The Chess of Political Persuasion

The elections in any democracy depend upon the inclination of  voters to get out of their  comfort zone and reach the polling stations to vote. They have  to be persuaded  to vote  and fulfill the duty or obligation expected  from all mature, responsible and eligible citizens. They are further persuaded by different parties and candidates to vote for them. Successful candidates are those who not only identify the pulse of the public but are also  able to devise and convey  suitable messages which address the needs and aspirations of the electorate and can speak the language of the masses.The strategies of political persuasion have witnessed a gradual evolution and transformation during the last few decades.They involve the  use of money, manpower, print , television, digital- social media and direct interaction between the voters and the  general public.The conviction with which a candidate is able to convey a message and the apparent genuineness of his purpose usually create a lasting impression during these one to one interactions.The empathy and understanding which a candidate is able to display (even if he doesn’t actually hold the same) forms the basis of the decision which voters take.

The mass advocacy efforts have always been an inherent part of democracy. David Karpf, in his book, The Move On Effect :The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, has given an excellent analysis of how digital platforms have disrupted politics and revolutionized mass advocacy efforts. He has studied digital/ online politics and political engagement in his book. He further analyses membership and fundraising practices via novel and innovative methods. Fundraising is important because running a political campaign has become an expensive proposition. High costs are involved in running political campaigns at local,  state or national level. The book highlights important variations among the new organizations including internet based online organizations like, community blogs like and neo federated groups like MoveOn has developed an innovative way of acquisition of  emails through online petitions.The petition signers are then sent carefully designed effective emails to convert them into political donors.

Another kind of advocacy groups have emerged in the form of  blogs like select priority issue campaigns, endorse candidates for office, fundraise millions of dollars for their priority candidates and campaigns and also seek to influence political decision makers.The goals include educating the public, influencing the political agenda and persuading decision makers.Such blogs are not just personal megaphones but they engage their members through online participation. Fundraising portals like ActBlue provide the technical infrastructure necessary for the candidate centric pass through fundraising practiced by DailyKos and other similar organizations.

Sasha issenberg has written a book called   “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”.The book analyses the  increased reliance on a mix of computer technology and behavioural psychology for the purpose of reaching out to the voters, persuading them , generating monetary contributions for the election campaigns, conveying, elaborating and explaining the message to the electorate, getting feedback and ensuring that people go out and vote.It is important in a democracy to understand the theory about what motivates people to go to the polls, what makes them more likely to choose one candidate over another and what kind of messages work  best. The book  gives a vivid illustration  of different phases through which political persuasion has evolved. It talks about early 1920s when a political scientist named Harold Gosnell sent out post cards with different appeals to vote and measured the effectiveness of each.Eighty eight years hence Barack Obama’s team used the available information  to shape and structure  its entire campaign for maximum effectiveness using internet.They made an extra effort to find the 17 year olds who will turn 18 by November   and be eligible to vote.They then prepared messages  which specifically targeted such voters.When Obama’s advisers learned that swing voter households containing teenagers were more likely to support him, they bought space within video games which such teenagers play. The book has a variety of such examples.

The adoption of new technology and  methods of persuasion of voters is a continuously evolving exercise and is leaping ahead of imagination. It is an interesting insight into human creativity and  innovation.     The interface offered by internet is low cost, virtual and versatile. Therefore it is  used to communicate the message of the candidate , raise funds , mobilize support, discuss issues, provide responses and get feedback . The result of the Presidential elections of USA suggest that all the above  theories of persuasion may sometimes prove to be insufficient. It is not necessarily the richest candidate, not necessarily the one who has the largest number of ground level workers  or the one who has an organizational base or has  been preparing for a longer period or the one  who spends a lot of money on media who wins but  ultimately the candidate who is able to successfully persuade  is the one who has an appealing message for the masses and with whom the vast  majority can identify their aspirations.

The problem arises  when a suitably qualified, rational and capable  candidate fails in conveying his message and the unqualified and irrational succeeds in persuading the masses. As Professor Nicco Mele of Harvard Kennedy School has written  in his book titled The End of Big, “ We do not yet know if five or ten years from now we will find ourselves with a leadership not merely incapable of handling or preventing national crises but also haplessly or intentionally creating new ones of their own. The old way of nominating leaders isn’t working , and so it’s time for all of us, regardless of party to get involved and get creative. Together, Let’s build new institutions consistent with our values and the realities of radical connectivity.” With the Post Presidential elections of USA, this has become all the more important.


Piyush Mordia


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