Peter Brent (@Mumbletwits) casts a sceptical eye over opinion polls and the media’s obsession with them
I like Peter Brent (and so does Malcolm Mackerras) even though I disagree with his obsessive criticism of Wayne Swan and Penny Wong, both of whom I admire greatly. For those minor faults though Peter has a world of wisdom to share about politics and political science. Despite his reluctance to be labelled a psephologist he does have a very good grasp of election numbers, “the vibe” and “common sense” when it comes to interpreting polls and election results.
Me in Inside Story getting, um, meta on opinion polls. http://t.co/fwhiM9gqSM
— Peter Brent (@mumbletwits) August 7, 2014
As a party professional I have been privileged to have access and use of opinion polling and must admit that I have learnt to always treat it VERY carefully. Peter is correct in that it is often misinterpreted and misused, not just in the mainstream media. At a recent Campaign Management and Political Marketing Workshop at Sydney University one of the highlights was a presentation by Stephen Mills from UMR, in defence of opinion polls. I’ll share those insights in a future post!
Here are some highlights from Peter Brent’s latest work on opinion polls and pollsters (full text here at inside.org.au If-an-election-had-been-held-on-the-weekend) and if you haven’t subscribed to Inside.org.au yet, seriously, what are you waiting for?
“Within the political class, Newspoll is the most watched and most influential. Published every second Tuesday in the Australian, the poll results are interpreted for readers by the paper’s political writers. It’s that interpretation – captured in headlines and opening paragraphs – that’s repeated, largely unquestioned, on ABC radio news bulletins and in other media across the country. No one holds a gun to their heads to force them to follow the Australian line, but something about the news-creation process means that they do. It’s probably just the path of least resistance.”
“The routine preface to the media reporting of survey results – “If an election had been held on the weekend…” – is terribly misleading. No poll can tell us what result an election last weekend, preceded by a campaign, would have thrown up. A pollster contacts a person and asks him or her to imagine there is an election today – and how would you vote? It’s a preposterously hypothetical and artificial exercise: a silly question eliciting silly answers.”
“Even after an over-hyped Malaysia Airlines–induced “boost” in satisfaction ratings, the most recent Newspoll had Tony Abbott on just 36 per cent satisfaction and the government trailing in voting intentions after preferences 46 to 54. At the equivalent time in his prime ministership, Kevin Rudd enjoyed 65 per cent satisfaction and the government led 54 to 46. John Howard was on 52 per cent satisfaction and the Coalition was in front 53 to 47. But Rudd didn’t even make it to the next election. Howard did, and scraped back, and then comfortably won two more. The Abbott government might be performing “badly” in the opinion polls but today’s numbers mean almost nothing. At the same time they mean a lot, because political players can’t ignore the way they influence what the media sees as the “narrative.”
“Abbott would be aware that if the polls continue as they are, speculation will arise about his prime ministership. His actions will increasingly be interpreted through the polls. On the Labor side, new rules have provided institutional ballast to the leadership, but they can be easily reversed. One day the forty-fourth parliament will end, and we’ll be starting a new one, most likely with a re-elected Coalition government. The mid-2014 polls will be long forgotten, and probably, with hindsight, judged laughably unreliable.”
If you have time after reading that article above by Peter you might also want to read the one in the link below. As I said on twitter when I shared it – I don’t agree with all of it but I’m still quite keen to read part 2! 🙂
Me rating various MPs' political skills. Beginning with one Georgey Brandis: http://t.co/wnstxkKtlr
— Peter Brent (@mumbletwits) August 8, 2014
The Literature Review Part 4 – the ‘Air War’: advertising, earned media, TV, the Internet and new technologies
Comparing the ‘Air War’: advertising, earned media, TV, the Internet and new technologies
Competitive Australian political practitioners have always been keen to learn from the most professional democracy industry and innovators in the world. Young describes Labor’s experimentation with TV in the 1960s “Part of their inspiration and source of some of their ideas came from observing US elections and imitating American campaign techniques.”
