Campaign History

12 years ago in New Zealand – one outsider’s glimpse of the 2002 NZ election

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Lynne Pillay and Don Clarke

In 2002 I wrote a short report report summarising observations made during my participation in a NZ election study tour sponsored by the Australian Political Exchange Council (APEC). The delegation from Australia included representatives from the Labor, Liberal, National, Democrat and Green Parties. Participants were invited to construct their own itineraries focussing on personal and political interests. I must begin by thanking APEC and Gary Gray, who was then one of the Labor representative on the APEC Board, for this opportunity – I am sure that other participants will agree it was an extraordinary journey into New Zealand politics and culture.

Our activities focused primarily on the New Zealand Labour Party’s campaign. The study tour included visits to Wellington, Auckland and a day at Rotorua. Our itinerary included (amongst other events and meetings listed in the report): Prior to departure, a briefing at the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra; In Wellington, several meetings with Mike Smith – General Secretary, New Zealand Labour; In Wellington – briefings from Jenny Michie – Women’s Organiser and Communications Officer New Zealand Labour; Labour ministerial staff election campaign briefing – led by Heather Simpson – Chief of staff for Prime Minister Helen Clark; Meeting with David Burchett – IT/Communications Manager for Prime Minister’s office; Meeting with Dot Kettle – Senior Advisor to PM Helen Clark; Meeting with Tony Timms – Advisor to PM Helen Clark; Meeting with Marian Hobbs MP – Environment Minister and Member for Wellington Central and Electorate Representative Jordan Carter; Attended a very entertaining old-school town-hall-style ‘Meet the Candidates’ function at Kiora Community Hall (for Wellington Central candidates); Attended fundraising performance by ‘Hen’s Teeth’ for Ohariu-Belmont Campaign; Visited Te Papa National Museum Wellington; Attended Televised Candidates Debate (front row seats!); Lunch meeting with Chris Eichbaum – Senior Advisor to Hon Steve Maharey MP, Minister for Social Services, Employment, Tertiary Education; Meeting with Mike Williams–New Zealand Labour Party President and Campaign Manager; Meeting with Stephen Mills – Managing Director, UMR Research Ltd.; Attended Labour Campaign Launch – International Wharf Wellington; Accompanied General Secretary Mike Smith and Assistant General Secretary Murdo Macmillan at official briefing by Mark Johns, Manager of Operations Electoral Enrolment Centre, New Zealand Post; Briefing with Labour Auckland Regional Organiser Andrew Beyer and Labour Maori Organiser Jason Ake; Attended Campaign Meeting for Maungakiekie campaign (Mark Gosche MP); Meeting with Chris Carter MP at his electorate office; Meeting with Jonathan Hunt – Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament; Assisted with preparations for Helen Clark visit to Manakau Westfield shopping centre; Met Prime Minister Helen Clark at Manakau Westfield (and have a bad photo as proof!); Visited Waitakere Campaign Office in Glen Eden; Meeting with Labor candidate for Waitakere Ms Lynne Pillay; Meeting and briefing with Waitakere campaign manager Don Clarke; Sign Painting, door-to-door canvassing, billboard construction in Waitakere; Campaigning in Atoa Markets – campaigning/leaflets; Briefing with John Utting and visited UMR polling centre in Auckland; Attended Auckland Labour Party campaign directors meeting; Meeting with NZ Engineers Union organisers and activists at Auckland office; Going door-to-door to get out the voters on election day; Scrutineering during the election and in the evening during the count; and (on one day of rest) visited Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley and Maori village at Rotorua.

