When might big-spending campaigns work?

The commenters on yesterday’s campaign finance post think that big ad campaigns don’t always work. That’s certainly the finding of the US literature on this subject – not that money never makes a difference, but that it interacts with so many other factors that there is no stable or predictable relationship between political spending and political outcomes.

Generally speaking, I believe the chances of any campaign over-turning stable elements of public opinion in the short to medium term are very low. The Howard government’s propaganda campaign on WorkChoices was doomed because the unions could tap into deep elements of public opinion. The importance of the union campaign against WorkChoices wasn’t that it changed minds, but that it kept the issue in people’s minds until polling day.

The more interesting campaigns are on unfamiliar issues, where public opinion is to a certain extent up for grabs. The mining tax was an example of this. Given existing tax and spend polling the issue could have headed in several directions if it had continued – we are generally in a pro-tax part of the political cycle if consequent spending the public approves of is emphasised, but opinion is also highly sensitive to situations in which workers may lose their jobs. Another factor in the mining tax case was that the government advertising in response to the miners was terrible, an off-putting lecture that did not hit existing pro-tax intuitions.

The pokies issue is another case in which opinion is probably open to an extent. The three pokies polls to date (here, here and here) all find strong majorities in favour of limiting how much gamblers can spend. But whether support for controls would be so high if the costs of the idea were also put to poll respondents remains to be seen (especially the need to increase other state taxes if pokie revenues fall).

But my view is as expressed in yesterday’s post. It is not for governments to prejudge the issue and restrict campaign spending. Let the pokies lobby have their say, and the public can decide – at the next election, if necessary – which view should prevail.

2 Responses to “When might big-spending campaigns work?

  • 1
    Owen
    April 18th, 2011 21:46

    Regarding the mining tax, I idly wonder if the government fell afoul of what the Economist has called the richard-scarry-rule; “no elected politician likes to tangle with any sector of the economy that routinely appears in children’s books” (see here http://www.economist.com/blogs/bagehot/2011/01/britain_and_eu )

    Miners aren’t exactly up there with firemen in children’s books, but I think they fit the same criteria, being a job thats traditional, easy to comprehend and got a touch of danger.

  • 2
    Jim South
    April 19th, 2011 19:03

    Why should the electors have less rights than their elected representatives to engage in political debate?

    Democracy is inherently adversarial.

    True democrats take the following approach to those with whom they disagree: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    In view of the approach taken by the High Court in cases such as Roach and Rowe, it is doubtful that some of the restrictions on political donations and advertising recently imposed in NSW would pass constitutional muster.