Using documents from the National Library, Young writes that “In 1964, Cyril S Wyndham, the general Secretary of the Labor Party, had argued in an internal memo that “Ultimately, the Party will have to face up to the need for an effective television scheme” (Sourced from NLA manuscripts, MS4985, Box 141, folder 178, 1964. ‘Improvement in public relations – Memo from General Secretary to the national organising Committee.’)”
Bob Hogg describes how the 1966 federal election campaign led by Arthur Calwell “was at the exact moment (in Australian politics) when the hall meeting was overtaken by television.” Hogg’s explanation though is that this TV revolution did not occur for any reason of American influence or presidentialisation of the campaign. He explains that the campaign simply continued earlier practices of focussing on the leader “just as it did in Curtin and Chifley’s days” and the “capacity of the leader to handle new forms of communication had always been critical to a successful campaign”. He goes on to explain that the leader’s campaign effort was but one piece in a complicated jigsaw and successful Australian political campaigns require a similar effort (to that of the leader) from the whole front bench as well as local members.
Young states that the “revolutionary” nature of the “It’s time” TV ads was the way it transformed the techniques used and replaced the “dull talking heads of a speaker talking to the camera” with a market-tested slogan. Young also points to influences from a famous American book “The Selling Of the President” by Joe McGinnis, which gave an inside account of the lead up to the 1968 US presidential election. Nixon’s staffers were told to ‘give him words to say that will show his emotional involvement in the issues. He is inclined to be too objective, too much the lawyer building a case, too cold and logical.” Two years later, the market research prepared by ‘Spectrum International’ for the ALP advised the lawyer Whitlam to ‘state his policies in emotional rather than factual terms’.
In 1984 a book was written by Ed Diamond, which followed a study of political TV ads and concluded that all followed “an unwritten style book of conventions”. The book The Spot outlines four phases of a typical advertising campaign: Introduction, Argument, Attack and Vision.
Mills identifies several shortcomings in the Diamond theory, namely that there is no allowance for targeting, there is the assumption that the audience for all the ads is similar and the uniqueness of the Australian context, where a two-type typology is more logical: negative and positive. Yet Mills gives a detailed account of one example of a US TV attack/negative ad (the 1956 Democrat ad against Eisenhower) in which a “How’s that again?” is used to highlight and question a statement by the opposition candidate and undermine their credibility. Mills explains that both Labor and Liberal parties used a similar ad in 1975.
Since 1984, every Australian federal election campaign except 1987 has featured a televised leader’s debate. McAllister notes in The Personalization of Politics (2005) that “the popular focus on leaders is now commonplace across almost all the major parliamentary systems, where parties once occupied centre stage.” McAllister identifies the common explanation of “the growth of electronic media” but also states that “no single explanation accounts for the increasing personalisation of politics in democratic societies and that what has been occurring is complex and multi-causal.”
Plasser writes that now “campaigns are fought and won on television” and “numerous studies have dealt with the impact of television on prevailing campaign practices from a comparative perspective, reaching more or less identical conclusions: television has changed campaign practices in an unprecedented way.”
Mills describes the “manifestation of what American researchers have labelled the metacampaign – competition for favourable judgements from the political elite (pollsters, senior journalists, donors, etc.) about their ‘electability’.” Mills explain how “each of which has a multiplier effect amongst the general voting population.”
Reporting designed primarily for political junkies such as Sky News would further exacerbate Mills’ “multiplier effect”. Sky News captures only 0.5 per cent of the Australian TV audience but is compulsory viewing for campaign and political professionals and those who write about them. Modern online communities described as “netroots” and “blogocracy” also sometimes persuade stories and opinions in the mainstream media. The metacampaign and its multiplier effect are further complicated by the filtering of political message which the mainstream media conducts as a matter of course. Sally Young found “that the average election-news story is only two minutes long – and during this story, the reporter and host speak for more than half the time while politicians speak only in 7 second soundbites”. Worse still were examples from “town halls-style” speeches such as the Liberal Party campaign launch where “John Howard delivered a speech for 42 minutes but that night on the evening news, voters heard only 10.4 seconds of it. We know from American research that the soundbite has shrunk over time, keeps on shrinking and that they have less soundbites on their news compared to ours. So, if we follow American trends in news production – and we often seem to – this will happen here as well.”
