What the New Zealand Left must learn from Obama


Obama Accepts Nomination On Final Day Of Democratic National Convention


Data is King. If there’s one takeaway from Obama’s triumph, it’s that. Taking cues from commercial marketing, the behavioural sciences and existing political knowledge the Obama campaign built the most sophisticated and effective data operation in politics. “No party”, Slate writes, “has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising”. Forget the political truisms – the importance of televised debates and so on – campaigning in the age of Obama is about big data.

Political campaigns are about the allocation of scarce resources. Do we invest in x minutes of advertising or x number of mail drops? Big data informs these decisions like never before, but the New Zealand left must remember that the American experience is not directly analogous.

Firstly, New Zealand’s nowhere close to being as data rich as the United States and the information that is accessible is subject to certain restrictions, for example the Privacy Act. Secondly, big data in the United States is used to target swing states and marginal districts, but in New Zealand MMP demands a national focus. Lastly – and probably most importantly – there are questions over scale. Do New Zealand political parties have the economies of scale to sustain big data operations? And does the intimate nature of the New Zealand electorate justify big data operations? I doubt it. With these factors in mind, what else can the New Zealand left learn from Obama?

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Mobilisation is more important than persuasion

The rule books on voter persuasion have to be rewritten. It’s a political truism that “centrist” voters represent the most persuadable part of the electorate. However, work in recent years from big data firms aligned with the Democrats have found that “it’s not always guaranteed that the people in the middle of a support score are the most persuadable”. It turned out that people who had scored close to 50 on a 0-100 issue score weren’t the people who were most persuadable. Using this knowledge the Democrats have created distinctions between persuasion targets (who receive tailored messages) and turnout targets (who receive reminders, logistical help and so). As early as 2004 some Republicans had implicitly acknowledged the declining importance of persuasion conceding that it is better to win by “narrow margins” than attempt large scale persuasion. Given this new understanding of centrist voters, get-out-the-vote (GOTV) was crowned King and, according to the Republicans at least, it was the Democratic “turn-out machine” dat stole dat dere the election.

If political campaigns are about the allocation of scarce resources, the American findings on persuasion are instructive: the New Zealand left needs to start rethinking where and how they allocate resources. The ground game is more important than the game on television and radio and resources must be allocated accordingly. The return on investment from GOTV methods (i.e. targeting hard and soft lefties) appears to better than the return from advertising, town hall meetings and so on (i.e. methods traditionally targeting centrists). Labour appreciates the importance of GOTV (to a certain extent), but the Greens and Mana have woefully underdeveloped GOTV methods.  If the left can secure a significant portion of the non-vote (26% at the last election) through improved GOTV efforts, then the election is in play – if not in the bag.


A coalition of the marginalised can work

Hippies Wander Into the Lions’ Den, Maul Lions. That’s how Ta-Nehisi Coates put it. Bloomberg put if less elegantly describing Obama’s win as a “split between men and women, whites and minorities, rich and poor, young and old”. Obama carried over 90% of African Americans, over 70% of Hispanic Americans and over 50% of women. Obama won a measly 39% of the White vote (Whites represented 72% of the electorate). A typical sketch of the Obama voter would reveal someone who’s poor, brown, female and urban. The Atlantic wrote that “rising minority participation allowed (Obama) to overcome a weak performance among whites”.

Many on the left believe that a coalition of society’s losers can’t and won’t work. However, demographic change is leading New Zealand down the American route (that should be read using the American “rowt”). By 2026 Maori (who overwhelmingly vote left) will constitute 16% of the population, Asian New Zealanders will constitute 16% too and Pacific people (who also vote overwhelmingly left) will make up 10% of the population. The Pakeha population, and by extension the Pakeha electoral population, will fall to the high 60s*.

Publicly available information on ethnic voting patterns is scarce, but the American and British experiences suggest that the Asian vote leans left. Obama enjoyed 75% of the Asian vote and Asian voters in the UK have “traditionally voted for the Labour Party”. In New Zealand, the most accessible statistics are on Maori. Labour, the Greens and Mana (i.e. the left) won almost 65% of the Maori electorate vote. The Maori Party won just over 15% and National claimed a pathetic 8.9%.** Assuming the Maori Party collapses, there’s no reason why the left cannot win 80% or more of the Maori vote. If the left can build similar majorities in the Asian, Pasifika and female population – and the experiences in other parts of the Anglosphere suggest that that’s possible – then we can assume a winning coalition is not only possible, but likely. Demography favours the left.


