Three reasons why incumbents are more at risk than they think

I have a confession to make – I’m tragically addicted to politics. Elections are my kind of competition. Some people live for the AFL Grand Final. Others obsess over Eurovision or MasterChef. Me, I’m an election groupie.

Every three years, when the Federal election rolls around, I stalk proudly through the gaggle of political party volunteers at the local polling booth – accepting one or two how-to-vote leaflets and loudly refusing others – to place my very important vote.

As soon as the vote count starts, I settle in with snacks for a nice long stretch of channel surfing, shouting at the commentators and throwing things at the TV when the count doesn’t go my way. I love the process, but what I’m really hanging out for is the end result, and the leaders’ concession and victory speeches. 

This year, I stayed up for a very long time. Maybe you did too. And wasn’t it frustrating? We didn’t get a victory speech that night, or even the next morning. We were left hanging for a week before we knew the likely outcome of the election – the government returned to office by the narrowest of margins.

We were told the election would be close, but not so close that it would eventually come down to week’s worth of postal votes.

What happened?

Incumbents are more vulnerable than they think. This is true whether you’re a political party or a contractor selling commercial goods and services.

Here are three things that every incumbent can learn from the very close result of the Australian Federal election – a result that could easily have gone another way.

  1. Incumbents are always vulnerable to a protest vote. The customer, in this case the electorate, had already seen what this government could do and many of them weren’t happy about it. With only a single term under their belts, we also still remember the alternative, and it seems we weren't happy with them either, resulting in a large rise in votes for Independents and for the Greens. By Monday, with 80% of the vote counted, nearly a quarter of Australians had given their votes to an independent or minor party, with the Coalition registering a primary vote of only 42.1 percent - its fourth lowest result for the past 60 years.
  2.  An incumbent’s team listens only to the good news, and blocks out everything else. In this election, it has been suggested that the Coalition was so enamoured of its own internal polling – which optimistically predicted that the party would be returned to government by a large margin - that it even convinced the majority of the media this was a foregone conclusion. The result was much closer than the Coalition’s polling anticipated, and the fallout and recriminations have been difficult for its leadership to handle.
  1. An incumbent's program of work and track record are visible and open to scrutiny. Like it or not, this makes it very easy for an opponent to find the patterns, holes and gaps and to mount an effective attack, as Labor did with the Medicare, or “Mediscare”, campaign.

What can we learn from these results?

  • The time to start campaigning again to win an election is the day you form a government.
  • The time to start campaigning to retain a customer is the day you sign the contract.

Incumbents ignore this, and believe their own hype, at their peril.

Robyn Haydon is a business development consultant specialising in business that is won through competitive bids and tenders. Her clients have won and retained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business with many of Australia’s largest corporate and government buyers.

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