UK Election - Data and Psychology in British Campaigns

I write this blog on the train back from Twickenham after a very cold, very wet, very British morning campaigning in the marginal seat that our EDO programme has been focusing on. The Twickenham campaign is one of the most marginal competitions in this election, fought between Conservative incumbent Dr Tania Mathias and long-time former Liberal Democrat MP Sir Vince Cable.

My colleagues have already mentioned the very targeted nature of doorknocking used by campaigns in Britain. Our focus up until Monday had been canvassing Liberal Democrat voters and wavering Conservatives, asking for their vote and sharing the message of the day of the central Tory campaign. The last two days have been very different, however. Our campaign is using, for the the first time by the Conservatives in Britain, a ‘Plan to Vote’ strategy first developed by the Obama presidential campaign. The goal of the strategy is to improve Conservative voter turnout by targeting Conservatives with a historically low voting turnout record. We approach the voter with a personalised DL with a perforated tab. On the DL is a survey about voting time and voting intention, which asks the resident to actually think about and visualise their plan on Thursday, like who they will take with them and how they will get there. We fill out the survey with the voter and record their voting intention on the smaller part of the DL, which we keep for our information – and so we don’t bother them again. The applied psychology of asking them to visualise when and how they vote increases the lkelihood they will attend a polling booth, and because they are declared Conservatives they should support our campaign. What the Obama campaign experienced using this strategy was a bump of a couple of percentage points. In a constituency with a margin of only 2017 votes, this strategy could prove the difference.

UKEDO Watt1Campaigning with Tania Mathias MP and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire

It is worthwhile to briefly consider why this approach is even possible because it raises some interesting differences in political strategy and culture between Britain and Australia. One thing I have noticed is how forthcoming the British are in sharing their views on political candidates and their policy platform. When doorknocking they are likely to tell you directly what they think, and even who they are considering voting for. That allows the campaign to collate voter data on a much more granular level – if someone told us they were a soft Liberal Democrat last time, for example, we can anticipate what Conservative party policy might appeal to them when we knock on their door next time. It also helps us identify how often they vote, which therefore makes our strategy of knocking on the door of Conservatives with low turnout possible.

Meeting with Sir Lynton Crosby, and talking with the region’s campaign director (called an Agent), it is clear that the Conservatives are running a data-driven campaign that is designed to use resources as efficiently as possible. This might be one of necessity – British campaign funding laws are even more onerous than ours in Queensland and expenditure in each constituency is subject to a cap. There are also prohibitions on broadcast advertising, with candidates having to rely heavily on media stories and local canvassing. The data analytics used by the Conservatives take in more than just what is collected on local campaigns, taking account for variables such as the value of homes, average incomes and other publicly available data to inform their own models when targeting voters.

UKEDO Watt2Campaign team after a day on the hustings

There are lessons in this campaign that can be used by our divisions in Australia and Queensland. While most of the divisions of our party are excellent at targeting voters on social media, in the arms race of targeted political advertising our British cousins are far more advanced in finding right-leaning votes on the ground and in the streets and locking them down in advance of polling day. We have not had the same urgency to campaign smarter as we have compulsory voting to compel people to the polling place. What this EDO trip has demonstrated, for me at least, is that there is a massive opportunity for our party in Australia to use some of these targeted approaches to improve our campaign machine.

UKEDO Watt3Who erected this - a supporter or a Labour opponent? Erected at the Cliffs of Dover pointing toward Europe, one of the more interesting pieces of political material from this election.


Rohan Watt is the Policy Director of the Young Liberal Nationals in Queensland.