Running an effective political campaign – some pointers

It is now official that the SWAPO Party will hold its congress next month, where over 600 delegates are set to elect the new leadership for the next five years. So far, 11 candidates vie for the top four positions.

Even if one wonders if there is enough time left to come up with an effective campaign strategy, I know for a fact that running a political campaign is one of the most challenging and exhausting activities possible.

For this reason, the proper organisation of a political campaign can avoid some unnecessary challenges and with a little forethought and planning, one can be prepared for all the twists and turns and, in many cases, control the situation.

Too often campaigns forget to calculate how many votes will be needed to guarantee victory. They then spend their precious resources of time, money and people trying to talk to the whole population, instead of the much fewer voters they will actually need to win.

This process is called targeting the voters. We have seen this in the past people making rallies and talking to the wrong audience. More often, they did not have a simple clear message to win, but were just reacting to what others were saying.

A campaign message is not the candidate's programme of what they will do if elected, it is not a list of the issues the candidate will address, and it is not a simple, catchy phrase or slogan.

All of these things can be part of a campaign message, but they should not be confused with the message, a simple statement that will be repeated over and over throughout the campaign to persuade the target voters.

A message must be delivered in language the voters use and understand easily. Too often politicians want to impress the voters with how smart they are, using technical words that either the voters do not understand or have no real meaning for them.

Creating a visual image in the minds of voters is much better. Talk about people, things and real life situations to describe abstract ideas, such as economic policy.

Politics is an emotional business and politicians who appeal to the hearts of voters generally defeat those who appeal to their heads. This does not mean that one should abandon the intellectual basis or underestimate the intelligence of the voter.

This means that one must find a way to tie the campaign message to the core values of the voters and make it clear that he/she understands the problems they face every day.

Linguist and scholars of rhetoric argue that, in order to persuade a political audience of one side of an argument or another, the facts must be presented through a rhetorical frame.

Politicians using framing to make their own solution to an exigency appear to be the most appropriate compared to the opposition. Counter-arguments become less effective in persuading an audience once one side has framed an argument, because the opposition then has the additional burden of arguing the frame of the issue in addition to the issue itself.

Politics and elections are such rare and important events that they actually receive considerably more press than many other events. Furthermore, because the press is a source of information outside the campaign, voters often respect it.

If one uses newspapers, television, and radio to get the campaign message out, he/she needs good relations with the reporters, a compelling reason for them to tell their story, as well as an easily understood point to the message.

We know that some newspapers are meant to promote only certain candidates while targeting others and one wonders if this news capture is good for intra-party democracy if concocted in war rooms to make some people look good.

We want to hear how the candidates will renew the party and bring it closer to the people. We want to hear how they will bring unity and allow for constructive criticism, and not stifle debates.

We need leaders who will speak frankly and courageously about issues that threaten the social-cohesion of the nation and the party and not appear to favour certain factions or groups. Most importantly, we need an honest message of hope in these trying economic headwinds. Never has the occasion been so ripe and presented itself for the candidates to stand above petty politics and unify the party and the nation, rather than be seen to join the bandwagon of tearing each other apart.

We are looking forward to wide-ranging discussions, highlighting divergent views and intense debate. We want to know why do we need two centres of power and why not.

We want to hear why we should elect a candidate to the presidency and the vice presidency of the party and why not. We want to hear why we should elect the youth and women and why not.

Above all, we trust that the party and the nation will emerge from this process with a united, common vision of the country's developmental trajectory. May the best candidates win and may at the end all hold hands and move on.

* Paul T. Shipale is a Windhoek based civil servant. The views expressed here are solely his own.

Source: New Era Newspaper Namibia