What to say about bad polls

The struggle of Labour Leader David Cunliffe and MP Annette King today to talk about falling public support for Labour illustrated an unhelpful defensiveness politicians have when discussing bad news.

It’s a very human problem – most of us find it difficult to admit to weaknesses. We are especially challenged when discussing our ‘popularity’.

The way politicians handle this is usually to say the polls don’t show what they find on the street when campaigning. I know from direct experience that this claim is usually a conscious lie, or an indication that their campaign work is contrived (ie. they’re meeting supporters).

Another claim is that there is only one poll that matters – the one on election day. This is a transparent effort to avoid the issue.

This is the line Annette King took. It sounded terrible – evasive and defensive.

The other main claim is that the polls are rubbish and/or deliberately skewed. This line can work, as it undermines credibility of the source, and when said with confidence, authority and some irreverence, signals that you deserve popularity. It can just as easily be seen as sour-grapes.

Here’s what I think politicians should say:

“I’m honoured to have the support of [x%] but I’m bothered that I have not yet gained the confidence of more voters. I’m listening to what they want for this country. I’m proposing that [insert main campaign line]. In contrast, my opponent is taking voter support for granted. I’d welcome voters taking another look at my policies. My opponent has been wrong many times this campaign, so a lot of  people aren’t very confident about their vote for [him].”

This approach:

  • acknowledges that you do have people who like you, which makes it possible for others to like you as well.
  • acknowledges the problem, which means you are honest.
  • shows deference to all voters, signalling you regard them as more important than yourself.
  • uses the opportunity to repeat the things you hope will appeal to wavering voters.
  • suggests that people should be uncertain about their support for the opponent, giving a moment for your attitude and policies to be reconsidered.

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