Voters decide elections
It seems like only yesterday that European Social Democrats re-discovered the lost art of talking directly with voters. The exciting and historic election campaign of Barack Obama sent images of engaged citizen activists knocking on doors, dialing the phone and holding house parties in living rooms across America. Among these activists were scores of politicos from around the world who went back to their home countries excited about the effectiveness, energy and strategic opportunities of direct voter contact. Yes, they said, we can. As an American social democrat who works politically on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve always been supportive of our movements learning from one-another and maximizing our effectiveness.
Fourteen years later, the passion for door knocking has stuck, but we have also learned that talking with voters isn’t just a campaign trick or gimmick. Year-round engagement between our activists and their neighbors gives benefits far beyond election-day. When combined with good policy advocacy and leadership development, voter outreach is the key to building a strong and politically powerful social movement (“folkrörelse”) party.
The most important part of this approach is improving the quality of the conversations we have with voters. The purpose of a good conversation is not to simply deliver a canned message and move on to the next door or phone number. It is to ask questions, share personal concerns and motivations, and make a real connection. This gives voters the very important feeling of being listened to and valued, and helps re-shape the image of our Party in voters minds: we aren’t just some talking heads on TV or a logo on a ballot. We are a movement of regular people trying to make their community more sustainable and just. In these cynical times of public skepticism about politics and institutions, nothing could be more important for democracy.
Talking directly with voters is a more organic and nuanced way than any poll to find out what is on our community’s mind. Folks are often telling us that they feel the parties and politicians are “out of touch” with regular people and their day to day problems. While that may not always be a fair criticism, it is the feeling out there that really matters. We create credibility and trust by listening, responding and engaging. Even better is when we do so all the time, and not only when we are seeking votes.
Studies and campaign experiments have shown that there is a positive psychological effect when a voter commits to an activist that they plan to vote. Particularly for those voters who are not as convinced or in the habit of voting in every election, the act of publicly committing to another person has a significant follow-through effect. As a Parrty of the left, we know that it is precisely our voter base that is more likely to feel unrepresented or disengaged and sit out an election. Our margins of victory are always dependent on high participation from “low and medium turnout” voters.