Why campaigns concentrate on decided voters

It’s weird – winning elections is about securing undecided voters, yet political campaigns are all about the already-decided voters.

Politicians spend all their campaign time meeting voters who already support them, or people who won’t or can’t vote.

The strategic reason is that politicians want to signal to undecideds that they’re popular. Undecideds are more likely than others to go with the decision of their peers. 

The tactical reason is the politicians think people are influenced via the media, so meet-the-people moments are just a stage from which to communicate. The trouble is undecided voters generally are not tuned into the news, nor the issues being debated. They’re often described as “low information” voters. That’s why, for example, the Obama campaign ran TV advertising during re-runs of Gilligans Island.

The practical reason for concentrating on the already-decided voters is that the political tradition and cultural expectation is that campaigns involve hand shakes and kisses. Despite all the cheery tweets (“what a wonderful day in [suburb] to be door knocking”) , most politicians dislike random public engagement. It’s more comfortable, reassuring, and predicable to meet supportive voters.

That’s why a smart campaign manager will balance public engagements of their politician between random people and supporters. The randoms give the politician the challenge, buzz and feedback of direct contact with real people. They also provide an opportunity for the wider public to see the politician’s natural disposition – the thing they need to make a decision on vote-worthiness. Engagement with supporters boosts the ego and confidence of the politician, and signals to the public that the politician is a leader.

This is only possible if the politician is able to handle the untidiness of real life. And in the era of stream-lined career pathways into politics, this is a rare commodity.

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