Three American Campaign texts and their local relevance
Three recent American books on campaigning and political marketing have been rated for relevance to Australian practice. They are assessed from the perspective of a candidate or campaign director/manager for an Australian federal or state electorate. The final test is whether the American text is more or less useful than a 1990 book by former minister Barry Cohen which was written in jest as much as instruction How to become Prime Minister, for all aspiring politicians (and the people who have to vote for them). There are at least two chapters that would serve as a dated but helpful campaign handbook to budding politicians and campaign directors who do not have the benefit of party training and manuals.
Of the American books, time is short so let’s select three easily purchased examples to look at in detail: Bruce Newman’s The Marketing of the President: political marketing as campaign strategy, Dennis Johnson’s No Place for Amateurs: How Political Consultants Are Reshaping American Democracy, and Shea’s Campaign craft : the strategies, tactics, and art of political campaign management.
The first famous book on political campaigning is Bruce Newman’s The Marketing of the President: political marketing as campaign strategy. The title might seem interesting to an Australian campaigner who doesn’t have much political experience, however a quick look at the contents page reveals little detail that would apply to an Australian federal or state election. Written in 1994, it’s clearly not a ‘how to’ book for campaigning novices and reads more like an academic text about political marketing theory, with a few insights and examples from presidential campaigns in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Some of the more useful information provided from an Australian perspective is an explanation of the modern challenges facing candidates and parties in the appropriately titled second chapter The Shifting Winds of Politics in which brief explanations are provided for: relationship marketing, increasing campaign expenses, voter fragmentation and sophistication; how campaigning has superseded the old party structures and loyalties, the power of modern media in political campaigns, candidate selection pitfalls and how (in the view of the authors) marketing concepts have superseded party concepts in modern campaigning; Overall a useful chapter to an inexperienced student of campaign strategy, but of little practical instruction to an Australian candidate or campaign director. Chapter Three focuses on various trends in computers, TV, direct mail, US party structures and US primary/convention rules, US financial regulations, presidential debate formats, candidate philosophy, the value of consultants, pollsters, the media, parties, political action committees (PACs) and other interest groups and, last but not least, voters. All descriptions of trends and groups are treated with a distinct US-centric flavour that makes most of the content very hard to translate if there isn’t an existing familiarity with the US system and clear understanding of how it differs from the Australian context. The next Chapter is even more disappointing from an Australian campaigning perspective as it is titled but is in fact a detailed account of the strategies used to segment various interest groups by presidential candidates in each party’s primary season. Although US primaries have been compared to Australian preselections they are in practice very different due to a number of factors such as the ability of non-party-members to vote, the subsequent use of mass media to sway voters and national organised efforts in the case of presidential primaries. After only three chapters this text is clearly not up to basic standards of relevance for modern campaigns in Australia. Compared to the Cohen book, it’s not much practical use to an Australian campaigner or candidate and much less entertaining.
One useful insight from the 1994 book by Newman is the damage that Ross Perot’s candidacy caused Bush snr as Perot, a conservative independent, detracted from Bush’s conservative message and appeal. The Green’s Ralph Nader caused Al Gore similar grief in 2000. One could argue that the federal ‘compulsory preferential’ ballot in Australia minimises the destructive power of third party candidates, but Hanson’s One Nation had a similarly destructive, though temporary, effect on Liberal votes in 1998, and particularly in the subsequent Queensland state election, in which the ballot was ‘optional preferential’.