Helen Clarke

MMP – New Zealand’s Parliamentary system

The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)* system was adopted in New Zealand in 1996 via referendum as a solution for the electorate’s frustration with the existing first-past-the-post system. Voters were fed up by the behaviour of previous governments, which abused the unchecked mandate delivered by a first-past-the-post system. MMP effectively ensures that no single party can rule in its own right. The election on Saturday 27 July 2002 was the third election under the MMP system. Under MMP each voter receives a single ballot paper on which they choose (by placing two ticks on the paper) a local representative candidate (from the list of candidates for the local seat), as well as a party vote. The New Zealand Parliament has 120 MPs. 61 MPs represent 61 general electorates. 6 MPs represent 6 Maori electorates (elected by voters on the Maori electoral roll only). 53 MPs are elected from the party lists in a manner that ensures their party’s final proportion in the parliament reflects their party’s ‘party vote’. In order to be represented in parliament, a party must either reach a 5% threshold in its party vote or hold at least one local electorate seat (in which case 2% of the Party vote will get you a friend elected as well from your ‘party list’). As far as the major parties are concerned, MMP necessitates that the focus of the election campaign is maximising your ‘party vote’, even at the local campaign level. A high party vote ensures that the maximum number of candidates from your ‘party list’ is elected and you are more likely to be part of the inevitable coalition Although Labour won three quarters of local electorates it still needed coalition partners to form a government. As it only won 41% of the party vote it only received 52 MPs in total.

Campaigning is campaigning: The NZ election campaign in a nutshell.

The New Zealand election showed that successful election campaign methods are universal: Assess the environment; define your strategy and implement appropriate However, despite the complicated calculations when counting the MMP ballot – the basic political tactics during this campaign remained the same as under any electoral system. Electorally successful parties (Labour, New Zealand First, United Future) increased their popular vote by: having a simple message that resonated with voters, repeating that message ad nauseum in their campaign material, maximising the coverage of their message in free-to-air media and canvassing for votes. Electorally unsuccessful parties (the Nationals and the Alliance) never had a fighting chance because their original strategy was flawed. They targeted the same constituency (with the same message) that had got them elected in 96 and 99, despite all the signs that the political landscape had seismically shifted around them. The leaders of both the Nationals and Alliance spent the last two weeks of the campaign in damage control.

Labour won almost three quarters of the local electorates and ended up with three extra seats – enough to form a minority Coalition Government with Jim Anderton (a reliable ex-Labour coalition partner) and another minor party. The National Party was decimated, receiving only half of the Labour popular vote. Traditional National Party voters deserted in droves to other conservative parties who had stolen their traditional message (and constituency) during the campaign.

The full report can be found here: AusPol Exchange Hallaj report (apologies for any typos in this 12 year old pdf version of this report).

I’ll come back to this post or a linked post to give a run-down of the current New Zealand electoral landscape as well as some coverage of interesting events and observations from the 2014 NZ election campaign, due later this year.

In the meantime, here’s the best place to start if you’re an aspiring psephologist:


The 2012 ACT Election – two more perspectives

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A few days I ago I shared a paper on the 2012 ACT Assembly election written by local academic and historian Chris Monnox. Today I’m adding one from political writer and researcher Terry Geisecke as well as the analysis and summary of that election from the federal Parliamentary Library.

Terry’s paper is available online via Australian Policy Online website: and its contents helped during the writing of the official 2012 ACT Labor Campaign Report.


The Federal Parliamentary Library (in case you weren’t aware) is an absolute treasure trove of useful research material about politics, campaigning and Australia history and current issues. In December 2012 Research Brenton Holmes wrote a terrific paper explaining some of the highlights of the 2012 ACT Assembly election. The full paper, with extensive references) is available here: and I’ve also attached a pdf version below:


Happy reading!


Norman Arbjorensen asks if Liberals have employed US Republican-style ‘strategic racism’ to win elections?

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Norman writes: “The hardline stance by the Abbott government on asylum seekers – and let’s call it for what it is: a blatant appeal to racial prejudice thinly disguised as “border protection” – has served the Liberal Party well. But rather than racism driving the policy, as has been suggested, there might well be other agendas at play.

Consider the political advantages that the Liberals have won from the propagation and exploitation of fear. The 2013 election campaign is still fresh in memory with Tony Abbott’s repeated mantra of “stop the boats”, and the explicit linking of asylum seekers and their flimsy vessels with border protection and national security. We have now seen the deployment of the armed forces to turn them back.