Philip Senior wrote in 2007 that “Although the influence of political leaders in determining electoral outcomes has been the subject of research in the United States and Canada for a number of decades (see Stokes, Campbell and Miller 1958; Miller and Levitin 1976), it is only since the 1980s that it has received scholarly attention in Australia. Over the past two decades a significant volume of research has emerged examining the existence of leadership effects in Australian elections, and the fact that the popularity of party leaders exerts an influence on vote choice is now well established Leadership effects are significant and visible features of national elections, and have regularly accounted for 1–2% of the national vote, and as much as 4% or more on some occasions”. However, Senior’s analysis reveals that the evidence does not support the conclusion that voters have become more sensitive to evaluations of major party leaders over the period examined (six federal elections from 1990–2004).
In a 2002 study “Television Effects and Voter Decision Making in Australia: A Re-examination of the Converse Model” Denemark used Australian data “to re-examine Converse’s thesis that the mass media’s electoral effects are felt most strongly amongst voters with the lowest levels of political interest and awareness.” His results show that voters with the lowest levels of prior political awareness are the most responsive to effects of overall television news exposure, and they employ those media cues in their vote decisions late in the campaign.
‘Earned media’ can be used to repeat and promote advertisements which would otherwise go unnoticed by the general public. The key is to get the interest of the professional media in reporting aspects of the political strategy, message or plan.
Greg Daniel was Managing Director of the NSW Liberal Party’s advertising firm The Campaign Palace in 1987 and also discusses the Liberal TV ads which appeared during their ‘dress rehearsal’ prior to the 1988 election: “We needed the dress rehearsal particularly to convince the media that we were a professional unit. Until that time they’d regarded us – with some degree of correctness – as a bit of a joke in terms of our ability to organise and run a campaign. So we had to change that perception and one of the simplest ways to impress journalists seems to be with television commercials. So we prepared one that said we were ready when we weren’t. The commercial was made with the hope that it would galvanise the party into believing it was ready and members would start acting out the role the commercial portrayed, with Greiner as Premier already. This is a lesson we learnt from Brian Dale’s book (Ascent to Power, Wran and the Media, Allen and Unwin, 1985) about Wran’s win in ‘75/’76. Labor created the feeling of the inevitability of government.
Andrew Hughes defined negative advertising as advertising that targets the attacked candidate’s weakness in issues or image and that highlights the sponsoring candidate’s strengths in these areas by sending a negatively framed message.
Sally Young describes how there is a large body of US research which has found that the use of negative political advertising grew dramatically in the US during the 1980s and 1990s. In Australia however there has been only “informal speculation” that variously describes the increasing negativity of TV advertising as the “Americanisation” of Australian political advertising or “American-style TV attack ads”.
Sally Young also refers to writing by Ward & Cook (1992) which expresses fear that there are considerable dangers to democracy in Australia ‘whilst the parties continue to imitate American campaign methods.’
In a 2004 parliamentary library research note Political Advertising In Australia Sarah Miskin and Richard Grant explore some important aspects of Australian political advertising, including the current legislation, the debates over ‘truth’ in content and the claims that Australia’s political parties are opting for ‘Americanised’ election advertisements “primarily based on negative or ‘attack’ advertising”. An accusation by former Labor leader Mark Latham that a Liberal Party advertisement targeting his alleged failings as a mayor was ‘dishonest’ and ‘personal’ and reflected ‘American-style negative advertising’ contradicts findings from political scientists like Sally Young who show that, “rather than reflecting a shift to Americanised techniques, negativity in campaigning was already a quite distinctly Australian feature”, although she “acknowledges that a more recent move towards personalised, rather than general, negative advertising in Australia can be seen to reflect American campaign-advertising styles.”