Framing matters

I’ve argued how important this is at my blog. It’s trite, I know, but the Obama campaign has gifted framing renewed importance. A  year before the 1996 election, Bill Clinton framed Bob Dole as slash-and-burn-Medicare-cutting-radical. In 2004 George Bush framed a freshly nominated John Kerry as a flip-flopping-out-of-touch-namby-pamby-liberal. Obama selected to frame Romney early in the campaign too. The Obama campaign decided to spend 20% of their campaign budget on an early advertising onslaught. Essentially, it was an attempt to frame Romney before he had the opportunity to frame himself. According to Obama man Jim Messina, the early framing was “crucial”. The advertising blitz coincided with a push to frame Obama in a positive light. That early advertsing framed the narrative from the Republican primaries and held until the first debate (where Obama turned in a meek performance and through a combination of lies, false confidence and low expectation Romney wiped the floor with the President).

The New Zealand left can’t afford to overlook the importance of early framing. That means ditching the idea that you have to keep your powder dry until the election. Perceptions aren’t built over a four week election period, perceptions take time. Brick by boring brick.*** Policy should be released periodiucally, not in the final months and weeks. By then, the perceptions about the left have already set. Narratives should be designed and implemented now, not in ones years time.

In many respects, it might well be too late to frame for the 2014 election, but given the importance of the Obama experience the New Zealand left can’t afford not to. What we’re doing isn’t enough.  Politics is a slow march to victory, on the other hand politics can be a slow march to the grave. If we want to avoid the latter, we’d be smart to some of our cues from Obama. 



Post script: I’ve drawn heavily on the following articles


*Given that many New Zealanders identify with more than one ethnic group, figures will add to over 100.

**See my chapter (The Fragmentation of Maori Politics) in Kicking The Tyres (the post-election book).

***That was a reference to an awful Paramore song, but it was a nice extended metaphor.


  1. All this could simply be solved the Australian way….compulsory voting! Its the best way to ensure that the people get what they collectively want. Somebody introduce it PLEASE!

  2. Yes, There’s no telling when the keyster will call a snap!…..
    And Obama’s people smashed the Republicans on Twitter, FB, and online personal messaging. Please wake the left to the total effectiveness of IT in reaching non-voters. (I heard it on the radio so it must have some credibility)

  3. Just a note of caution that in the UK they traditionally class Indian and Pakistanis as “Asian”. And they make up the predominance of the Asian population there. Here we get much more in the way of Chinese and Koreans and I’m not sure they vote left anywhere near as vigorously. Certainly the Chinese don’t anyway.

    • More racist shit. The New Zealand left have an anti-Chinese problem. What the fuck are you even talking about? The Chinese people had the biggest anti-capitalist revolution of the 20th century (whether you appreciate the results or not) after 4 or so decades of revolution, revolt, assassinations, civil war, strikes, debate…

      China has the largest amount of wildcat strikes in the world and if you go there you will hear no end people saying how the CCP have betrayed socialism.

      My Chinese friends are all left wing. In fact they have more understanding of the insanity of the free market that many other NZ ethnic groups.

      I think it’s because older NZers often don’t know many Chinese people. And they’re uncomfortable with the fact that Chinese people have a strong work ethic.

    • We don’t want to fall into thinking that Asian people must vote right because they value family, free enterprise and so on. It’s far more complex than that – Asian people include Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Singaporean and so on. Still, it’s more complex than that: underlying those national groups are different ethnic groups. China, for example, isn’t a homogenous country made up of only one ethnic group (i.e. “the Chinese” ethnic group as the right always refers to them). Asian societies are as layered and rich as any western society.

      The right – and many on the left – tend to slap values on Asian people. For example, “Asians value family and free enterprise so they must be rightwing”. Well, again, it’s not that simple. We can’t analogise western notions of family and free enterprise to Asian values of family and free enterprise. As surprising as it is for many on the right and some on the left – the rest of the world doesn’t think like the Anglosphere. AND there’s no such thing as universal Asian values – each nationality and ethnic group varies. Just like in the West.