To take his military analogy to the point of absurdity, in an interview in January Abbott likened the situation to a war – that is, a heavily armed, First-World nation mobilised against a sporadic and unorganised invasion of leaky boats. He declined to give details about the government’s strategies because that would be “giving out information that is of use to the enemy”.

That is highly charged rhetoric and a look at recent political history suggests a pattern that is more than just crass political opportunism.


The “stop the boats” mantra was trumpeted loudly in the 2013 campaign, but what did we hear about savage cuts to welfare, steep rises in student fees, the abolition of the discrimination commissioner’s job, the handing over of the Human Rights Commission to an avowed opponent of its existence, the free rein given to the Business Council of Australia via the Commission of Audit, or to the far-right Institute of Public Affairs in writing policy and setting the agenda? Such outcomes have little discernible benefit to anyone but the big corporates and the very rich, and contain distinct downsides for most who responded to the “stop the boats” siren song.

Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan pitched a shameless appeal to the “moral majority” with his folksy talk about the sanctity of the family and traditional values, not for their own sake but simply because supply-side economics, which we now know as neoliberalism, was as little understood as it was unpalatable to the average voter. Strategic racism is simply a reprise of that monumentally successful exercise.

After the 2004 election, the Liberal Party sought to play down the issue as a deliberate focus of its campaign, despite a poll showing 10 per cent of respondents nominated it as their reason to vote Liberal. I attended an industry briefing in the election’s aftermath in which a top Liberal Party campaign strategist was asked why the Labor Party kept losing elections (by then, four in a row). “It’s simple,” he said. “A message of fear beats a message of hope every time.”

The intake of breath in that auditorium was palpable.”

More here:–70

For many close watchers of conservative politics in Australia I have to admit there’s not much new to learn here. Many journalists have written similar words over recent years. Here’s a good example in the Guardian by David Marr:

One member’s view of the 2012 ACT Assembly Election

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In coming days I’m planning to add some historical information about the most recent ACT Assembly election, which was held on 20 October 2012. The first item is a submission made by one of our member’s Chris Monnox to a post-election report compiled after the campaign. Chris is an author and academic, who also recently wrote a very comprehensive history of ACT Labor.

I’ll begin by attaching a pdf copy of Chris’s submission.

Chris Monnox submission to review of 2012 ACT election campaign


Great Article by Sally Young on the history of political campaigning in Australia

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As previously mentioned, Associate Professor Sally Young has written some great books and research papers about political campaigning in Australia, particularly advertising techniques.

Her book The Persuaders: Inside the Hidden Machine of Political Advertising (Pluto Press, 2004), is a terrific read for students of journalism, political science and professional communications.

If you haven’t read any of her recent work this article is a great starting point: A Century of Political Communication in Australia, 1901–2001.

At the bottom of the article is a link to download a pdf (if you prefer to print it out an read it on a bus or in bed later).

I love some of the old photos that Sally has collated in her various articles and books, but not many come close to the entertainment value of this video from the Gruen Transfer…

Great article on Liberal Party ads from the 1940s by Jennifer Rayner

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ANU Doctoral Candidate Jennifer Rayner has written a great article on The Conversation about Liberal Party ads from the 1940s and how they speak today’s political language.


Jennifer explains how “Melbourne University has unearthed the only remaining recordings of the Liberal Party’s landmark 1948 “John Henry Austral” radio serial – the first Australian example of a professional, media-centric political ad campaign.

The John Henry Austral series was Australia’s first nationally coordinated and professionally produced political ad campaign. It ran twice-weekly as a 15-minute radio serial for 20 months leading up to the 1949 election, in paid spots on about 80 radio stations across Australia. Campaign scholar Stephen Mills estimates that it cost the Liberal Party some £2300 a month to run the series; this equates to around $125,000 in today’s money and makes it one of the most expensive political ad campaigns the country has ever seen.

Although John Henry Austral was a fictional character voiced by actor Richard Matthews, his purpose was very real: to foster antipathy towards the Chifley Government and so pave the way for a Liberal victory in 1949.