Sally Young’s research shows that “comparing the results with overseas studies which have used the same methodology suggests that negative political advertising is higher in Australia than in most comparable Western democracies—including the US. However, there are still some important differences in emphasis. Negative ads in the U.S. focus more on the personal characteristics of opponents than in Australia—where negative ads still generally focus on policy and performance issues.” Young also writes that her research suggests that “negative advertising in Australia is not an entirely new trend, nor a result of ‘Americanisation’” but has in fact “a long history in Australia” due to a fiercely partisan two-party adversarial system”.
In an article of the 1998 Australian federal election in the journal Electoral Studies, David Butler writes “Both sides spent heavily on extensive and overwhelmingly negative television advertising. Voters in marginal seats received a lot of direct mail.”
Sally Young compared the ads in the 2000 US presidential election, where “71% of American ads contained a personal attack, compared to only 6% of ads used in the nearest Australian election in 2001.” But in 1993 “a massive 75% of federal election ads in Australia were negative compared to 37% of American political ads in 1992.”
One would expect this negativity in Australian ads, whilst already much higher than American comparisons, will actually increase over coming years since regulations were dramatically liberalised in the 2004 federal election when “the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations (FACTS) ceased its self-appointed role of scrutinizing the content of political ads for veracity after discovering that the requirements of the Trade Practices Act of 1974 did not apply to political advertising.”
Young also quotes an observation by Stephen Mills and H O’Neil (of which I have been unable to find an original copy) that “Australian ads deal… more with arguing and attacking than American ads”.
No historical overview of negative political advertising in Australia would be complete without discussion of ‘John Henry Austral’, a character in a radio drama created by Sim Rubensohn, Liberal advertising agent in 1948. Mills describes Menzies re-election in 1949 as “the first use in Australian politics of recognisable ‘modern’ advertising techniques.”
Don Whitington, in his book, The Rulers, describes Menzies as the first Australian politician to seriously exploit the electronic media and to cultivate a public image through extensive PR work.
Bridget Griffen-Foley describes how the Liberals Federal President Richard Casey wrote to Menzies “about a discovery he made as ambassador in Washington. Casey learned from American friends about a new profession called ‘Public Relations’ that had developed in the 1930s. After consulting a leading practitioner in New York, Casey became convinced of the need to create a favourable atmosphere to advance one’s cause.”
Casey hired Rubensohn in 1947 after learning he had split from his former federal Labor employers over the Chifley Government’s plans to nationalise banks. In a letter to Menzies in 1949 (cited by Sally Young from the National library) , Rubensohn describes his preference for negative advertising:
“My experience is that vigorous attack directed against chinks in the other man’s political armour is of vital importance in assuring the effectiveness of election advertising. I feel very strongly on this point. I am convinced that non-militant advertising no matter how ‘positive’ its underlying message may be, is ineffectual, lacks attention value, is unconvincing and a waste of money.”
Rubensohn utilised the popular radio drama format of the 30s and 40s to deliver Menzies’ political message into the lounge rooms of Australian voters. He created a character ‘John Henry Austral’ who, according to Mills “for more than 18 months presented dramatised accusations to the nation about the Chifley Government’s socialist sins.”
Mills delves deeply into the John Henry Austral story and bases much of his analysis on the archived letters between Menzies and Rubensohn held in the national Library, as well as thesis by Sim Rubensohn’s daughter Victoria Braund titled Themes in political advertising, Australian Federal Election campaigns 1949-1972. There is also an online article by Robert Crawford Modernising Menzies, Whitlam, and Australian Elections which cites Mills and Braund and links the two campaigns and “their innovative use of electronic media” as the prime examples “which helped usher Australian politics into the modern era”.
