Beware The Number Crunchers

The dominant rationale is that the relevant statistics are overwhelmingly in favour of a huge win in favour of an alliance of the two strongest parties in the country as demonstrated by the results of the last general elections. While this is undoubtedly a very sound basis for reasoning and for mobilizing one’s ‘troops’, it would be a mistake to conclude that victory is already acquired

“Every quantitative measurement we have, shows we are winning this war”

— Robert McNamara (US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968) after returning from South Vietnam in April 1962

Robert McNamara and his band of whiz kids, statisticians and mathematical wizards, who joined the Ministry of Defence in 1961 under the Kennedy administration, are among the best known administrators of huge operations who were bent on determining the best solution to all and every problem through the use of mathematical and statistical models. They are now infamously remembered for having failed miserably in understanding the real dynamics of the war which cost the lives of nearly 60,000 American soldiers by the time the US conceded defeat in 1975. McNamara had trumpeted that his statistical analysis showed that the military mission would be wrapped up in three or four years.

While there is no doubt that econometric and other mathematical models are very useful tools in analysing a number of situations in a variety of contexts, one needs to be very careful about overreliance on such tools, especially when issues of ‘hearts and minds’ are involved. In the present electoral campaign the dominant rationale is that the relevant statistics are overwhelmingly in favour of a huge win in favour of an alliance of the two strongest parties in the country as demonstrated by the results of the last general elections. While this is undoubtedly a very sound basis for reasoning and for mobilizing one’s ‘troops’, it would be a mistake to conclude that victory is already acquired.

Basically the underlying statistical advantage can be either reinforced and sustained or be damaged by the interplay of a number of electoral variables including the profiles of the candidates being proposed, the appropriateness of the campaigns being promoted by the contesting parties as well as the ability to strike the right chord with the electorate.

Coming back to the mathematics of the electoral contests, there are two possible outcomes that can be envisaged, each with different implications for the campaign process. One is that the figures stack up and there will indeed be a 60-0 win by the Labour Party-MMM alliance, or even a 55-5 at the most, taking into account possible glitches.

The second view is about consideration being given to other sets of results which are more favourable to the Lepep alliance. In the latter case it would necessarily have more serious implications because it would mean that there are other dynamics at play that the contestants need to manage. For example, reconciling the process of campaigning for seeking power by one of the allies while the other, an incumbent, is trying to retain popular support among its traditional electoral supporters can prove to be a tricky proposition for the LP-MMM Alliance. They will obviously have to give more consideration to this issue as the campaign rolls out.

The opposition for their part are obviously confronted with a steep hill to climb. Under the circumstances they are more likely to adopt a tactical approach aiming to limit the downside with the obvious hope of gathering at least the numbers, so as to be in a position to thwart the plans of the next government. As the challengers they would be expected to be more aggressive and on the offensive, trying to take advantage of the ‘weak spots’ inherent to any incumbent government.

Campaign Trails

In the light of a number of events over the past year, there has been a lot of talk about Mauritius being in a constant political campaign mode. While this may be true in the general parlance, it does not take away the fact that a political campaign is a more specific exercise which has its own characteristics and desiderata.

Alan Barnard and Chris Parker, who have been involved in many a campaign, define it as ‘a planned sequence of communications that makes use of all appropriate channels to achieve defined outcomes by influencing the decision-makers who will allow success.’

For an electoral campaign the decision makers are obviously the voters and the success is measured by the number of elected members. The channels of communication include a variety of media including, ever more critically these days, the social media. But most importantly the campaign is motivated by a CAUSE and is driven by communication, which incorporates a story, a structure and a sequence designed to create maximum influence. The right mix of emotional appeal and rational explanations remains an integral part of a successful campaign.

The most creative part of a campaign remains the incorporation of micro-information and feedback from daily occurrences into the core of the communication while not altering the central message. The greatest threat to this delicate exercise is what social psychologist Irving Janis has called ‘groupthink.’ Janis and others have noted that ‘key decisions are often made in small groups, often of six to twelve people, in which there is a high degree of cohesion. This cohesion produces a psychological drive for consensus which tends to suppress dissent and the consideration of alternatives.’ Operating under considerable stress, campaigners must constantly guard against a tendency to exaggerate favourable consequences, downplay unfavourable ones and deny uneasy feelings.

In the relatively short campaign for the next general elections it is being said that the number of undecided voters is particularly high. This is another way of stating that an effective and efficient campaign will be a critical factor in deciding the outcome of the forthcoming elections.

 

* Published in print edition on 14  November 2014

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