MARK TEXTOR'S CAMPAIGN DIARY: How maths beats 'feel-pinions' in modern elections

Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images

In 17th century France, a young René Descartes concluded the way to escape the incestuous intellectual sickness that had invaded the study of philosophy was through the structure and discipline of mathematics.

Frankly, I think some in 21st century politics could still learn from the guy.

In his work Discours de la méthode there was a very important appendix called La Géométrie. Thanks to it, we can now create Cartesian coordinate graphs, using the intersecting horizontal X and vertical Y axes he invented the mathematics to build.

Away from the babbling nonsense of pretend analytics of the “feel-pinions” of some political commentators, pollsters for all parties around the world have for some time charted who most “owns” an issue on the X-axis and how influential that issue is to a vote, or a change of vote on the Y-axis; the latter usually with the aid of advanced derived statistics and modelling.

All are undoubtedly doing so, now, in this election. At their simplest, typical early morning deliverables the day after a survey track would be delivered in format whereby significant vote movements are analysed to guide strategic response.

Rene Descartes circa 1645. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Imagine a right-of-centre party gains vote: it might find the movement came from men, over 35 years, mostly due to a statistically significant shift up in the voting salience of economic issues on the Y-axis, not any positive shift on who is the “best party” on that issue on the X-axis (where they may have a traditionally strong lead).

Equally, that same party could have deteriorated 5 points on “best party for” on, say, health overnight, but if the SALIENCE of a that issue has declined they might still have an agenda-setting advantage that day.

Seat-by-seat data filters allow them to test conclusions within constituencies and demographics too. In this scenario one would continue an agenda setting strategy (a Y-axis strategy) rather than an issue persuasion “who is best” strategy (an X-axis strategy), micro-targeted with intrusive media and telephonic means to the relevant audiences.

Further, parties will measure the image of their brand, their candidates and leaders thematically (such as trust, competence and unity) and compare them on the same chart to more rational issues, like heath and education, especially among those who might potentially “switch” or “swing” between political parties.

Forensics versus ‘feel-pinions’

Only by understanding this intersection of party image, leader and candidate characteristics, as well as rational issues, can you truly understand a complex voting market, track it and act upon that information.

In other words, with polling and maths, hundreds of individual issues and the importance of each issue, the subjects of millions of Twitter references, and literally thousands of pages of polling data, can be represented on one page.

Descartes’ work in 1637 has, therefore, allowed us to “automate and mechanize” the political reasoning that many journalists would otherwise reduce to their “feel-pinions” about what’s most important to voters.

But some commentators seem to want to take us back almost 400 years; guessing at the story or placing their own views upon voters.

At the risk of adding to this sin of vanity, last week I observed on Twitter: “This AM on @abcnews a journalist interviewed another journalist about another commentator’s comments about party insiders. I kid you fkn not”.

Incredibly, another journalist-commentator then chimed in to claim the very fact that yet more commentators were commentating on the comments (on Sky) “proves it (commentary) can also be news”, and by implication salient to voters.

In the unlikely event these folk have studied Descartes, I can only conclude they have mistranslated “Je pense, donc je suis” or, in English “I think, therefore I am” to vainly conclude: “Je parle, donc je suis les news”, or, “I speak, therefore I am the news”.

This is behind the rise of gotcha journalism that you will see in this campaign where, instead of forensically asking a type of question to elicit a response that would make the audience wiser, the intention seems to be to construct badgering interviews to demonstrate how tactically clever they are as journalists.

You see, too often, it’s all about them.

So I propose a modified Bechdel test (a test used to identify films free of the vanity of dominating male roles) for political yarns. In this modified test, we imagine a voter explaining that she only listens to a political story if satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The story has to have at least one reference to a salient issue.
  2. That issue has an effect on her life.
  3. That impact is discussed in ways other than speculation whether it will win or lose votes.

For example, Treasurer Scott Morrison’s delivery of the Budget was seen as calm, measured and confident. To the extent that this political yarn was salient to voters, the lack of aggression or political point-scoring they are accustomed to in Parliamentary debate or near election – which might normally be a purely political story – is relevant, because that style meant most concluded Morrison was determined to focus positively on our economic future. This is personally salient, whilst the consolidation and clear structure of the Coalition’s economic plan gave them confidence as consumers.

So whilst dull for commentators, the Government’s plans for an innovation and science programme for start-up businesses, its defence plan for local hi-tech manufacturing and technology, its export trade deals to generate new business opportunities, its tax cuts and incentives and for small business and hardworking families, its focus on a sustainable budget with crackdowns on tax avoidance & loopholes and its guaranteed funding for heath, education and roads will continue to be the issues that matter.

The ability of the Government to cut through with these issues to real voters through the fog of Canberra commentariat, and the inevitable other distractions of the campaign, will be key to its success, but that is best measured with Descartes’ cartography, not the shifting vagaries that have invaded the study of philosophy before his breakthrough.

Few would expect journalists to become analytic pollsters and apply these methods, but many can do more to bring structure to debates in more useful terms.

Mark Textor is co-founder of campaign strategy firm Crosby|Textor, which advises the Turnbull government. He also chairs the Amy Gillett foundation. You can follow him on Twitter.

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