red Book was released, the Tories were calling it tax and spend politics.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty declared” “Michael Ignatieff’s election platform will raise taxes, kill jobs and put our economic recovery in jeopardy."

Sounds pretty scary doesn’t it?

Anyway, the point is the Liberals put themselves on the defensive, at a time when they should have been attacking.

This is not to say a candidate shouldn’t have some sort of “plan.”

It’s definitely a good idea to let voters know you have an agenda or vision.

But it’s always advisable to keep your plan as vague as possible, ie “Our plan is to reduce government waste, cut taxes and promote trade.”

Any plan that’s too detailed could do more harm than good.

But what about the Liberal Party’s famous Red Book plan released during the 1993 federal election?

It contained a detailed plan for Canada and conventional political wisdom suggests it played a major role in helping the Liberals win a massive victory.

But did it?

As statisticians like to say, correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

In other words, just because a political party wins an election after releasing a detailed policy platform doesn’t mean the platform actually helped it win.

Any number of variables can determine the success or failure of a political campaign.

In the 1993 Canadian election, for instance, the Liberals were running against an extremely unpopular, tired and poorly led Progressive Conservative Party.

Given such a weak opponent, the Liberals would likely have won handily Red Book or no Red Book.

Indeed, I strongly suspect few Canadian voters even bothered to read the Liberal Red Book.

OK, I know all this sounds cynical.

But as someone once said, “cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth”.

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