Elections are won in the middle, they said. But what if they were won on the outside?
I vote. I have always voted. I may have skipped a Police Crime Commissioner election at some point –but who hasn’t? I’m not your typical swing voter too, I vote fairly consistently for the same side. That makes me utterly uninteresting to most political campaigns. Why bother with me, I’m a safe one.
It used to be that every strategist dreamt of the mythical swing voter. Calmly sitting on the fence, voting with his/her wallet, easy to scare, harder to enthuse, sometimes shy (if you’re a tory optimist or a labour pessimist). But 2016 seems to have seen the emergence of a new paradigm. The non-voter.
It's part myth part reality, and a bloody good narrative. Last year’s election fallout was all about the lazy Labour supporter… until it turned out that wasn’t the problem at all. But who listens to the expert from the British Polling Council anyway?
Then there was Corbyn: massive influx of new voters meant some people who would not vote before started to vote and contributed to Corbyn’s success. That was true in the Labour leadership election (volume 1 and maybe volume 2), but it’s not just electoral arithmetic. The non-voter is also the rationale for Corbyn supporters: ‘Victory lies in the hands of those who don’t normally vote, let’s reach out to those’. While this is – in this case - unconvincing to most experts it remains a very effective narrative for a candidate who likes to think of himself as ‘outside the bubble’ and hates polling numbers.
Finally, the EU Referendum came along and we witnessed higher than average turn-out in areas not usually too keen on the polling booth, contributing to the Brexit victory. Once again the same new voters’ phenomenon, and once again, the same narrative, of winning by unleashing the democratic power of the sleeping nation.
It’s not news that different types of elections bring out different types of voters. More people vote in general elections but no-one does for Police and Crime Commissioner elections. And it’s not hard to understand how a once-or-maybe-twice- in-a-lifetime election like the EU Ref was more mobilising than a general election for some voters.
Of course, it’s not news that the Get Out The Vote is key to an election. Our dear pensioners can bear witness to this: mess with the dutifully voting grey vote and you’ll be sorry! - It might be common to take care of your regular voters, but it’s less usual to try and get new people to vote. It’s uncommon that a campaign strategy would target non-voters, and definitely not early in a campaign. What’s new is that some, like the Vote Leave or Corbyn supporters, have had an explicit strategy of targeting those non-voters. Imagine candidates, like spoiled millionaires, going around screaming ‘Just give me a bigger pool’ (of voters).
So what’s new, then?
In the case of Corbyn, this is the result of structural changes: who’s allowed to vote, and how much it costs. Lower barriers to entry means it’s easier to mobilise those who would normally not vote.
In other cases, it’s been enabled by specific campaigning strategies built around community mobilisation (think NationBuilder, social media etc…). The fact is, it’s now become easier for these campaigns to reach out to those who traditionally did not vote.
These changes in campaign outreach tools have made it easier for campaigns to mobilise non-voters. This part of the population that was left out of the political equation suddenly became worth the effort. Obviously, those who have been excluded from the political game for a long time tend to have different political views from the rest. Some will call them radical, some will call them populist, but what really matters is that they do not respond to the same messages. Think about it – your average Corbyn voter is far more likely than others to watch TV for less than one hour a week, and more likely to get their news online (according to YouGov profile data). That means they are less sensitive to the political world’s traditional wisdom (be it right or wrong) – and more likely to select their source of information (potentially getting trapped in a clannish, closed circuit mentality).
But why is it that non-voters are just coming about now? None of the technical stuff would matter if they weren’t supported by a wider ideological shift. Why is it that some candidates have moved their focus from targeting swing voters to non- voters? If I were cynical, I’d probably say that they’ve given up on convincing people. And that’s worrying. If traditional parties (or traditional candidates) want to stay in the game, they’ll have to start reaching out before it’s too late. Like all voters, new voters develop loyalty, and they will probably keep voting for the person who got them into politics. Years of chasing the middle has caused a number of people to defect to their couch. If traditional candidates don’t react, they’ll come out dancing with someone else.