Teapot Tapes poll: political moral suasion

datePosted on 23:38, November 18th, 2011 by Lew

I recently tore into Chris Trotter’s argument that polls are deployed to promote a “spiral of silence”, to demoralise those holding non-majority views, and to deter them from political speech and action. I stand by that post, and I still don’t think the argument holds in the general case, but this morning I think we saw an example where polling data was used in just such a way.

National campaign chair Steven Joyce appeared on Morning Report defending the party’s handling of the “teapot tapes” strategy. Joyce came to his Morning Report interview armed with overnight polling data that he says shows 81% of people are sick of the coverage of the teapot tapes, only 13% think the issue is a big deal, and that some in the media ought to take a long, hard look at themselves. Russell Brown covers the topic in more detail; this post began as a comment there).

Leaving aside questions about the veracity of these figures (they could be utterly fabricated and we’d be none the wiser; Bomber reckons they’re bollocks), this actually is a case of a politician deploying polling data to send a message, not only to the media, but to the public: If you care about this you’re out of touch, disconnected, in the minority, obsessed with trivia, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. While I disagree with his assessment, what’s more interesting is how he framed that assessment: as a normative argument about what election campaigns ought to be about, and what “real New Zealanders” care about; echoing John Key’s “issues that really matter” rhetoric, which is precisely what all the National supporters I’m in touch with have been saying: nothing to see here, it’s a sideshow, can we get back to the substance, and all that.

Which is pretty ironic given that the Nats have done extremely well for most of the preceding five years by staying the hell away from policy arguments wherever possible. It’s a pretty remarkable position from a National party whose strategic success has been largely founded on a ruthless commitment to campaign realism, expressed by avoiding “noble” pursuits such as the robust policy focus and appearances in the hard-news media in favour of what is effective — personality and brand-focused campaigns, point-scoring, agenda domination, and routine appearances in sympathetic forums, for example. It’s even more remarkable since Joyce himself has been the architect of this strategy since the 2008 campaign.

So I am cynical about National’s sudden love for the “real issues”. They have touched on them before — the election-year launch of the privatisation policy that I wrote about in February is the best recent example — but this has hardly been their preferred route. What seems more likely is the “spiral of silence” imperative — marginalise, shame and heap scorn upon those who genuinely see a substantial public interest in the way the teapot tapes episode has played out, not out of a prurient interest in the contents of those tapes but because — as Danyl notes, it “keys into a huge range of really substantive issues: the Prime Minister’s integrity; media ethics; surveillance”. This deployment of normally-secret polling data — probably collected for this exact purpose using carefully-framed questions — seems like an attempt to bully into silence those who aren’t willing to ignore an unprecedented breakdown in the relationship between the Prime Minister and the media, and a nearly-unprecedented glimpse into the internal workings and political culture of the National party and its leader.

It has had the desired effect on other political parties — Phil Goff and Peter Dunne have sung from the same songsheet today, leaving only Winston Peters to reap the electoral harvest from these events. Given that, it is not unlikely that it would have a similar effect on voters, especially in Epsom. Of course, there may not be an electoral harvest; the polling data might be accurate and it may genuinely be perceived as a “Bowen Triangle” sideshow. I don’t think so, but then, I would say that.

Update: Since writing this, Fairfax has released a poll of their own that suggests the public are over the teapot tapes. Its numbers are considerably more ambivalent than those released by Steven Joyce, however; the strongest result was for the obviously-correct proposition that politicians should be able to discuss controversial topics privately (63%). On this basis Matthew Hooton is now praising the strategy as “genius”. It’s also important to realise that this isn’t a pure popularity contest, but a balance of complex factors — the intensity of sentiment on either side matters. As Danyl remarked in the Public Address thread, “If 4% of National supporters switch their vote over to Winston Peters on the basis of this affair, then that’s a strategic catastrophe for Joyce’s party, no matter what the other 96% do.” There’s no indication that this has happened, of course, but there’s no really definitive indication of the fallout from these events at all. The Herald on Sunday tomorrow will be fascinating.