Authors such as Mills and the University of Melbourne’s own Dr Sally Young have argued that the remarkable modernity of the John Henry Austral campaign shows that the Liberal Party was ahead of its time in pioneering professional campaign techniques.

Jennifer is one of the brilliant minds behind this week’s political campaigning workshop at Sydney University. You can find more of her articles at The Conversation here.


A workshop on campaign management and political marketing

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If you’ve read my earlier (now slightly dated) literature review or discussed political campaigning with me over a few beers (I apologise for everything I said after the third beer) you’ll know I often lament about the relative lack of professional and academic interest in political campaign training in Australia. Well it’s clear I’m not the only one, because this week in Sydney there’ll be an inaugural event that brings many academics and practitioners together to discuss this very thing!

Check out the website: for “The 2014 Australia New Zealand WORKSHOP ON CAMPAIGN MANAGEMENT & POLITICAL MARKETING”. As far as I know registration is open to all those with an interest in this field, academic or otherwise.

As the website explains: “In 2014, the University of Sydney’s Graduate School of Government will play host to the second Australia-New Zealand Workshop on Campaign Management and Political Marketing. The workshop will bring together academics and practitioners for an in-depth discussion of current and emerging trends in campaign management and political marketing, and generate new networks and opportunities for further trans-Tasman and international research. The workshop will particularly focus on the intersection between research and practice, and is open to academics, party representatives, political consultants, research students and civil society campaigners.”

As well as a series of panels and discussions about many aspects of campaigning the highlights will include some discussion of Stephen Mill’s new book The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia I haven’t read the book yet, but if it’s anywhere near as good as his brilliant 1986 book “The New Machine Men” I will probably read it a few times and ask him a few questions about it afterwards! 🙂

Stephen has been busy promoting his book in the media recently. Here are some links to recent articles and interviews:

Here’s a short summary:

Political polling, door-knocking, the targeting of marginal seats and swinging voters. They’re terms all Australians are now very familiar with as elections continually roll around. But that wasn’t always the case. Academic and author Stephen Mills examines how politics in Australia has been shaped and influenced in the newly published The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia.


That’s not Stephen, it’s Liberal Party National Director Mr Brian Loughnane, one of the many interviewees featured in Stephen’s new book. Do yourself a favour and buy it.

If you want to see what Stephen looks like and learn more about his amazing work then you should check out his website!

The Literature Review Part 6 – Three American Campaign texts, Conclusion, Biography

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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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The Literature Review Part 5 – The ‘Ground War’: nuts and bolts campaigning techniques

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The ‘Ground War’: nuts and bolts campaigning techniques

As mentioned previously, there are several excellent recent US ‘campaigning manuals’ such as Campaign Craft by Shea and Burton, Winning elections by R.A. Faucheaux, and
No place for amateurs by Dennis Johnson. A recent UK addition to this stable is  The political campaigning book: real lessons from the front line by Lionel Zetter. These manuals explain important foundations such as campaign strategy, research and targeting as well as ‘nuts and bolts campaigning like use of databases, direct mail, doorknocking, phoning, candidate and team training, volunteers, community issue campaigns, use of local media and the like. Errington and van Onselen cite Shea and Burton in the paper Electoral databases: big brother or democracy unbound? They explain how the professionalisation of American campaigns includes the hiring of consultants for database management. Similar (though decentralised) databases now feature prominently in Australian political campaigns as well as MP’s offices. The authors note that “over a decade after their introduction” the major parties are still unwilling to discuss the details of their electoral databases, although they do obtain training and operation manuals of the Feedback database system from Liberal Party sources.

It is explained that “the development of the Liberal Party’s Feedback database was part of a national review of the Coalition’s 1990 election campaign” in which it “was generally recognised that the ALP had out-campaigned the Coalition in key marginal seats”. Lessons were learned from the US Republicans about the superior “development of targeted campaigning” and although the relevant software was not imported, due to “technical difficulties, and differences between the two political systems”, a similar system was developed locally.

