The possibilities of election campaigns as sites for political advocacy: South Africa in comparative perspective

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University of Cape Town

How useful are election campaigns as a site for South African interest groups to advocate policy change, either on their own or through allied political parties? More broadly, we might ask how useful campaigns are as sites for political parties to attract new voters by taking positions on publicly salient issues of public policy. At first glance, the answer to both these questions might seem obvious. Our popular image of election campaigns sees them either very broadly as watershed national conversations about where the country has been and where it ought to go, or more narrowly as periodic national debates in which political parties, candidates, interest groups and news media try to persuade voters about “who did what” in the past five years and “with what consequences,” and “who might do what” in the next five years? But this popular image rests on several assumptions about both political elites and ordinary voters. On its face, it assumes that voters come into each campaign with a completely open mind ready to hear contending partisan arguments and decide accordingly. It also assumes that all voters are able to follow, and are interested in following this national conversation through the news media, and that they in fact do so. Yet a great deal of research by comparative political scientists has demonstrated that voters do not make up their minds tabula rasa at each election. Furthermore, we know that political parties and candidates tend to focus primarily on mobilizing those voters who already agree with them, and only secondarily on persuading smaller groups of undecided, potential “swing” voters to change their vote from the last election.?