By STEPHANIE BROOKES
Shaking hands. Kissing babies. Throwing snags on the barbie, or wandering through a suburban shopping centre.
These are the familiar scenes of “retail politics”, a campaign style in which candidates sell themselves and their policies by talking to as many voters as possible.
American political communication scholars Judith Trent and Robert Friedenberg, in Political Campaign Communication, define “retail politics” as being about “direct contact”: meeting and talking to voters to appeal personally for their support.
This, Trent and Friedenberg argue, has two clear benefits.
Firstly, meeting a political candidate makes voters feel more engaged and more likely to support the candidate, who has been “humanised” through a face-to-face meeting. More importantly, it allows for interaction. Voters can ask questions, engage with candidates, and come to feel that their concerns matter.
This may seem like an element of a “golden age” of political campaigning that has long since passed. The rise of the mass media and the centralised, professional campaign means that election campaigns are now national and presidential, appealing to the majority of the electorate while also carefully targeting voters in marginal seats.
However, most voters will never meet their local candidate, let alone one of the contenders jostling for the position of prime minister. As voters, our feelings about the personality and values of politicians develop from a mixture of media coverage, pre-existing partisan preferences, word-of-mouth and gut instinct.
However, one of the fascinating things about the evolution of professional politics is the way that candidates and campaigns harness new technology in ways that enable them to reach and meet voters. In the United States, where parties need to “get out the vote” as well as win support, online data capture, management and analysis technologies are tools of the increasingly sophisticated political ground game.
Calls for small donations from “grassroots” supporters (something Kevin Rudd emulated early in Labor’s campaign) are as much about gaining a picture of your current support base as they are about financial assistance.
In 2013, when Australians give $5 to Labor, or fill in their name and email address and click “join us” on the Liberal Party’s website, they contribute to the picture each of the parties will use to tailor their campaign messages, appearances and appeals.
However, these new technologies are not, and cannot be, the whole story. Aggregate data on the preferences of citizens cannot replace political instinct.
Information about the priorities of a particular electorate does not automatically give candidates the ability to connect with voters. This is where retail politics continues to be vital.
Retail politics, at its heart, is about visibility and availability.
In 2013, this individual process is still happening, through a “mediatised” retail politics in which candidates act out the ritual of direct interaction with ‘ordinary voters’ for a much larger audience.