The rise and rise of tactical voting, an emerging force in this year's federal election

A local at Bondi Beach on election day in 2007. Photo by Marianna Massey / Getty Images

Much has been written about how “when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins”.

But the more mundane reality is that within the confines of those cardboard voting booths around the country this year, voters must condense both their rational thoughts and emotional concerns – about issues, parties, and leaders – into numbers on a ballot paper against simple names.

In essence this means that each voter must develop his or her own micro-voting strategy to condense and translate complex reasoning and emotions to a mark on a page that will make their views truly count.

As reported in The Guardian, my experience is that as “[political journalists] make voters more aware of the political process, they are adjusting to that knowledge by being more mercenary themselves and tactical in their own voting behaviour … they know they can’t change the whole political system, but they understand the power of their vote.”

Further, I observed that the big lesson from the UK poll was the rise of tactical voting – voters making choices not just on policy or personality, “but on understanding and gaming what might happen with a certain poll (in this case electoral) outcome”.


The public polls (in the UK) made three big mistakes: they didn’t ask enough questions to measure tactical voters – people who were persuaded to ‘game’ the election result or the result of the opinion poll itself; they did not do enough to measure voters’ expectations and hopes about the outcome – which may have shed light on tactical intentions; and they did not measure the ‘local candidate’ factor in close constituencies with intense local campaigns.

In Australia, there are many political vectors that give the consideration of tactical voting a higher voter weighting at the next election in Australia.

The first is the desire of voters to reduce longer-term political risk, regardless of short-term desires. Australia has been through a period of unprecedented political instability.

Since 2007 we’ve had five changes of prime minister and 21 changes of premiers and territory leaders. The prospect of another change at The Lodge to the current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten may be one change too many without very good reason, whatever one might think of the Government’s handling of the issues of the day.

This is because the observed polls suggest that if Shorten did win, then the political outcome would, in the expectations of voters, likely be one where he would only just win, meaning an equally likely return to minority or near-minority government. As was the case with the Gillard Government, voters know that such a government would only survive at the whim of Green or Independent dominance, and would battle almost daily with backbencher threats to cross the floor under a razor-thin majority.

So whatever their rational thoughts about the economy or the education system or even their local member, voters could very well vote tactically simply to preserve a stable Government. While such desires may always have been part of the voter calculus, the evidence is that they are now more often weighted above more material issues.

Tactical voting is both national, and local

Even a government experiencing some churn in its ministerial line up is nothing compared to the massive churn in ministers and the disruption to the processes of government generally, as a new government spends its first six months “sorting their s–t out”, in the words one voter I spoke to recently.

Complicating this national tactical vote calculus is local tactical voting.

While information is readily available to voters from the polls and political commentary about the likely outcomes of a national vote, the level of information available to inform them of local outcomes is far more scarce. Marginal seat polling by major published pollsters is still relatively scarce and sporadic and – according to Professor Murray Goot in his paper “To The Second Decimal Point” – less reliable than national polls.

Further, when it is available to voters at election time, it tends to be lost in the barrage of campaign material and coverage.

Because of this, the increased use locally of paid and “earned” tactical voting messaging is almost inevitable. Indeed if you want to know what issues are truly important to political parties, it is often useful to see where they spend their hard earned dollars.

In the two recent New Zealand elections, voters in Epsom received a weight of material from the National Party informing them that they should vote tactically, locally, for the ACT Party’s Candidate in order to strengthen and Center Right government. In the UK election, Liberal Democrat voters in key Liberal Democrat seats received phone calls, read billboards and received high quality print materials where the emphasis was not on issues, which had largely matured by that time, but instead giving voters published polling information to convince them that voting tactically for Conservative was the only sure way to return a majority Government at a time when Britain needed economic stability above all else.

This year, South Australian voters, for example, will not only weigh up their challenging economic predicament but will likely also be encouraged by third parties (like that formed by Nick Xenophon) to use their vote non-tactically – a more emotional message to radically “shake up the system”. Ironically, Labor might encourage a similar vote for tactical reasons.

This is not to say that any political party should be stupid enough to stop talking about the issues that matter to the rational voter and only talk politics. Personal relevance rules the roost. And, importantly, the party that offers innovation and hope can still trump tactical voting – for personal incentive and aspiration is still the necessary condition for success. But if an election campaign is one where both parties’ messages effectively just neutralise or confuse the difference on the issues of the day, voters will then ask how they can ensure the best overall result with their vote. Because, as John Howard was fond of saying, “when you change the government you change the country” – and there’s been rather too much of that lately for many.

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

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