The party-control of the Feedback and Electrac systems in Australia contrasts with larger political market in the US, “where the decentralised major political parties, as well as private campaigns for ballot initiatives, have ensured the development of a lively political database industry.”

Voter contact is an essential element of any political campaign, especially for challengers facing greater resources from incumbents. A great selection of examples of different voter contact techniques can be found in Margaret Saville’s book The Battle For Bennelong : The Adventures of Maxine McKew, Aged 50 Something where she recounts tales of doorknocking, community meetings, phone canvassing, shopping centre visits, school fetes and more.

Playford to Dunstan provides some great examples of doorknocking prowess in 1960s Australia. It states that “the major parties geared their campaigns to the obviously marginal seats” and “local strategy in the marginals emphasised personal canvassing” and “troops are out in the biggest sustained doorknocking exercise the State has known”. One candidate claimed to have “doorknocked 90 per cent of the homes in the district” and his opponent “in the two years since his endorsement he had managed to visit every home in the constituency twice.” Another candidate complimented his “seven months of doorknocking prior to polling day” with “over a dozen” public meetings with “an average attendance of 150”.

Much of the literature in the US about nuts and bolts campaigning techniques speaks about ‘voter turnout’ or ‘GOTV’ (get out the vote) and there is a false assumption amongst many campaigners in Australia that our persuasion-focused strategies mean that these techniques are not relevant. Although it can be argued that voter turnout strategies and techniques are not directly applicable in the Australian context, anyone who has been doorknocking in both the US and Australia (as well as in the UK and NZ) will concede that good personal contact techniques are largely universal. Even though they may not be directly applicable, they are certainly (like any good campaign technique from any source) adaptable to an Australian political environment. For example, the technology and investment in a microtargeting survey combined with a doorknocking campaign can be used to maximise voter turnout of partisan voters as well as swinging voters. The survey questions may need to be refined, as well as the scripts for the volunteers, but the fundamental mechanical process would be very similar, as would the cost (in money and volunteers)

In a 1999 study Does Canvassing Increase Voter Turnout? A Field Experiment based on a randomised field experiment involving 30,000 registered voters, Gerber and Green concluded that voter turnout was “increased substantially by personal canvassing, slightly by direct mail, and not at all by telephone calls (from a phone bank).” The research found “personal canvassing has a far greater influence on voter participation than three pieces of professionally crafted mail delivered within two weeks of Election Day”. A very interesting aspect of this paper is the hypothesis that “the decline of personal mobilization has arguably contributed to the erosion of voter turnout in the United States since the 1960s.”

This correlates to the arguments made by others in Australia such as Sally Young and Andrew Leigh that an overemphasis on new campaign techniques such as mass marketing through television has discouraged voter interest in political discourse as they become more personally detached from it and often only see negative aspects via the mainstream media. This also meets with the professional campaigners viewpoint in that although people traditionally complain about disruptive election campaigns and no-one likes to have their busy home-lives interrupted by political canvassers, there is an expectation that all MPs and candidates will spend a significant amount of their time and resources keeping in touch with their constituency, listening to their voters and personally finding out what is happening to people throughout their electorates. Candidates who display these desirable traits should, all else being equal, be more attractive to voters.

Earlier American research, such as Blydenburgh’s 1971 paper A Controlled Experiment to Measure the Effects of Personal Contact Campaigning recorded how several candidates performed in a campaign for local office. The experiment was designed to measure the impact of door-to-door canvassing and telephone solicitation. He cites similar studies in the US dating back to elections in the 1920s and although concedes that variables between candidates and different election types cloud his results, comes to the reasonable conclusion that local campaigning will have a greater effect in contest where the message is not influenced by mass media, such as in local government elections.