Newman’s 1999 book The Mass Marketing of Politics: Democracy in an Age of Manufactured Images updates much of the concepts and examples of his previous text but reads like a critique of modern politics and would not be recommended reading for candidates or inexperienced campaign directors less they lose all motivation for politics. The opening sentence in the preface is “The Mass Marketing of Politics makes it very clear why our democracy is on shaky ground”! Newman outlines that his main motivation in writing the book “is to help educate an American electorate that is very frustrated that is very frustrated with the state of its political affairs”. But for those interested in the strategies behind American presidential campaigns, chapter 5 is a ‘must-read’. Although there is no juicy detail that would suggest he is an evil genius, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s pollster, also gets a mention. That’s the same Wirthlin that was such an inspiration to Mark Textor in subsequent years. Chapter 6, The Art of Crafting An Image is one of the few really big improvements on the earlier book, as it provides practical advice on the importance of perception and emotional connections in politics. A very amusing (but insightful) anecdote at the end of the book relates to the 1998 election, where former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. During Ventura’s campaign, “one ad depicted two boys playing with an action figure that had a shaved head and bulging muscles ripping through the seams of a dark suit. One of the boys bangs the doll’s fist on a desk, railing against Evil Special Interest Man”. A campaign novelty, the doll actually went on sale soon after the election, with proceeds split between charity and future campaigns. Now there’s a lesson in marketing for Australian political aspirants!
I would have liked to assess Newman’s famous (and relatively expensive) Handbook of Political Marketing but it is not available for purchase in Australia and the order (via Amazon) has taken a particularly longer time than hoped. Appraisal of it will be included in the updated notes for the thesis. The fact that it is out of print and hard to find probably makes assessment irrelevant from the perspective of a practical text for campaigning in Australia.
The second book assessed in some detail is Dennis Johnson’s No Place for Amateurs: How Political Consultants Are Reshaping American Democracy. The copy I have was printed (2nd edition) in 2001. The cover has a quote from James Carville, Clinton’s famous campaign director and star of the political documentary The War Room. From an Australian perspective it’s better than Barry Cohen’s book, both as a campaign manual and as a well-written book. The book is so well-written that an Australian with the barest understanding of politics can pick it up and without any previous knowledge of the US political processes and follow his detailed explanations. The introduction is particularly good, explaining how the US “is the land of elections” with “approximately 513,200 popularly elected officials” and “over a million elections are held in every four year cycle.” The focus of the book is the professional political consultant, of which there “are about 7,000” assisting with the largest 50,000 campaigns per year. To put this in an Australian perspective (where Party officials and staff undertake the campaign roles normally assigned to professional consultants in the US), there is probably around 50 full-time staff in an Australian federal party’s campaign headquarters and around 50 contractors working off-site and no more than another 100 or so other full-time staff scattered around various cities – and this heavy concentration of Australian full-time campaign professionals happens about once every three years!
The introduction to this great book continues with an explanation of six categories of campaigns in the US, based on “size of the electorate, relative importance of the office and degree of involvement of campaign professionals”. Of the six, Australian federal elections are probably equivalent (in terms of money and population) to the race for Governor of a medium to large state, (like Pennsylvania, where Democrat Ed Rendell raised and spent US$30million in 2006). What is startling from an Australian perspective is that our federal electorate campaigns, with a typical voting population of around 80-90,000 voters (compared to around 600,000 residents in a US congressional seat), fall into the final, smallest category of elections used by Johnson, which he calls “Small Elections” where consultants are generally not used. He explains that “these campaigns essentially count on name recognition and face-to-face meetings with voters, and have low-Budget advertising through posters, yard signs and last-minute advertisements in local newspapers.” Welcome to the reality of campaigning in the average Australian suburban federal electorate! Some Australian federal electorates (the twenty most marginal, especially those in regional seats) would fall into the category above: “Medium Sized elections below the state-wide level, usually mayoral elections for city’s of over 250,000 or state legislative races. “These elections are being transformed most rapidly from amateur to professional.”
No Place for Amateurs is a how-to guide for political campaigning and is written by an experienced campaigner as it is full of well-written and believable anecdotes which provide clear examples to readers about how to do things correctly or stuff them up when you are working on a campaign. The book explains clearly what political consultants do and how stressful campaigning can be, as well as the technical aspects of research, strategy and planning, polling, media management, targeting voters and raising campaign funds. This inside look at campaign consulting avoids the anti-consultant hysteria of some recent insider books from the US. He also highlights some trouble spots in the US and suggests some reforms. There is now a 2007 (third) edition of Johnson’s book, which I will try and get and look forward to see which sections have been updated.