L

3 Responses to “Teapot Tapes poll: political moral suasion”

  1. ak on November 20th, 2011 at 17:49

    One can almost hear the tape – i mean transistor thingo – hissing…

    “What then. 70? 75?”

    “Na. Na. This is big. Farrr..gotta go over 80″

    “Eh? Reckon? Ok, okaaaay….80 then. 80 – 20?”

    “Na na. Too round. Make it ah 81″

    “Heh. So that’s…ah…81 – 17 -no 19. 81-19″

    “Na na na. Gotta look random, member, 81 ah 15, no..ah akshilly na just for luck make it 13. ha ha”

    “Ha. Kay. 81-13 it is. Now the ah… Reid. He needs two days notice. What’d we make it last time?”

  2. Sanctuary on November 22nd, 2011 at 08:54

    “…I recently tore into Chris Trotter’s argument that polls are deployed to promote a “spiral of silence”, to demoralise those holding non-majority views, and to deter them from political speech and action…”

    I think the most damning evidence that you are simply wrong here is that David Farrar and Steven Joyce both clearly disagree with you, with them both having rapidly intervened to try and maintain the “spiral of silence” – Joyce in the incident you mention, Farrar last night with his near instant attempt to contain any political fall-out from the Roy-Morgan Worm in the TV3 debate. the fact of the matter is all the most experienced political actors or commentators in this country have by their words or actions shown exactly what they think of your theory Lew.

    “…It’s a pretty remarkable position from a National party whose strategic success has been largely founded on a ruthless commitment to campaign realism…”

    For all your implicit approval of this approach (you clearly eventually plan to profit from this “Thank You for Smoking” establishment world view) to me your comments stand as the final comment on the terminal decadence of our current elites political mindset. Decadence, Oscar Wilde put it, “..is the subordination of the whole to the parts…” and that is exactly the system you seem determined to defend with your defeatist argument that the system cannot be changed without first being seduced by it’s corruption.

    I stand by my earlier accusation that your whole world view is founded on a self-serving variation of the Nuremburg defence. Your posts these days seem to be little more than preparing the ground to justify an eventual intellectual sell-out.

  3. Lew on November 22nd, 2011 at 12:57

    Sanctuary,

    I think the most damning evidence that you are simply wrong here is that David Farrar and Steven Joyce both clearly disagree with you, with them both having rapidly intervened to try and maintain the “spiral of silence”

    No. There’s a crucial distinction between what Joyce did, to try and persuade people they were ideologically or politically isolated, and David’s legitimate, if trivial, discovery about a Labour activist being part of an “undecided” panel. We have no way of knowing whether Joyce’s figures stack up – we can see DPF’s working, and assess its merits for ourselves. (Personally, my view on this can be determined by completing the following sentence: “Excuses are for _______”).

    You say everyone disagrees with me, but in the same breath you also argue that I’m arguing an “establishment” point of view. Which is it? If you think I’m wrong about opinion poll biases being more complicated than OMG TORY PROPAGANDA, show me the data. Until then, you can keep your blathering anecdotes, I’ve seen plenty, and better, from other sources.

    For all your implicit approval of this approach (you clearly eventually plan to profit from this “Thank You for Smoking” establishment world view) … I stand by my earlier accusation that your whole world view is founded on a self-serving variation of the Nuremburg defence. Your posts these days seem to be little more than preparing the ground to justify an eventual intellectual sell-out.

    That’s two fighting-this-war-like-you-fought-the-last-war socialists who’ve tried to impugn my character and work in the past week or so. Neither you nor Mr Trotter know me, or what I do, and I care little for your empty slander.

    If the quality of this commentary, in particular the repeated idiotic appeal to the Nuremberg Defence is generally indicative of your intellectual and ideological rigour, then such an assessment of me is an endorsement, not a cause for shame. You’ve joined Objectivists, 9/11 Truthers and Sola Scriptura millenialists on the list of folks in whose denouncements I take pride. Congratulations.

    L

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