It’s unsafe to rely on raw numbers to win elections in today’s world

Saturday December 29 2012



Raw numbers don’t win elections these days. It all boils down to organisation. I will illustrate with two very recent examples.

Just before the Christmas period, Egypt conducted the final round of a referendum on a new constitution that was hugely controversial.

Although the document was passed by nearly 64 per cent of those who voted, the outcome did not reflect the true situation on the ground. The critical fact was that the turnout was only 32 per cent of Egypt’s 51 million-strong electorate.

The game-changer was that the country’s Muslim Brotherhood, which opponents accuse of railroading an Islamist constitution to suit its ideological aims, went for broke.

It happens to be – by far – the best regimented political force in Egypt. This effectively cancelled out the fact that it is outnumbered by secular coalitions and other groups.

The Brotherhood had the organisation to ensure its believers came out and voted en masse for the constitution. The secularists and their allies, despite being a majority overall, were so hopelessly divided they could not pose a realistic challenge.

Using the mosques and the network of social welfare organisations they control, the Brotherhood got their message out relentlessly and efficiently. They were good with social media, too, despite a universal image of them of being bearded conservative types who harken to medieval mullahs.

Barack Obama’s re-election was accomplished not much differently. Contrary to popular myth, the US President is not beloved by a majority of Americans. To counter this, his campaign set up an awesome database to focus on the demographics where his strength lay: young white liberals, Blacks and Hispanics.

At its headquarters in Chicago, the campaign mined social media like Facebook to profile potential supporters – their occupations, their hobbies, their interests, and so on.

From those Facebook profiles and their combined millions of friends, the Obama campaign knew where to position campaign volunteers, draft financial contributors and woo potential swing voters.

Using such an information goldmine, it was easy to target campaign advertising and to channel campaign resources to the states where Obama felt they would produce optimal dividends. As I write, Britain’s main political parties are all closely studying the Obama model.

In contrast, Mitt Romney stuck to old-style campaigning – house calls by volunteers, email, mass advertising, and automated phone calls to potential voters via what Americans call robo-calls.

The point I am trying to make, dear reader, is that technology has totally transformed the nature of political campaigns. In America, it is social media.

In Kenya, it is the cell phone. A couple of weekends ago, my friend and venerable Mama Mboga of my neighbourhood kiosk in Nairobi was on my case demanding to know if I had registered to vote.

When I answered in the affirmative, she grinned happily. She was very pleased to hear I registered in Nairobi, as she had.

I was a bit surprised because in the past, Mama would always travel to her rural county – Nyandarua – to register. When I inquired why she had opted for the city this time, she was matter-of-fact: “I was told to do so”. “By whom?” I persisted. “By my women’s chama,” she replied.

The logic of the decision by her chama (the ubiquitous women’s self-help credit group) as she told me was fairly straightforward.

The electoral stakes in her rural county are not as high as those in Nairobi. So, she told me, the extra numbers have to be shifted to Nairobi. No wonder Nairobi has the highest percentage of voters registered of any province.

But what surprised me was that Mama Mboga’s electoral manoeuvrings were not being decided while meeting face to face with her chama.

In the main, they carry out their dealings and financial transactions via cell phone. That is the medium they used to agree on where to register as voters. It’s the same gadget they will use to mobilise the votes with their friends.