Last year was a fascinating opportunity to study how voters behave. In the UK we had Brexit, in South Africa we had the municipal elections, and in the US we had the presidential elections. And there are two fundamentally important take-aways from all three elections.
The first is what political scientist Gabriel Lenz asserts in his book Follow the Leader?: “Voters decisions are emotionally based, not policy based.” A thick wad of statistics have proven that voters will adapt their own policies to those of their chosen candidate/party rather than hoping the candidate/party will change their position.
The second take-away is that most democracies instinctively vote for change, but in older democracies the voters vote for change at a much faster rate than in younger democracies.
The two international campaigns of last year left many people stunned. Both Brexit and Donald Trump seemed economically and socially full of potential dangers for their countries and yet they won (albeit that Trump substantially lost the popular vote and still got to be president through an outdated technicality).
With Brexit, when a slim margin of British voters voted to leave the EU (a mere million vote majority changed the economic and political future of the UK) there was as much surprise among voters as among the politicians. Of course, the wide base of support for that vote, were people who wanted to keep Britain “as it was in the old days”. So the people in the middle, who were the deciding vote, voted for change; it was a protest vote. And the demonstrations in the weeks that followed Brexit, and online petitions for a second referendum were often fuelled by people who thought that their one single protest vote would not make a difference, and now wanted to change their votes.
But historical trends have been clear since World War ll. In Britain on average every five to 10 years the voters change their votes from left to right. When people speak of the slow march of democracy it is a steady walk . Left, right, left right. Democracy operates like a pendulum.
In the US, since World War ll the presidency has remained in the control of one party for more than eight years – just once. Otherwise every eight years US voters change the party in the White House.
The exception was 1988 when Reagan the greatest communicator and salesman to occupy the oval office in the last 50 years handed over power to George Bush Sr. They have voted for change after four years only twice. Jimmy Carter battling the Iranian hostage crisis lost power after only four years, and George Bush Sr briefly halted the swing of the pendulum but since then the march has been steady – right left, right left.
In 2016 the Democrats pulled off a near miracle, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote substantially, and if the US was a truly modern democracy (with proportional representation) today it would have its first female president and the White House would have been run by the same party for only the second time in the last 60 years.
After the three debates and a highly competent, well-funded and organised campaign Clinton had a clear lead. But KellyAnne Conway, who brilliantly ran Trump’s campaign of character assassination and adrenaline appeal, Wikileaks Wimp Julian Assange and FBI Director James Comey, both of whom sabotaged the Clinton campaign with endless innuendo, eroded Clinton’s advantage by appealing to an instinctive emotional reaction – she is not “likeable” or “like us”.. And so they swung the “swing” voters back to where they were four months earlier; and the swing voters decide every election voted not on policy but on emotion.
In South Africa, last year we saw an increased erosion in the appeal of the ANC – they came within four points of losing their once unassailable national majority. But that is also part of a broad historical trend in post-colonial countries with relatively peaceful transitions to democracy like Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Voters start voting for change from about 20 years after the first democratic transition, and within 30 years that first government power base has substantially eroded. (In Zimbabwe had Mugabe not fixed the results of the 2008 elections the MDC would have assumed power.)
Why? If Gabriel Lenz’s substantial research is correct, then its because voters are emotionally driven – and the most common emotion is a desire for change. Naturally, there are exceptions to these trends. In Europe Angela Merkel will very probably be a fourth-time president in Germany, (despite the humane but politically dangerous policy of not capping Syrian Refugee numbers). Maybe that is because she leads a coalition, which by its nature is more fluid, unifying and less dogmatic than “a strongest party government”. In Southern Africa, Namibia and Tanzania, which easily take the prize for the most stable post-colonial countries, are still peacefully governed by the same parties after decades.
With just 24 months before the next election campaign heats up in South Africa, what are the lessons for our parties back home? Simple – aim for the heart and not for the head. Historically it is inevitable that South Africans will want change. For the ANC – the job gets harder every year and is about much more than Jacob Zuma and his merry band of thieves. How do they rekindle a fading loyalty, among a heightened political instability, in a weakening economy after having lost control of the three top SA richest cities last year?
And for the two major opposition parties? Last year proved that they have similar problems and that neither of them has found the answer. Both the EFF and the DA barely grew their national support both in actual voting numbers and in percentage votes. Has the EFF hit its ceiling of attracting angry, young radical voters? How do they move past that? The DA has not found a way to woo enough voters who already want change to trust the DA sufficiently to put that all important X in the blue box. Had the EFF and the DA not combined forces after the huge ANC voter apathy in 2016, many of the changes in metro and municipalities government would not have happened.
All three parties need to find a way to their future voters’ hearts. Because if the US election taught us anything, it taught us that the $1.8-billion that were spent changed almost nobody’s mind. The election was won before the campaigns even started. And all that money, effort, time, noise, polling and hype moved the needle marginally before settling back almost exactly where it was in July.
Which means for our parties back home: you have 24 months.
After that the election will just be a very loud scuffle to ensure you hold on to your territory – the likelihood of gaining new territory is remote and the gains and losses will be minuscule. By the time their campaigns start we voters will have already decided who we are going to vote for. Possibly the only real power the campaigns have will be the chance to ensure that enough voters decide to stay home – and THAT sometimes is the deciding factor. DM
"I know of a cure for everything: salt water...in one way or the other. Sweat or tears or the salt sea." ~ Karen Blixen