How to win over ‘floating voters’

May 7, 2010

In the aftermath of the UK General Election, here is a topical post about the importance of winning over ‘floating voters’ – those people who have not yet made up their mind and are open to influence.  While this is important for politicians, it is also important for any communicator trying to get their message across.

In any forum where one person is attempting to communicate to many people, it is possible to divide the audience by two criteria: their level of support for the speaker and his/her message before the communication, and the degree to which they can be influenced.

You will find this easier to understand via a simple chart (one of those times when a slide can be a very helpful visual aid):

Imagining this as a graph, the vertical axis represents how influenceable somebody is; the horizontal axis represents their level of support for the speaker and his/her message before the communication.  For a politician, the dependable supporters will therefore be on the bottom-right, and the bitter opponents on the bottom-left.  The floating voters are at the top and especially those who are neither strong supporters nor strong opponents.  In effect, the challenge is particularly in the middle at the top: to move as many floating voters as possible from the left to the right, i.e. increasing your number of supporters, while avoiding pushing too many from the right to the left.  Of course, at the same time your opponents will be trying to move your influenceable supporters in the other direction.

Politicians and communicators need to adopt different styles depending on their audience.

  • When talking to solid supporters, motivate them to spread the message.
  • When talking to influenceable supporters, reassure them that they are right to support me.
  • When talking to influenceable opponents, show understanding of their concerns, and gently convince them that you have something better to offer.
  • There’s not much point in talking to solid opponents, unless you cannot avoid it, in which case you need to do what you can to neutralize their arguments, marginalize them and reduce their influence on the floating voters.

A key point to bear in mind was illuminated by the UK election, as well as the last US presidential election. During the UK party leaders’ debates, the BBC continually polled a focus group on their feelings about each leader, second by second. Every time one of the leaders attacked another in an attempt to win the argument and win popularity, their ratings dropped – having the complete opposite effect.

This follows the Obama-McCain election, where McCain was wrongly advised to go on the attack, and Sarah Palin did the same and more. What did this achieve? Imagine the feelings of a floating voter, an influenceable supporter of Obama – exactly the kind of voter McCain needed to win over – when hearing a strong attack on their preferred candidate. Rather than agreeing and coming over to the McCain camp, their natural behaviour is to resent the attack on ‘their’ candidate, dislike the attacking opponent more than they did before, and get even further behind their attacked candidate. McCain and Palin pushed people from the top-left of the chart (their influenceable opponents) down to the bottom-left (their solid opponents).

This simply shows how vital it is for any speaker, presenter or politician to understand their audience, work out who they are talking to, and identify a suitable strategy for each segment.  Sadly, in the UK election, none of the major candidates was able to do this much better than the others, but it was noticeable that the big loser in terms of votes and seats (Labour and its leader Gordon Brown) was the one which most consistently campaigned by attacking its opponents rather than by proposing anything positive.

Will politicians never learn?

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