Conversely, in Constituency Campaigning In Parliamentary Systems With Preferential Voting: Is there a Paradox? Bowler, Farrell and McAllister argue that “local campaigning has a very limited impact on the vote” and “concludes with an explanation for the apparent paradox of why candidates bother campaigning when it does not make a difference to their vote” by hypothesising that the activity is designed to impress their colleagues and the party as much as it is design to gain an electoral advantage. The paper focuses on data from the 1993 AES. The first possible problem with this analysis is that 1993 was a very unusual election in that it revolved around a very public (i.e. undertaken via the mass media) discussion about the new Goods and Services Tax which the Hewson Liberals were proposing. Secondly, the study categorises “constituency work” as “local campaigning” and even though it includes the disclaimer “the actual degree to which local constituency work attracts votes is still a matter of debate” it does not differentiate between “constituency work” and “local campaigning” in any marketing or voter canvassing context.

An alternate view can be found in the UK, which correlates more closely with the American research. Whiteley and Seyd show in Local Party Campaigning and Electoral Mobilization in Britain that “local campaigning by Labour party members had a significant influence on the Labour vote share in the 1987 election, but not on turnout.”

In another UK article Hanging on the telephone? Doorstep and Telephone Canvassing at the British General Election of 1997. Pattie and Johnston reiterate the findings of Gerber and Green and warn “it would be premature and counterproductive for parties to write off their electoral activists” as “face-to-face canvassing paid electoral dividends.” 146 p 322

Denver and Hands et al in Constituency Campaigning in Britain 1992-2001: Centralization and Modernization”. Write that constituency (local) campaigning in British general elections has been transformed over the past ten years or so. Firstly, national party headquarters have taken an increasingly large role in planning and managing constituency campaigns. Although the pace of change has varied across the major parties, all are heading down the same road. Secondly, campaigning on the ground has also changed. Technological and other changes have led to a decline in the use of traditional campaign techniques and increased use of new methods, especially in `key’ seats.

In her 2005 research paper for the Australian Parliamentary Library Sarah Miskin stated that in the 2004 federal election, “Direct mail continued to be an important campaign tool, especially in the marginal electorates. The media estimated that the two major parties spent $5 million each on this method of wooing voters. A 2001 study found that such spending was justified because direct-mail and letterbox-drop literature was the primary source of policy information for 41 per cent of those canvassed.”

Miskin also cites Errington and van Onselen as having “discussed the sophisticated national databases that the major parties now maintain in order to build profiles of voter interests and target party messages accordingly”.

Errington’s and van Onselen’s paper “Electoral Databases: Big Brother or Democracy Unbound?” is very detailed in it’s explanations of political databases like the Liberal Pparty’s Feedback program.

Miskin also quotes their article in the Sydney Morning Herald “X files are keeping odds stacked in favour of MPs” where they state

Databases are all about helping political parties ensure that their messages are relevant to the recipients. The big parties are already spending less money on broadcast advertising and diverting their resources towards more targeted campaigns.”

Miskin notes the criticisms from some political commentators “that sitting MPs were able to use taxpayer ‘bucks’—in the form of parliamentary printing and mail allowances—to pay for their direct mail.

In an interview with Age reporter Michelle Grattan, Former Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger was quoted as saying that the benefits of incumbency (including staff, office and phone as well as printing and mail allowances) were worth $1.5 million to an MP over three years.

Mills describes in detail how “the advent of direct mail to Australian politics highlights the American derivation of many of our new political technologies.” Richard Viguerie “is the acknowledged high priest of direct mail” and he “encouraged the Liberals to become the first Australian party to use direct mail.” Using Viguerie’s advice, the Liberals became successful fundraisers in the early 1980s, “utilising the American techniques in copyrighting and list management.” Because of the size of the American market, their commercial techniques are naturally more thoroughly tested and proven. In 1984 The NSW Liberal’s Key Electorates Appeal direct mail fundraising campaign won a gold medal from the Australian Direct Marketing Association.”

Mills writes that “the secret of direct mail is emotionalism. Direct mail copywriters have an old formula called AIDA, an acronym for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. According to one direct mail specialist, the message has to be extreme…” But this extremism in language can backfire in an Australian context. Mills writes that “the moderate success of the (Liberal fundraising) election mailing was marred by the resentment caused amongst some swinging voters by the forceful language used in the letters.” This is particularly concerning given the compulsory voting laws in Australia and highlights a weakness in adopting American campaign techniques without some consideration of the need to adapt or modify them for the Australian political landscape.

