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How the South Was Won: Inside the 2014 SA Labor Campaign

The next speaker at CMPM2014 is Neil Lawrence, CEO of Lawrence Creative, which executed the Kevin07 campaign as well as Anna Bligh's campaign for Queensland State Premier and Jay Weatherill's campaign in South Australia; he is alongside his colleague Tony Mitchellmore.

Neil suggests that through the federal election campaigns before 2007, Labor had been comprehensively outcampaigned – the Liberals had imported US techniques from the Republicans, and nobody in the Australian Labor Party understood issue framing.

The first question to ask candidates in any election is whether they actually want to win. Labor at some point decided that it did want to win the 2007 campaign, and therefore selected Kevin Rudd as its candidate, even in spite of some misgivings; the same was the case with Jay Weatherill's in South Australia, against the preferences of the Labor right. In the latter case, especially, there was a need to counter a strong mood for change in the electorate – and Weatherill, rather than Labor's opponents in the Liberal Party, could be positioned as change from inside the party.

There is also a need to take a long-term perspective, planning well ahead of the election. There was a need to create a clear dividing line between Labor and it's opponents; to discuss the economic future for South Australia; to take advantage of incumbency; to create a sense of momentum; to portray the government and Premier as fresh, energetic, and hardworking; and to be widely visible.

One way to look at this was Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the campaign sought to weaken the Liberal pyramid of needs, and conversely to strengthen the Labor pyramid – that is, to position Labor's defining issues as core, and to honestly assess the positive and negative views in the electorate on these issues. It's the negative perceptions which must be turned around through the election campaign; and similarly the positive perceptions about the other side must be negated.

Such assessment can also be used to anticipate the key messages of the opposing campaign. In the end, the Liberal Party ran a very small target campaign, attempting to make Labor's twelve years in power the issue of the campaign. This often succeeds, but it didn't in this case – and Neil and Tony put this down to the long-term, anticipatory planning which went into the Labor campaign.

The key device in campaigning is framing – of both the Labor and the Liberal side. The campaign identified a number of key contrasting attributes which were intended to frame Jay Weatherill and his opponent, and which tapped into electorate views about the State's trajectory. Framing the Labor candidate right encouraged voters to consider their likely future under Labor or Liberals – and many of these framing choices were determined some 6-8 months before the election.

Part of this is about imagining a possible path to victory. If this is impossible, the election is virtually unwinnable: if campaigners cannot envisage what would need to happen for their campaign to succeed, then the campaign has very little hope of being successful. In the South Australia campaign, polls were consistently showing a 54-46 Labor loss, but there was a path to victory: making the election about a choice for the future, not a referendum on the past; framing Weatherill as reliable and experienced and his opponent as unknown and secretive; describing Labor as building and Liberals as cutting; and thus creating a choice between certainty and uncertainty, between building and cutting.

Interestingly, the campaign undertook no quantitative polling. This was partly a financial decision – Labor was outspent 2:1 or 3:1 by the Liberals in the campaign –, but also designed to avoid an overemphasis on polling, and a process of crafting messages during the campaign based on meaningless one-point fluctuations in poll figures.

It is crucial during a campaign to stay the course, and not to change strategy mid-campaign, which does nothing other than guaranteeing failure. Once a strategy has been decided upon, and been determined as the best option, there is no point in using quantitative analysis to adjust it late in the campaign. "The strategy is sacred", Tony says.

(This contrasts strongly with Labor's 2013 federal campaign, which generated some 100 possible ad ideas of which only ten or so were actually used – there was no long-term strategy, only short-term reaction to media issues.)

That's not to say that current events cannot be incorporated into the campaign: the aim is to be alert to what's happening, and to incorporate, for example, visits from federal Liberal leaders into the overall frame being created for the State Liberal leader. But the campaign itself, and the leadership team being promoted by it, must stay on message.