Illustration: Toby Morris

‘We didn’t pay enough attention to the brand’: David Seymour on Election 2017

ACT struggled thanks to the two-horse race, the approach taken by some media, and the behaviour of our coalition partner. But we are ultimately the author of our own result, writes the Epsom MP and ACT leader


This is the second in a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Stardust and Substance. Read Jacinda Ardern’s review of ‘the most extraordinary year of my life’ here. Winston Peters’ explanation of why NZ First chose to coalesce with Labour is here. Bill English’s take on the joys of the campaign is here. And James Shaw remembers when the wheels fell off the Green campaign here.


ACT’s chapter in the 2014 edition of VUP’s post-election series ended with the following paragraph:

ACT has survived again, largely due to the enduring Epsom strategy that the party has used to ensure its survival for four elections so far. As a party, we are now well positioned within government to advance core policy objectives, these being Partnership Schools and regulatory reform. After five anni horibili – remarkably difficult years – the party is in a place where it can heal its brand, renew its infrastructure, marketing and policies, and attract new people. Having completed more than 20 years since its founding (in 1993–94), such renewal is needed. I believe there is a constituency for a classical liberal party in a nation based on trade, private property and private enterprise. How large that constituency is, and how well the party can serve it, is a matter to be discussed over the next three years.

To address the 2017 campaign, it is necessary to traverse some of the events leading up to it.

As a rookie MP and the sole elected member of ACT, I became the party leader and also entered the executive (as parliamentary under-secretary to the minister of education and to the minister of regulatory reform). I am told that nobody has entered parliament this way since the 19th century, when governments typically lasted only a year or two. The task of carrying off these roles as well as serving the Epsom electorate was always going to be large. In the final analysis it was too large.

Epsom

The cornerstone of ACT’s strategy was for me as leader to be re-elected in the Epsom electorate. As such, this part of the campaign deserves its own section. Most of the work to be re-elected in Epsom was done prior to election year. I worked hard in the electorate to demonstrate that I was a competent local MP that the electorate could be proud of. Polling of the electorate showed favourability increasing throughout the term, and I was leading in private polls before any National Party endorsement or the start of the campaign.

The campaign was nonetheless important, given the importance of Epsom to the overall ACT Party strategy. Within the Epsom electorate, the strategy was for the candidate to be re-elected by voters who wanted a centre-right government and understood that giving their electorate vote to the ACT candidate was the most efficient use of that vote to bring it about: the National candidate would be elected on the list in any foreseeable election outcome, but voting for the ACT candidate would bring in at least one more MP on the centre-right. Potentially, electing the ACT candidate would bring in several more MPs on the right if ACT’s party vote was high enough to elect more than one MP (though not high enough to clear the 5% threshold) due to the “coat-tail” rule.

An additional, and sometimes overlooked, condition was that voters had to believe that the candidate was at the very least a competent local MP, so the electorate would not face a downside by electing him. This condition was also useful in that it reduced the inclination of the approximately 30% of the electorate who did not favour a centre-right government to vote tactically for the National candidate, and this was borne out in vote-split data.

Tactically, the party’s Epsom committee delivered four personally addressed direct mail letters to the entire electorate, delivering a combination of the above messages regarding strategy and quality representation. As ACT’s Epsom candidate I appeared in seven debates organised by community groups around the electorate.

In the event, I was re -elected with an enlarged majority of 5,519 (over the National candidate, list MP Paul Goldsmith), 30% up on the previous election’s 4,250. There was never any speculation that I wouldn’t be re-elected, so there was no speculation that votes for ACT might be wasted (at least on that account).

The Epsom campaign was therefore a success, and it was an efficient success, freeing me up to largely focus on the nationwide campaign for party votes.

Strategy

Our strategic objectives were to expand ACT’s party vote, but also expand the overall vote of the centre-right. Our political strategy was to appeal to voters whose second choice was not necessarily the National Party, including socially liberal voters and younger voters concerned about intergenerational issues such as superannuation and housing. These voters, we hoped, might share ACT’s views on the size of government but see the National Party as too socially conservative and wedded to the baby boomer generation.