New technologies are anticipated. Recent use of sms as a local organising tool, for internal communications such as to alert candidates and volunteers to campaign messages and activities are becoming more widespread. Although there have been examples of sms use in public campaigning, it is still in its infancy, mostly likely restricted by the ability to send out a thoughtful and intelligent message in 160 characters or less! Sally Young writes about a recent example in a Gold Coast by-election in which nightclub owners supported an independent campaign against the incumbent Mayor, who was proposing to restrict club opening hours. The nightclub owners collected mobile numbers during a promotion with their clients and used those numbers to send several messages to their clients including “Gary Baildon thinks your vote won’t count because you’re young and go to nightclubs. He wants you in bed by 3am. Don’t let him tell you what to do! Vote him out!”

Plasser notes that the new campaign techniques, as modelled on lessons and observations from the US, have not replaced traditional Australian campaign techniques but have, as Warhurst describes, “been superimposed on the latter and has displaced it from the focus of attention.” He writes that “although there seems to be plenty of evidence that Australian campaign styles have moved closer toward the US model” there is also “convincing evidence for the viability of prevailing country- and culture-specific Australian campaign styles, determined by regulatory frameworks, the alternative preference vote, compulsory voting, public finance of elections, and the party-driven dynamics of political competition.”

Not all that is written about local campaign techniques by political parties in Australia is accurate because the parties have until recently gone to great lengths to maintain competitive advantages over their rivals by keeping details about various techniques confidential. In his book on the 1987 campaign Warhurst writes (based on a couple of different newspaper reports) that the ALP used “a telephone survey called Polfile” and in one electorate alone “sixty-five separate personalised letters were sent to electors selected through telephone surveying”. Most likely this second-hand account describes the use of a direct mail and database program called Polfile (the clunkier predecessor to the ALP’s Electrac, which Errington and van Onselen have written about extensively). Polfile is not a telephone survey, although it can feasibly be used to generate the contact or calling lists for such a survey, as can any list based on the electoral roll and white pages, both publicly available through commercial sources such as those described earlier.

Previous notes about the 2005-2007 ACTU YRAW campaign have referred to its importance in framing debate during federal election and the online component, but it is important to remember that its success was largely based on its mobilisation effort.

Under the sub-heading “UNION MOBILISATION—SOME IMPLICATIONS” in the article Election 2007: Did the union campaign succeed? Spies-Butcher and Wilson explain that “In America, politics in recent years have been shaped by greater mobilisation of the union vote for the Democrats under a reformist AFL-CIO leadership that won office in 1996 (and their new rivals in the ‘Change to Win’ coalition). Union mobilisation of the vote is an offshoot of political unionism that (recognises)… the union movement depends not only on a strong shopfloor presence but on a favourable legal and political environment as well.” The lessons of union mobilisation in the US were applied successfully by the ACTU and its affiliates in Australia in 2007. “Like the American labour movement, the ACTU has offset its declining natural constituency by more strongly mobilising its remaining membership, renewing it in the process. And so the tactics the ACTU employed during the 2007 election were much closer to those of a grass roots mobilisation than to the simple increase in resources, or targeted promises, that accompany other marginal seat campaigns. This is important both in highlighting the continuing power and importance of the union movement in Australia, and in opening up the possibility of the broader significance of electoral mobilisation by social movements. Perhaps the era of activist electoral politics is not yet dead, but waiting to be remobilised.”

Andrew Leigh’s home-grown studies (with some theoretical underpinning from US and UK research) demonstrate very elaborate investigation into demographics and electoral behaviour. Using “a large repeated cross-sectional dataset from 1966 to 2001” Leigh undertakes innovative research which shows partisan tendencies based on various demographic characteristics such as wealth, neighbourhood, age, gender and immigration.