  4. 2013 is definitely the time to be doing the hard yards for the left, especially as National pretty much falls to sleep at the grass roots level between elections. Personally connecting with the members of the public is also healthy for Green and Labour party supporters as it is a reminder of just how diverse the New Zealand population really is, and helps keep things real.

  5. Fantastic article Morgan.

    Obama decimated the Republicans in social media and use of big data to mobilise supporters. If the New Zealand Republic of Facebook that Bomber posted on today is any indication then the Greens are positioning themselves to do the same.

    Its also common knowledge (and an issue of much handwringing for the bloggers of the right) that the Greens have embraced the Keep Our Assets campaign as a dry run for the kind of large scale logistics, ground game and big data operation that they’ll need in 2014. They’ve got a big pool of IT talent in their membership and a growing number of seasoned campaigners (Laila Harre for example) and ex Labourites unimpressed with the Shearer leadership.

    Lets hope Labour doesn’t get left behind – Russel and Metiria are going to need coalition partners in order to govern…

  6. Kia ora

    great post.

    Im interested in comparing this comment “If political campaigns are about the allocation of scarce resources, the American findings on persuasion are instructive: the New Zealand left needs to start rethinking where and how they allocate resources. The ground game is more important than the game on television and radio and resources must be allocated accordingly.” with your general critique of the KOA campaign.

    Seems to me, that while GOTV is a critical ground campaign for election purposes, there are other kinds of ground campaigns designed to activate people on issues. KOA was an excellent example of a successful issues based ground campaign. Thousands were active in collecting signatures, thousands more signed up and as a result, we have found hundreds of otherwise inactive people want to be active in other campaigns, like child poverty because they want to make social change. Giving people opportunities to be involved in making political changes outside of voting at elections is a really valuable part of democratic process – and one that has been missing for some time.

    I understand the political critique of KOA (dont necessarily agree with it) but I dont agree that it was a misdirection of resources. I think your post has argued well why it was the right thing to do.

    cheers, mx

    • Tēnā koe e te tuahine

      Thanks for your comment.

      My critique of the KOA campaign has been almost exclusively political. However, I’m not convinced that the opportunity cost (i.e. of allocating resources to signature collectors and so on) is justified. There are more salient issues, like I argued on Twitter and Lew has at KP, but on a practical level aren’t the Greens better off developing a data programme like Labour’s E-Trac? Like Richard29 said, KOA offers an excellent dry run for an election campaign and an opportunity to collect data on voters. But isn’t that meaningless without a data programme to score voters, categorise them and so on? (this is assuming that you guys don’t have an E-Trac equivalent?). On a practical level, that’s the better use of resources.

      You’re right, though, in that my post justifies the KOA campaign. Especially if the ground campaign (leaving aside the political merits of the campaign) is successful in identifying and mobilising inactive voters.

      Nga mihi

  7. “Demography favours the left”

    If Obama is anything to go by, then yes. Unfortunately, the usual born-to-rule suspects will only let go of their birthright on power from their cold, dead hands. They’ll probably make their fences taller, stockpile guns, or drum up dystopian scenarios of Zimbabwe or Lebanon or Northern Ireland. It’s the same kind of privilege fundamentalism that pervades survivalist/militia nutbars and counter-jihad neo-crusader types.

    And not much better is the hoary old Model Minority/House Ethnicity doctrine, which ACT’s pitch to what it calls the Asian vote has a whiff of. Model minoritarianism didn’t originate with Asian-American over-achievers, but something far more insidious. Namely the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis of WW2 which came out of a common anti-Communism.

    In the 1960s, the former apartheid regime in South Africa bestowed the status of ‘honorary whites‘ on Japanese steel executives, in exchange for the executives buying up large amounts of South African iron ore.

    And more recently in the States, model minority politics has been invoked as an excuse to weaken affirmative action programs. Michelle Malkin is easily the nastiest embodiment of the whole mentality.

    As a direct descendant of Cantonese gold miners, I’ve never liked the term ‘model minority’. I prefer the dysphemism “selective racism”.

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