Public Unrest in Election Cycles: How COVID-19 Will Impact Re-Election Campaigns

Rotem Gantz

Partner, Cognita Partners‍

During major crises, politicians must navigate a murky line between acting decisively and acting too quickly. Between doing what needs to be done and appearing to overreact. Will they be judged as failing to take action, or will people see them as waiting for more information in order to act appropriately? 

It’s an unenviable position, but it’s one that politicians around the globe are currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Their political fortunes hang precariously on how they act, and how their actions are interpreted by those they govern.

Compounding the difficulty of their job is the fact that even favorable outcomes aren’t good. People are still going to die, even with the situation under control. Businesses will still fail even with relief funds available. Depending on the circumstances and the electorate, elected officials that handle things properly may still be judged harshly simply because terrible things are happening.

Politicians that are facing re-election have some difficult decisions to make. How they are perceived rests as much on the decisions themselves as the way they’re communicated to the public. And this is something elected officials have control over. They just need good data.

Keeping Close Tabs on Public Opinion

In order to survive the current political climate, smart politicians will keep their finger firmly on the pulse of public opinion. With every message they deliver they’ll need to collect information about how it was received, which segments of their electorate it resonated with, and the reasons why some people were unhappy. To do this, they’ll need to avail themselves of advanced digital technologies.

Businesses long ago learned the lesson that data equals insight. Politicians are beginning to make the connection as well. When they understand what motivates their constituents, and what basic beliefs color their interpretation of facts, they’ll be better poised to communicate unwelcome but necessary information in a way that people can accept.

The more specific an elected official’s understanding is of the different segments of their electorate, the better prepared they’ll be to fine-tune messaging. This lets them target specific communications to create effective public outreach.

The Tools Are Changing but the Process Is the Same

Facebook was a major driver of public opinion during the last U.S. presidential campaign and other regional races. But controversy plagued the platform as disinformation campaigns from within and without tainted the well. Users engaging in legitimate discourse might find themselves blocked or banned because of the platform’s growing restrictions. These developments called into question the utility of social media as a political space.

In the wake of this tumult, social influence has begun moving onto instant messaging platforms. Social influencers are leveraged to help disseminate information, and bots are called into service to target messages to specific voter blocks.

The politicians that understand how to navigate these new digital tools will find themselves better appreciated for their good decisions, and more readily forgiven for their inevitable mistakes. These are tools that can be used to help accomplish great things when used properly. It remains to be seen which officials will be rewarded, and which will suffer under the weight of public opinion.

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