It’s votes, not hoardings, that matter

Candidates and supporters may love them, but the high number of party hoardings by Advance NZ and the New Conservatives around the country is no sign of polling success, Liam Hehir writes

Drive around New Zealand right now and you may be surprised at just how many New Conservative and Advance NZ hoardings you see mounted on fences.

If you’ve already taken note of this, you may be forgiven for worrying they signify some groundswell of support for those parties; or you might be concerned that they are converting a non-trivial number of voters to their causes. 

Those who study campaigns will be less concerned. Signs like the ones that seem to dot so many private residences are one of the least effective ways to contest a general election. In the unlikely event that the New Cons or Advance campaigns catch fire, it won’t be because of their hoardings. 

This is not to say that signs are always useless. A few big signs placed strategically along arterial routes have value. This is why most professionally run campaigns will still seek these out. 

In a local campaign, where most of the candidates are unknown to most voters, building up name recognition does help. But in a parliamentary campaign, the existing parties don't need to be introduced to voters and no small party hoarding campaign is going to overcome that. Even if they could, local rules often restrict the erection of campaign signs until two months before election day – which is not nearly enough time for such a strategy to bear fruit. 

Against this, the costs of running a hoarding-based campaign is not trivial. The cost of all that printed corflute adds up pretty quickly, and could often be spent more wisely on more effective forms of advertising (such as social media). Beyond that there is the hassle of storage and distribution as well as the volunteer hours required to erect, repair, replace and eventually remove hoardings over the course of the campaign. All of those are resources that could be usefully deployed elsewhere, 

There is nothing new about this. Back in 2006, the campaign of Texas Governor Rick Perry began conducting randomised experiments to test the conventional wisdom around a number of old strategies, including residential signs. Finding them to be ineffective, Perry forewent them altogether in his 2010 re-election, which he won with a vastly increased majority. 

In the meantime, the Obama campaign had picked up on the message. In 2008 his data-driven presidential campaign did make signs available to supporters – if they were willing to pay for them. It was a controversial strategy at the time but most people now agree that it paid off.  

As American campaign managers often say, signs don’t vote.

So if this is the case, why do we still see so many hoardings? Well, for one thing, candidates like having them. After all, people don’t run for election because they hate attention. 

Supporters also like hosting them because it signals their support to the public. This is consistent with the sense of social belonging that for many people is a key reason for getting involved in politics in the first place. And it is an easy, passive way to do it at little to no cost. 

This is an indulgence that larger parties can afford, but that’s probably not the case for small parties and especially not those outside of Parliament. The practice of politics in New Zealand is often quaintly unprofessional and that goes double for those working outside big parties. You would be surprised how few candidates have even read a single book on running for election (despite the financial and family sacrifices they make to have a go at it). 

Even well-financed outsiders seem to give little thought to spending their money in ways most conducive to actual results. Look at all the money thrown away by Colin Craig, Kim Dotcom and Gareth Morgan on often ego-boosting but ultimately futile attempts to break their way into Parliament. None of them took what you might call an evidence-based approach to an election. 

As for the New Cons and Advance NZ, the proliferation of their signs does point to one thing, however. No matter how weak their support is overall, their supporters are dedicated enough to want to advertise the fact. And that is not so surprising given the often-conspiratorial sandpits in which they play. 

For the reasons set out above, however, you can take it the intensity of their support is not indicative of its being widespread. One percent of electors may vote for the New Conservatives this year, if they are lucky, but the passionate intensity of those votes will not mean they count any more. What Advance NZ get is less certain but it will not be in the same universe as the five percent threshold that the framers of MMP very wisely set. 

And the hoardings? Well as American campaign managers often say, signs don’t vote.

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