Tuesday January 15, 2013
The death of 'gut instinct'
BY KARIM RASLAN
Professional politicians know they need to approach voters with the same razor-like focus employed by Nestle, Coca-cola and Unilever as they chart their sales strategies.
THIS year will be an election year. The nation’s thirteenth polls have been the most eagerly anticipated in living memory. Indeed, it’s as if we’ve been waiting for this contest ever since March 8, 2008.
It’s been an agonising five years, as the advantage has shifted between the two relatively evenly-matched coalitions.
There have been moments, sometimes even months (such as the past three months) when Barisan Nasional had seized the momentum.
At other times, Pakatan Rakyat had been dominant.
Needless to say however, unexpected “black swan” type events have emerged seemingly from nowhere, time and again over the past five years to derail any sides’ long-term advantage.
Still, the recent US presidential elections and Barack Obama’s dramatic victory are a very good indication of emerging global electoral trends.
First and foremost is the extent to which “gut instinct” – the raison d’ętre of columnists such as myself, has been eclipsed by polling, data-gathering and analysis.
Massive computing power means we have to check and double-check our hypotheses.
“Gut instinct” is for the amateurs. Professional politicians know they need to approach voters with the same razor-like focus employed by Nestle, Coca Cola and Unilever as they chart their sales strategies.
Technology has been a game-changer all round.
The “air war” – the mass, blanketing of TV with political advertising has been superseded by the “ground game” – coordinated, grassroots campaigning that reaches out, energises and mobilises voters individually.
Increasingly, strategists have begun to realise that TV advertising is an extremely blunt and, at times, ineffective tool.
Other tactics – posters, fliers and mass e-mails – also have limited impact.
In Malaysia, the increasing penetration of smartphone devices (promoted by the Barisan administration) has given voters a powerful tool.
With an Internet-enabled device in hand, individuals can check, personally and immediately, the veracity of any political pronouncements.
Indeed, the information era has started to make free-to-air television obsolete as a propaganda machine.
At the same time, the idea of there being just one “Malay” voice or identity is beginning to fracture.
Once again, technology is hastening this challenge as people discover that there are many Malay “identities”.
This will free people to explore regional, cultural and linguistic differences, as separate Bajau, Bugis and Illanun traditions, for example, gather in strength.
The result will be a less monolithic Malay society.
Instead, individuals will realise that they have choices: some will be more formally religious; some will be drawn to spiritualism and Sufism, whereas others will be more focused on lifestyle choices – environmentalism, health, sports, high culture and the arts.
There will, of course, be many who feel that liberalism and cosmopolitanism are not at odds with Malay culture.
Whatever the case, social media has provided a critical platform for all these communities to emerge, survive and flourish.
The Obama campaign harnessed these same trends to spectacular effect.
His strategists realised that the Republicans (and especially their Tea Party faction) were wedded to “gut instinct” and divisively racist rhetoric.
They recognised underlying demographic trends that showed American communities becoming more diverse and plural.
Utilising the President’s vast resources, Obama’s team created an unparalleled nationwide organisation to reach out to potential voters through their friends and local networks, tapping into places where people congregated such as barber shops and cafes.
As they created this alliance of shared interests, Obama the “Great Uniter” was able to knit together a rainbow coalition of diverse communities – Hispanic, African-American, the young and highly-educated, thereby balancing out the once-dominant power of white Caucasian males.
This has been a powerful formula.
It also allowed his campaign to regain momentum despite the very obvious economic failings of his first term.
Sure, America is not Malaysia.
Not all examples are transferable. However, technology is the same the world over and technology is “freeing up” the individual.
It is also providing politicians with the tools to be more professional and scientific.
This is something we have to keep in mind as we head to the polls.
As I said, the “gut instinct” in politics is dead.