It’s clear from the descriptions that Austral’s commentaries were a clever combination of anti-communist fear-mongering and nationalist concerns. Mills explains that “Austral’s preference for the Liberal Party as the panacea to the nation’s problems was never too deeply hidden’ but that Austral “presented himself as an independent commentator whose Liberal sympathies sprang less from partisanship than from nationalism and common-sense rejection of the amorphous and emotional horrors that Labor was inflicting.” The Liberals spent a relative fortune on this radio campaign and used it as a complement to another advertising idea borrowed from America “Country Quiz” which the Liberal party sponsored. Mills states it was estimated that the Liberals spent a million pounds winning the 1949 federal election. The important lessons of the campaign (such as the use of electronic media to broadcast aggressive and emotional advertising as well as the centralisation of the campaign in the federal party organisation) “were not repeated for the 23 years of Liberal rule. Even after Rubensohn came back to the Labor side, such a campaign was financially impossible and probably politically impossible too.”
Victoria Rubensohn writes that during the 23 years of Liberal rule following the 1949 election, “Australian elections tended to be fought with pre-war, pre-mass-media techniques” with text heavy print advertisements of policy promises and dogma.
It was not until the 1972 ‘It’s Time” campaign that electronic advertising seemed to again play such a dramatic role in an Australian election. Again, Rubensohn was part of the team, his agency having previously merged with the American advertising giant McCann Erikson. Mills writes that the “It’s Time” campaign “bears most of the Austral insurgency hallmarks of long-term advertising and disciplined centralisation.”
Wherever there is negative advertising there is also a need to counter it. Sally Young writes in 2005 that “Aside from ‘It’s the economy stupid’, it’s less well known that Bill Clinton’s campaign team had another unofficial slogan in 1992: ‘Speed Kills’,” referring to the need to speed and flexibility to make response ads and get them on air quickly.
We saw a great example of this in 2007 during the federal election when Labor used a video image of Kevin Rudd turning off a TV attack ad which had been aired by the Liberals (the day before) with a remote control and then addressing the camera to deal with the allegations. The Liberals responded with a spoof of the Labor ad, showing Howard turn off the original Labor response ad. Comedians on the TV program “The Chaser” then stretched the concept to the limit, showing a continuous loop of people turning off each other’s TV ads with remotes.
Mills details one of the earliest instances of successful negative TV advertising during the 1980 federal election when “The Liberals broadcast one of the most negative television commercials of Australia’s political history, the famous ‘wealth tax’ advertisement which haunted middle Australia with the threat of new Labor taxes on home owning.” Despite “Bill Hayden’s Labor’s Opposition putting together the most disciplined research and communications campaign it had ever managed, one that was clearly better than the Government’s” and Hayden “regularly polling better than Malcolm Fraser”, Fraser was returned to office.
Lynton Crosby, in his post-1998-election analysis, explained that negative advertising is not meant to be liked or enjoyed “Political advertising is unique, a fact that the dozens of marketing and advertising experts who seem to be wheeled out to make commentary during and after a campaign do not seem to understand. Election advertising is not designed to be liked but rather to have an effect on people’s voting behaviour”
During the recent 2007 federal election, the Howard Government attacked Labor’s new leader Kevin Rudd repeatedly and also attacked the Labor brand using scare campaigns about ‘wall-to-wall Labor’, ‘Union bullies’ and Peter Garrett’s environmental policies, all to little effect. In her essay Exit Right. The unravelling of John Howard Judith Brett describes how Howard’s attacks on Rudd surprised even the visiting American pollster Frank Luntz, who described them as “the most blunt terminology I have ever seen a leader use”. Luntz joked that for every question journalists asked Howard, he found a way to criticise Rudd with the answer. “If someone asks him: Where’s the toilet? He answers: Exactly where Australia will be if Kevin Rudd becomes the Prime Minister”
Commentating on the recent CLP comeback in the Northern territory in August 2007, Senator Mark Arbib wrote “While some people think that wedge politics originated in the USA with the Republicans, it was the CLP who specialised in it much earlier: using law and order to drive a wedge between the local indigenous and white community. It’s a tactic that has helped them win many elections and almost got them home last Saturday.”