Daniel Shea’s Campaign craft: the strategies, tactics, and art of political campaign management, co-written with Michael Burton, is also now in it’s third edition. This book, from an Australian campaign perspective, is even better than Johnson’s and if you are interested in learning about nuts and bolts campaign techniques from the US and wanted to buy just one book – this is it. Shea explains in the preface of the 2001 edition that he wrote the book “to help bridge the gap between what scholars understood about modern elections and what campaign operatives knew about the process.” After briefly outlining the history of modern campaigning and explaining the emergence of professional political consultants, the book covers all the fundamentals of any good campaign manual. The first working chapter (two) lays the foundations of any good campaign plan: research and strategy. The following points are quickly covered, all 100% relevant to any political contest in Australia: District profile, demographic profile, candidate and opposition profiles, electoral history, public opinion, general strategy and message, fundraising plan, and traditional grassroots strategies. The writing style is as an instruction manual for a local campaign manager or candidate. There is wise counsel about the importance of good strategy, management and planning, with valuable advice on timing various aspects of the campaign plan for maximum benefit.
All the subsequent chapters elaborate on chapter two, indicating how the overall strategy is essentially made from distinct specialised elements that all relate to each other in a successful campaign. Throughout the text, there are numerous national, state and local examples to illustrate the lessons and help the reader avoid the common mistakes and pitfalls that are part of every election campaign. All the subsequent chapters are written so that each can be read on its own, as a quick lesson in a particular aspect of campaigning. This can prove to be an invaluable aid in training and discussions about specific aspects of campaigns. As with No Place for Amateurs Shea’s Campaign craft could easily be dissected and applied to a local campaign case study. It would take a great deal of time and would demonstrate that each of thee books present transferable knowledge, not because American and Australian campaign techniques are identical, but because the fundamentals of good campaign management and practice are universal. Such an exercise would be worthwhile because there are no Australian equivalents to these two books. Both Mills and Stockwell’s books cover some of the ground but not in a systematic and comprehensive style that could be used as a manual. Also, both Mills and Stockwell are communications specialists and not campaign strategy and management specialists.
One of the training aids which the author has seen used successfully in political circles is the ABC TV documentary about the 1984 election in the federal seat of Cook, That’s Democracy. A worthwhile thesis would be to compare the lessons from the TV documentary e.g. How not to run strategy, planning, fundraising, media, voter contact, publicity, etc and how those essential campaign processes are explained in Shea’s book.
Last year (2007) A British book appeared which was written by a former Conservative party campaigner Lionel Zetter: The Political Campaigning Handbook. Real life lessons from the front line. Zetter’s book is a reasonably logical how-to guide for running an election in the UK. It does not have the academic robustness of the Shea and Johnson texts but it is practical in its advice and no doubt of use to conservative candidates in UK elections, as well as Australian and American observers of the next UK general election.
Discussion, implications, conclusions, continuing research
Mills wisely states that “Australia’s oldest political tradition is borrowing and adaptation: Canberra’s Westminster system is hardly home-grown”
One can see examples in the available literature of when the required adaptation was carried out successfully, leading to electoral benefits. It’s a bit harder to find examples of the poor adaptations, as one can point to many factors in any election loss. One of the examples of poor adaptation is the use of automated phone messaging by the Liberal Party, both in 2004 and 2007, as described in an earlier section.
The lesson for Australian political scientists and campaigners is that much of what is written about campaigning techniques in American books and journals must be treated with caution. A lot of techniques have been tried and adapted but few have been tested to the extent that scientific studies in the US would suggest is required to prove their worth beyond dispute.
Thompson concluded that “it would be inappropriate to call Australian politics “Americanised” and “American ideas are Australianised by imprinting onto them the Australian way of doing politics and Australian content. Despite all the American-born influences, Australian politics and its political system remain distinctively and uniquely Australian.” 28 p 121
Plasser’s studies show that the degree of influence of American-style campaign techniques in Australia is very small in comparison to Latin America and Europe. This would suggest a relatively strong integrity in Australian political character relative to many Western-style democracies.
Plasser also identifies Australian trends which run against American ones, such as the well-recognised influence of party-centric campaigning in Australia. This is counter to the parties diminishing relevance for campaign professionals in the US.
