Some campaigns have their iconic moments. In the 2004 federal campaign it was Mark Latham’s overly muscular handshake with John Howard. It summed up all the risk inherent in Latham.
For the South Australian election it was probably Liberal shadow treasurer Steven Griffiths’ claim that his own figures for savings on the Royal Adelaide Hospital were “spin” which would have reinvigorated doubts about the SA Libs.
The shame for the Liberals is if they had been running a different campaign it would probably not have mattered.
And to put it into perspective, the Liberals have achieved a swing of heroic proportions.
It looks like Isobel Redmond and her team have collected a swing of 7.3% – which is one of the largest swings in contemporary Australian elections – but it also looks like they have collected that swing mostly in the wrong seats.
The results suggest that this was a classic protest vote swing. In a protest vote you win votes not because people want you to win, but because they want to send your opponent a message.
Protest votes result in larger swings in safe seats – yours and your opponents. But the marginals tend to remain tight. In fact, some safe seats will change hands with large swings while marginals will stay put and swing against the trend (see Adelaide, Mawson and Light).
Our polling suggested that elements of a protest vote were in place. Electors are over Mike Rann, and preferred Isobel Redmond, but there were lingering doubts about the Liberal Party. Greens preferences probably held the key and they were inclined towards a hung parliament rather than a Liberal win.
If the Liberal Party had pitched themselves as the under-dogs, and even embraced the overwhelming likelihood that the best result for them would be a hung parliament, they might have won.
But they pitched themselves as certain to form the next government.
This meant that electors were scrutinising them more closelythan they would have as a potential government rather than a tool to bring Rann down a peg or two.
Then, at just the wrong time in the campaign a Liberal front-bencher suggests that a key Liberal promise is “spin”. Voters in a number of key seats probably changed their minds at that point and decided to stay put.
I suspect that the Liberals were also running the wrong marginal seats campaign. In 1996 in the Queensland election ALP members like Michael Lavarch held key marginal seats, but were tracking 10% above their party’s vote.
In the last weeks we targetted their electors with a message that said “We know that you like your local member and we can understand that he (they were all males) is a decent person. But when he goes to Canberra he supports these decisions that Paul Keating is making. The only way you can send Keating a message is to vote against this person who you like. Sorry.”
It worked and their votes came back in line with their party’s.
Were the SA Libs pushing a similar message out in Light, Mawson, Norwood and Newland?
There are lessons for the federal Liberals, and federal Labor, in this result.