Over the parliamentary term, we took positions on issues such as housing affordability, the age of entitlement to superannuation, government waste and corporate welfare along with traditional ACT positions on crime, welfare dependency and Treaty issues. We adopted socially liberal positions on issues such as freedom of speech, cannabis law reform, assisted dying, and abortion. We also positioned ourselves as being in favour of modern technologies such as Uber and peer-to-peer lending, which can face tough regulatory conditions that inhibit innovation. We introduced innovative positions such as privatising Landcorp to fund an archipelago of fenced community-driven wildlife sanctuaries and rewarding prisoners (with reduced sentences) who learned to read.

In this diversification lay the roots of failure. In the above (non-exhaustive) list of positions the party adopted are not a few that are mutually contradictory. The pro-millennial positions risked alienating older voters, while the social liberalism risked offending some of ACT’s traditional voters who were socially conservative. Meanwhile, the remaining traditional positions, along with the party brand they had helped cultivate over two decades, made it difficult to convert younger and more socially liberal voters.

This brand confusion was further amplified during the campaign, when market research (more on which below) found that the propositions likely to convert ACT voters were higher pay for teachers, being tough on youth crime, fixing housing affordability and cutting government waste.

In summary, we answered the key strategic questions of “who’s going to vote for us and why” but we found and gave too many answers for a distinct group of voters to identify with ACT as having a coherent product. Underlying this was a deeper strategic problem. We treated policies as products we had to sell, but we didn’t pay enough attention to the brand of the entity selling them.

Tactics

The campaign was a great success, at a technical level at least. The ACT Party raised around $100,000 more than the previous election year, nearly breaking $1 million. The party stood 41 candidates in electorates around the country and had no scandals surrounding any candidate as in other years. The campaign machine functioned well and is a tribute to the party.

Aided by the American consultancy Ajjan Associates and a campaign manager with very strong statistical abilities we invested heavily, nearly a fifth of our campaign budget, in market research. Qualitatively, we carried out around 20 hours of focus-group work on the party, the leader and proposed policies. Among other things, this research showed very strong support for what became our headline election policy of paying good teachers more, with a promise of $1 billion – approximately $20,000 per teacher.

Quantitatively, we carried out a baseline poll which screened 1,700 voters and conducted in-depth (half-hour) interviews with 500 voters who identified as having a favourable view of ACT and/or choosing ACT as their second-choice party. This research showed that ACT’s first-choice support was approximately 0.7%, consistent with publicly available polling, but a revote question at the end of the interview showed 3% support for ACT. The propositions popular with those who changed to ACT were those listed above. The same quantitative research also showed that the demographic likely to vote for ACT was skewed – middle aged, middle income and (for the most part) male.

With our messages and targeting established through our research programme, we invested heavily in a direct mail campaign. We believed that although it was expensive and extremely labour intensive (using volunteer delivery to economise on postage), direct mail would be an effective way to get messages across to a highly targeted segment of voters. We reasoned that, counterintuitively, reduction in overall mail volumes would increase the likelihood of voters reading the direct mail that they did receive. In total, we produced 580,000 letters through our in-house production facility and had them delivered almost entirely by ACT volunteers. It was an extraordinary volunteer effort. In addition to these personally addressed items, we also had delivered more than a quarter of a million unaddressed pamphlets reflecting our core campaign messages and policies.

ACT also published my book, Own Your Future: A Liberal Vision for New Zealand in 2017, setting out over 11 chapters the party’s solutions to the voters’ concerns as it saw them. Over 3,000 copies of the book were sold or distributed to party members, donors and members of the public. The book generated significant internal discussion and donations, but gained little external attention.

In addition to our traditional communications, we invested heavily in promoted graphics and videos on Facebook. These were targeted in line with our campaign messages. We also made daily update videos of talks I gave to Facebook followers about the daily issues in the campaign, and ran live Q&A videos where users could type in questions to be answered by video stream in real time. Snapchat began to emerge as an important platform during the campaign, with broadcasts peaking at about 3,000 views. To give an idea of the scale of the Facebook activity, we reached approximately 400,000 people in the final week of the campaign, with approximately 70,000 interactions.