It is important to remember that the systemic differences between US and Australian elections result in different strategies being pursued by seemingly similar campaign techniques. Many US studies focus measurement of campaign effect by looking at voter turnout, which can be more easily measured than subjective statements about why people vote a certain way based on the effects of persuasive arguments and messages. It is often suggested that one of the electoral strategies in negative campaigning in the US is “voter suppression” or “turnout suppression”, where the content and volume of negative messages and materials dampens turnout. Gerber, Green and Green conducted randomised field experiments which “indicate partisan campaign mail does little to stimulate voter turnout and may even dampen it when the mail is negative in tone” As far as the author could find, no similar randomised studies exist about the effect in Australian elections. 31
During the 2006 US congressional elections the author witnessed first hand the results of a local Republican voter suppression strategy and techniques utilising robocalls targeted at Democrat voters in Philadelphia. One voter called to complain to the Democrat campaign after receiving three messages in four hours. Each pro-Republican call misleadingly began, “Hello, I’m calling with information about Lois Murphy…” and many were received late at night and early in the morning, designed to inconvenience and upset Democrat supporters who would hang up on the calls before hearing the Republican tag at the end. Many called the campaign office, mistakenly believing the calls were made by the Murphy campaign and disgusted that the Democrat campaign would harass voters in such a way.
There have been many reports about the long-term ill-effects of negative advertising on democracy and voter turnout, as well as explanations of why negative advertising is used. In Does negative advertising work? Harris and Kolovos list numerous marketing-based principals (such as differentiating candidates, memorable messaging, newsworthiness) as well as electoral effects (motivating your base and suppressing your opposition turnout). 114
Mills is adamant in his 1986 book that “largely American-derived marketing techniques” have changed Australian politics “beyond recognition” – but have they? Recent innovations since the 1970s have certainly made politics more professional and expensive but the fundamentals of political success remain the same, if not the technology that is used to help deliver a political message. One of his assertions seems premature (with the benefit of hindsight): “The old ways – stump speeches, town hall meetings, closely typed handbills (ok, he’s right on the money with that one) – have given way to computers and TV and public opinion polls and group discussions and phone polls and direct mail.”
Former ALP National Secretary Bob Hogg is critical of “sentimental arguments” decrying the end of town hall meetings, as well as suggestions that modern campaigns being “too presidential”. In his chapter Hawke the campaigner, from The Hawke government: a critical retrospective Hogg writes that “We have moved from hall and street meetings simply because people now rarely turn up. Decades ago such meetings in much smaller communities were a part of the mass communication of the times. They no longer are. Television and radio are the most effective ways to reach a mass audience.”
But have much of “the old ways” that Mills and Hogg refer to been replaced? Or has the form of mass communication changed to suit various candidates and campaign managers? The lead up to the 2004 federal election saw a revival of the “campaign bus” concept, itself borrowed from the campaign trains and buses of US political history. Although the final result of the Latham campaign bus was immersed in a wider political tragedy, the localised results were impressive, with 600-800 people cramming school halls and bowling clubs for a turn at the microphone and the Leader’s ear. The nightly news predictably focused on the one or two hecklers at each event, rather than the vast majority of participants who were enthusiastic participants in an “old style” unscripted town hall meeting.
2004 also saw the direct import of some email and sms spamming techniques from the US into Australia via Prime Minister John Howard’s son, who had spent some time working closely with US republicans in George Bush’s office. Julianne Stewart described how “Several Liberal MPs used Howard’s son’s Internet company to send email spam to their electorates” and were able to do so because “political and religious organisations are exempt from recent anti-spamming legislation in Australia.”
