In this post I’ll outline some of the strategies and tactics I think are effective for appealing to relatively conservative voters who ‘lean green’. My views are derived from discussions with such voters and my postgrad research at Victoria.
In short, I argue the Greens can appeal to the centre by running a ‘two audiences’ communications strategy that focuses on ‘valence‘ issues, wedge issues, NIMBY issues, and fear, whilst using dog-whistles to the base. In essence, it is not about shifting to the centre, but about prioritising appropriate issues when speaking to the centre.
I think pursuit of the Blue-Greens is important because a significant chunk of the New Zealand population values the environment more than increased incomes. This is demonstrated by findings from the 2008 New Zealand Election Survey (NZES) below. One of the questions on the 2011 NZES asked respondents to consider an income-environment tradeoff (with 1 favouring the environmental protection exclusively and 7 favouring increased income exclusively). Over 50% considered the environmental protection of equal or greater value than increased incomes.
People tend to think there is an implicit tradeoff between appealing to the centre and appealing to the base. Instead, I think it’s more about tactically splitting communications efforts depending on which audience the party is addressing. By this I mean the party should prioritise issues that resonate with Blue-Greens when employing passively consumed media, such as billboards and TV. Tactical prioritisation of messages heard in the mainstream can ensure the door is not shut on the centre needlessly. This is important because there are several thousand green-leaning votes currently held by conservative parties.
This claim is also supported by data from the New Zealand Election Study. In 2011, there was a small but significant chunk of conservative voters that were open to voting Green. Figure 2 compares the average conservative voter to the average liberal voter, and measures the extent to which environmental concern predicts their likelihood to vote Green. The x-axis uses the environment/income scale from Figure 1. The y-axis demonstrates the likelihood of respondents voting Green (with 1 being full likelihood).
As one would expect, members of both groups with low environmental concern are unlikely to vote Green. However, the presence of conservative views alone was a predictive indicator for a relatively small but numerically large number of conservatives. Based on the 2011 electoral roll, this amounts to a pool of between 7,530 and 37,670 voters. To put this in perspective, in the 2011 election the Greens received their best result ever, with a total of 247,370 votes, or 11.06%.
I’ve already gone into this in a previous blog, but in order to appeal to the centre it helps to stand for valence issues. Children are one valence issue with particularly wide and potent appeal. The Greens nailed this in 2011 with lines like “I just want rivers that my kids can swim in”. Your right-wing uncle cannot disagree with this. He might even agree enough to overlook the Green’s apparently fading social liberalism.
Figure 3. 2011 Green Party Valence Billboard
Wedge issues are those that separate the Blue-Greens from the Blue. A recent high profile example is the state of rivers, and the ability to fish in them. Fish and Game New Zealand recently announced the results of a poll that revealed six out of ten New Zealanders want DOC to be the leading advocate for conservation values. Issues like this drive a wedge between anglers and the pro-dairy National party. There is the same potential with boaties/anglers with the oil-free beaches campaign. Mining was another effective green wedge issue in 2010.
NIMBYs represent a potent appeal to the mortgage belt. Their resistance to offshore drilling and gas exploration is heartfelt, and they are easily motivated to speak to the media. They provide Campbell Live with nice human stories, and they usually don’t meet the standard damaging stereotypes of the Greens. When Joe and Joanne Bloggs see Joseph and Joan Blugs on the evening news, they can’t help but think ‘that could be us’. NIMBYs, in this sense, represent ‘gateway’ messengers that draw Blue-Greens away from National and towards the left.
There are few motivators as potent as fear, and fear of change is especially potent, politically speaking. The Greens have a good history of employing fear as a means to boost the vote, as seen in the anti-GE campaign in 2005, and the current anti-offshore drilling. Fear of technological or industrial change is particularly effective in speaking to green-leaning conservatives, and thus drawing them away from National.
All of the above tactics have the potential to alienate the Green base. In order to keep the base on side with promoting issues with conservative resonance, the party will have to do some dog-whistling. Messages in passively consumed media will have to be accompanied with subtle explanation of code words in media consumed by the base. For example, where a billboard might say ‘A fair go for all kiwis’ (a line with emotive and nationalistic appeal), a talking point for the base would have to outline the progressive policies embedded in the ‘fair go’ part. The Greens were really good at this in 2011 with ‘Kids’. That same potential exists with other children’s issues, particularly basic needs like food, water and shelter. This is more potent when phrased as a negative, for example- ‘kiwi kids shouldn’t go hungry’, and ‘our kids shouldn’t be freezing’. Each of these can be simultaneously a valence issue, and a hook to hang progressive policy on, such as social housing and more comprehensive subsidised heating/insulation.
That’s all for now. Would love to hear thoughts from Greens, or green-leaning conservatives.