There are also arguable examples of campaign techniques that are more ruthless and professional in Australia than in the US or UK. The Australian examples of the National Media Liaison Service (1983-1996) and the Government Members Secretariat (1996-2007) indicate, as Stockwell describes, “a whole of government approach to media management that is fundamentally changing the nexus between politics and the media”, because we “lack the protections of the US First Amendment and the bustling, brawling press of Fleet Street”.
In describing the “new political machine men” Mills writes “Some regard them with a combination of awe and dismay, the harbingers of a new and expensive Americanism which will do to our parliamentary system what McDonald’s did to the corner fish and chip shop. Others dismiss them as nasty but temporary fads which our entrenched political traditions will reject like unsuccessful organ transplants.”
The truth, as usual is probably somewhere in between those two extremes.
Mills is correct that American-derived campaign techniques are mostly expensive but they can also save campaigners money if applied correctly. Microtargeting and Robocalls are as much about reducing waste and expenditure through better targeted messaging and more efficient mediums. A robocall can attempt “contact” and convey a message to a substantial part of an electorate for much less expense than a TV or radio ad, or a direct mail or professionally letterboxed flyer.
One could argue that the real death knell of the corner fish and chip shop was the ascendency of the European café culture which has gripped the Australian psyche in the last two decades. McDonalds has survived by adapting to it rather than relying on its sheer efficiency and turnover. Starbucks was an example of a direct American import which was itself recently a casualty of our café culture. The analogy is accurate because it stipulates that American-derived campaign techniques must be adapted and localised to be effective.
To some extent all campaign techniques have a waxing and waning popularity and can justifiably be described in one period or another as “fads”. But our entrenched political traditions are much more accommodating than the critics have hoped and, if applied, carefully and with sage advice, most campaign techniques, new or old, have some merit. Politics is certainly a profession that believes in the expression “what was once old can be new again” and in many cases the new techniques, compliment, rather than replace, traditional campaigning.
One very interesting aspect of the McAllister 2007 AES is “the 2007 election was unusual in exhibiting an increase in the use of the traditional media” by voters to obtain electoral information.
McAllister’s findings support Hugh Mackay’s regular assertion that 2007 marked a “political awakening” amongst the Australian population, a turning point which has ended a period of political stability at the federal and state level and started a new period with increased interest and expectations about politics, marked by signs of electoral instability and voter volatility. The 2008 campaigns and elections in the NT, WA, the ACT and various by-elections support this view. Lenore Taylor wrote recently that “Hugh Mackay’s latest mind and mood survey, based on focus group surveys across the country, found that people were hankering after a statesmanlike prime minister with big ideas and the courage to back them. Like the one they thought they had voted for last year.”
Mills optimistically states that “Australia’s oldest political tradition is borrowing and adaption; Canberra’s Westminster system is hardly home-grown.” And that “local practitioners have proven themselves able to master and adapt the import as a creative springboard for local innovations.” He is also optimistic about the durability of our basic political system and its ability to remain a democratic cornerstone. “It’s no use worrying about whether Australian politics is becoming more ‘presidential’. The fundamental rules of political competition in this country are fixed: prime Ministers, unlike presidents, will always need a majority in the House of Representatives; new campaign practices will neither sharpen nor dull the desire of backbenchers to become Prime Minister; nor of opposition to form Government.”
A book by Dominic Wring (published in 2005) about the evolution of political marketing in the UK Labour Party follows a similar timeline to Mill’s descriptions of American influences here. One peculiar aspect of this evolution in the UK is the “party’s educationalist ethos” which favoured education over persuasion as a political objective and “documentary film techniques rather than commercial style productions” for many decades. Wring is critical of the marketing focus of the Blair years and blames it for a fundamental collapse in recent Labour support in the UK, as the party’s strategists and campaigners lost sight of the party’s base in their quest research-based messages and policies primarily targeted at the swinging voter. Similar criticisms have been made of the Australian Labor Party, although without the weight of evidence provided in the UK and the US based on their more widespread use of professional political marketing theory and techniques. Wring concludes that Blair was wrong in his calculation that “a section of his core vote would stay Labour because they had nowhere else to go. The dramatic fall in turnout at the 2001 general election suggested otherwise.”
