The old certainties of General Elections are fading fast. None more so that the old two or two-and-a-half party system. With a more complex and diverse electorate has come a more complex political system and a wider range of parties. Added to this the changing nature of the media and you have a situation in which the parties are engaged in increasingly bitter efforts to grab the attention of the public. So how are they trying to do it in 2015?
Ideally, each party would maintain complete control of the agenda across a range of outlets most importantly the media. The infamous 'grids' are designed to map out the campaign in advance and ensure that the parties can maintain control of their own destiny. The more control they have, the less likely they are to be blown off course. Once off course it is much more difficult to regain the initiative. In elections, in particular, momentum can be critical especially when the margins are so tight.
The parties have used a number of methods so far to grab the attention of the electorate.
1) The debates - whilst David Cameron may have been less keen to take part, the other party leaders have been more than happy to use them as a platform. Whilst viewing figures have been suggested at around half those of 2010, the numbers have been quite healthy if unspectacular. Newspaper reports puts figures for the Paxman Channel 4 / Sky 'grillings' at around 3 million, the ITV seven-way at 7 million and the BBC five-way at 4 million. Nick Clegg made a point of tweeting that he would have taken part in the last debate had he been asked to do so. In particular, Miliband used them to improve his image. He is currently favourite with the bookmakers to be the next Prime Minister and this is an impressive turnaround in his personal fortunes. Nicola Sturgeon too has been an undoubted winner and whilst she is only seeking seats in Scotland, she is now undoubtedly a national political figure and will have to worry less about Alex Salmond should be become an MP.
2) The big guns - wheeling out the elder statesmen (more often than stateswomen) is often used. They can be more aggressive than the current party leadership and can bring a gravitas lacking amongst others. What better than to have a former Prime Minister, for instance, come out fighting for you? The Conservatives were, it claimed, trying to keep Boris Johnson for later in the campaign but he is now getting in about the SNP and Labour. John Major too pushed hard, warning of the disruption of a Labour - SNP coalition. Whilst Tony Blair attacked the Conservatives over Europe and Gordon Brown is taking on the SNP again.
3) Maximising leverage - events are less one-off actions and are instead being used to promote messages through a wider range of outlets. So a speech is followed up with social media activity - a Tumblr blog, YouTube video, pictures on Pinterest etc. This is a way of ensuring that all those, especially the young who tend not to rely on the traditional media as much, have an opportunity to hear from the parties. The importance of Party Election Broadcasts appears to have all but disappeared but they still generate wider interest and media coverage. For instance, the discussion about Martin Freeman's appearance in a Labour broadcast appears to have been more widely discussed than the broadcast was viewed (currently 271, 829 views on YouTube for instance).
4) Let the people do the talking - as much as possible each of the parties want business leaders, supporters, new members, celebrities and others to champion them. This is not a new move but the emphasis is undoubtedly on 'ordinary people' giving their views. The results can be spectacularly good but in the case of George Osborne's visit to a factory whose boss then talked about the dangers of a withdrawal from the EU, it may have the opposite effect. The media also thrive on hearing from a range of non-political audiences. Labour have had their own problems too using public quotes from companies warning about an exit from the EU in an advert but not getting their agreement first.
5) On the ground - there is some dispute currently about how well the campaigns in the constituencies are going. However, so far, Labour's efforts are being praised and the Conservatives are instead their financial muscle particularly on online ads. This is taking place away from the glare of the media spotlight but it grabs attention locally. The issues may be local, not national in nature, but from polling in some marginal it seems that where on the ground activity is high that candidate is doing well.
6) Scaring people - whether it's the Conservatives warning about the SNP or Labour highlighting the NHS, scare stories abound in this election campaign. Of course, everyone is accusing everyone else of cutting too quickly, too slowly, too deeply, not enough, borrowing too much, too little, being obsessed but austerity or ignoring austerity. It's always the economy, stupid but rarely in a way where the figures are so large as to become meaningless to most people.
All the parties jump on the errors of others - a Labour candidate unable to remember the party's policies, the PM not remembering how much the Living Wage is - but so far there have been remarkably few slip-ups. Miliband's campaign could have been floored if he hadn't dealt well with the mics being on after the Paxman interview but he stayed alert. Inappropriate tweets are not flooring candidates either so far.
But what has grabbed most attention so far is #Milifandom - not created by any party and not controlled by any party. The attempted response by the Conservatives, #Cameronettes, has ended the way that any manufactured online campaign does.
Unexpected things can still happen, the parties cannot have total control however hard they try and they don't always have the best attention grabbing ideas.