Messaging

Our campaign messages were were different from the themes advanced for the two-and-a-half years leading up to the election, with only our housing policy surviving the market research segment of the campaign. Of course, the 2017 election campaign was rocked by a series of scandals and upheavals. These commenced with Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei’s kamikaze admission of electoral fraud, which initially boosted the party’s polling to 15%, precipitating the ascension of Jacinda Ardern to leadership of the Labour Party. This was followed by the leaking of Winston Peters’ overpayment of superannuation.

These events sucked up valuable political oxygen in themselves, but Ardern’s rise, and the impact that it had, turned the election into a two-horse race. When Labour outpolled National for the first time in a decade under her leadership, panic set in with potential ACT voters. The party was bombarded with messages to the effect “we like you but we have to vote National to help them keep Jacinda Ardern out”.

The effect on ACT’s messaging was that most of the final fortnight was spent attempting to counter this perception. The final mail delivery and most social media and conventional media activity focused on this message rather than the party’s actual policy offerings. Most of this messaging was based on a thermometer showing how many party votes would be required to elect each candidate on ACT’s list, with the implicit message being that every party vote for ACT would count towards more MPs on the centre-right to oppose “Jacindamania” in parliament.

Media

Media coverage turned out to be a significant challenge for the party. In the final five weeks of the campaign, as party leader I was featured only once on the three morning radio shows. The combination of the various scandals and upheavals and the resulting two-horse race between Labour and National meant that all media coverage followed this pattern. The fact that most of these outlets easily found time to interview ACT about its failure as soon as the election was over makes it easy to be cynical about the role of the media in the 2017 campaign. All minor party leaders expressed similar sentiments in the election aftermath.

The level of policy discussion was also disappointing for ACT. Coverage of my election year book setting out ACT’s ideas and policies was almost non-existent and, when there was any, the emphasis was on the few comments about other politicians rather than the overwhelmingly policy-focused content of the book. In analysing the most significant minor party leaders’ debate, one senior political journalist focused on the looks and performance of the United Future Party candidate – who had no hope of being elected – remarking that he had caught a train to the debate and that his social media account had gone “mental” despite the candidate having only 200 followers.

Ultimately the level and quality of coverage that ACT attracts from the mainstream media is the responsibility of ACT and ACT alone; however, it is difficult not to remark on the media environment in the run-up to the 2017 election.

Coalitions

Another aspect of the campaign where I hesitate to lay blame but feel it important to record events is the approach of the National Party to coalitions. Ultimately it is up to every party to maximise its own vote. However, it is notable that the National Party campaigned heavily on distinctively ACT policies in the final fortnight. During this period, National announced that it would discount the sentences of prisoners who learned new skills and replace the Resource Management Act in urban settings with a new streamlined planning law. In addition, the party’s leader paid a visit to a Partnership School, leaving us to wonder when Bill English would go for broke and endorse the assisted dying legislation …

Such campaigning puts a minor party in an impossible position. Protesting that the larger party has “stolen” their policy just reinforces to voters that they needn’t vote for them to get “their” policies. Ignoring it means that the smaller party risks getting no credit at all, especially given the media conditions that prevailed in 2017. Of course, any party is able to campaign on any policy it likes and no voter “belongs” to any party. However, the fact that National ended up as the largest party but with no coalition to form a government partly reflects its focus on maximising its own vote rather than that of its potential coalition.

Conclusion

After the 2017 election, ACT had barely moved from where it found itself three years earlier. In fact, the party vote result declined slightly (from 16,689 votes, or 0.7 per cent, in 2014 to 13,075 votes, or 0.5 per cent, in 2017). There were, as noted, some external factors: the two-horse race, the approach taken by some of the media, and the behaviour of our coalition partner. However, we are ultimately the author of our own result. ACT’s fundamental problem was a lack of clarity about what voters would get. Too many people said “we don’t know what ACT stands for”, and, given the wide range of positions that the party took in the three years leading up to the election, they cannot be blamed. The challenge over the upcoming two-and-a-half years is to re-establish the party to appeal to a specific group of voters by giving them specific reasons to vote for us.

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