Even with “compulsory voting”, Australia is not immune to dramatic falls in turnout, which have been experienced in Australian by-elections and most recently in the NT election, widely criticised for being called earlier than expected. No doubt further analysis of the underlying causes of drops in voter turnout will explore the influence of increasing voter cynicism towards political marketing and transparent political strategies designed for partisan advantage.
Whether discussing American influence here, important lessons can be learnt from comparative analysis of US campaign techniques and those in other countries, such as Blumler’s UK studies. One is “to avoid the glib uses of the notion of Americanisation to explain swirling developments in campaign communication in other societies.” Two false impressions that this term creates were identified: The incorrect assumption that both political systems are static when there are in fact “both converging and diverging trends”. Secondly, although there may appear to be “direct imitation”, it may in fact be “adaptation into an existing set of practices”. In fact the authors noted that during both recent campaigns, experts from the British Labour party and the Clinton team observed each other in action and shared their tactical expertise with each other.
Mancini and Swanson articulate a view that is shared by many academics, offering “Americanisation not as a conclusion, but as a reference point and a working hypothesis with which to begin the analysis.”
After explaining the higher relative propensity of negative attacks in Australian political advertising, Young writes that “it now seems quite fanciful to blame ‘Americanization’ for the high use of negative political ads, as this has always been a feature of Australian political advertising and Australia’s use of this style of advertising has been higher than most other western democracies, including the US, for some years.” She suggests that the increase in negative ads has as much to do with the mediums being used and their focus on party leaders as any conscious strategy.
The reality of the lack of Americanisation of Australian politics can be found from exceptions to the commonly held view. In researching this thesis, one would assume that a book titled Developments in Australian politics would contain a string of various examples of how American influences are being adopted and adapted to the Australian political landscape. In fact there are none. This is not a criticism of the book or its many authors; the book simply displays a mature and detailed analysis that does not require comparison to foreign cultural, political and media influences.
A similarly titled book that was published three years later, New developments in Australian politics, does include some American comparisons, such as in a chapter titled The Core Executive by Glyn Davis, in which he explains how, unlike their American counterparts, Australian leaders remain hostage to their party and to the parliament.”
Bob Hogg wisely wrote “campaigning has to continually adapt to the changes in the habits and social activities of the voters and meet the Australian condition, not America’s. If it doesn’t, then the campaign will fail.”
Elaine Thompson, who derides many of the marketing and campaigning influences from American politics (including an obsession with image with resulted in Gough Whitlam’s hairstyle being “transformed” and “Even John Howard had his glasses changed and his eyebrows tamed for television”!) states that “it would be inappropriate to call Australian politics ‘Americanised’. Rather American ideas are Australianised by imprinting onto them the Australian way of doing politics and Australian content. Despite all the American-born influences, Australian politics and its political system remain distinctively and uniquely Australian.”
This literature review outlines the vast amount of American and British material on this subject as well as the growing volume of Australian analysis.
The search for “American political campaign techniques” has shown nearly all are not exclusive to American politics. In many cases these techniques (with localised variations) are universal but are labeled as “American” because the texts and examples used as references are American, but this is to be expected when political campaign instruction, research and analysis is documented better in the US than in any other nation and there are more campaign professionals and organisations in the US due to the larger mass of the political consultancy industry, media, academia and related professions. The larger publishing market available to political commentators in the US ensures that the most popular political studies and books are researched, printed and distributed there.
As stated earlier, the lack of similar material in Australia means that Australian campaigners searching for good campaign manuals will inevitably turn to the US.
Although this literature review has identified some techniques that focus on practices that do not seem relevant to Australian politics (such as “get out the vote techniques” and foreign finance regulations) this research has begun to demonstrate how all techniques must be localised to some extent and even the most basic tasks such as “doorknocking” or “direct mail” must be carefully adapted to local conditions and culture or risk alienating local voters.
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