In the 2006 Queensland election both parties produced websites that, although far from cutting edge, indicated that the internet had become a permanent feature of Australian campaigns. Stephen Dann disparaged the Coalition website from a political marketing perspective explaining “Visually, technically and politically, this is a campaign website that needs five fab web designers and a makeover. The unspoken message from the site is a political campaign nightmare – the design is old, the reference to the PM makes it seem like qldcoalition.com isn’t really a state website, and placement of the policy link as the last on the page says volumes about the party’s priorities. None of this is probably intentional, but it’s all harmful to the political message. This site looks marginally better than you’d expect at Yahoo!Geocities but is definitely is getting beaten at any point in the web design spectrum by the TeamBeattie site.” Describing both sites “There are no revolutionary new media techniques, no adoption of the cutting edge, and that’s probably for the best. Political campaigning as we currently recognise it is incompatible with the open platform “spaces people use” approach of Web 2.0, and far more at home in the Web 1.0 “place you go” style. If you were looking for a revolution in Internet politics at the state level, you’ll have to wait for the next election.”
A few months later in early 2007, the NSW state election brought one new aspect to internet political campaigning – the humorous “jib-jab” style of cartoon singing parody. A Labor YouTube video cartoon and jingle “In the Liberals” made fun of Liberal Leader Peter Debnam, a former naval officer, to the tune of the famous Village People song In the navy. The video’s appearance on mainstream TV helped publicise the anti-Liberal YouTube website http://www.youtube.com/user/debnamrecord.
The humour of YouTube cannot work in isolation. The animation described above summarised the widely held opinion in the mass media that the opposition leader was not a serious contender. The image of him in his speedos came to define that assessment.
One of the unexpected effects of YouTube has been to revive interest and appreciation in some aspects of old-style campaigning, namely good speeches and quick-witted responses during debates and interviews. Within hours of an impressive candidate speech by presidential hopeful Barack Obama or a mistake by President George Bush, it appears on the web for all who care to see and make their own judgement.
In September 2007 the E-Voter institute in the US published an extensive report about the latest developments in Internet campaigning. It is important to look at because it identified several weaknesses in the trend to more online campaigning: voters prefer TV ads as a medium for information from candidates; internet tools are seen as effective for reaching liberal activists (but not conservatives); and online social networking sites a good for “creating a buzz” and “spreading a message” but not necessarily effective stimulants for traditional political activism.
It will be interesting to see if the research following this year’s presidential election bucks these trends, particularly as there have been many recent report that some traditional campaign activities (such as fundraising) are now done just as efficiently online as using traditional techniques (phone and mail).
The 2007 Australian federal election was often referred to as “the YouTube election” (as was the 2006 US mid-term election). Macnamara uses media content analysis to find the term was used no less than 19 times in the mainstream media in the three months prior to the election date. Some of the “new media” which is identified in E-Electioneering – Use of New Media in the 2007 Australian Federal Election includes: Political and election related Web sites including personal Web sites of political candidates; political party Web sites; and independent Web sites including http://www.federalelection.com.au; http://www.google.com.au/election2007; http://www.electiontracker.net; http://www.Youdecide2007.org; Senator On-Line (www.senatoronline.org.au); and GetUp (www.getup.org.au); Blogs of political candidates such as The Bartlett Diaries (www.andrewbartlett.com/blog) and independent election-related blogs such as Crikey (www.crikey.com.au); http://www.newmatilda.com and Possum Pollytics (www.possumcomitatus.wordpress.com); [author – he omits the popular mumble.com.au and Pollbludger.com.au]; Vlogs (video Web logs); MySpace sites (www.myspace.com); Facebook sites (www.facebook.com); YouTube (www.youtube.com); Chat rooms and online forums; Wikis; E-newsletters (online or downloadable in PDF format); E-surveys (online surveys); and other online communication such as online petitions. Macnamara concludes that the effect of new media is still patchy as participation rates are still low, particularly compared to the US, with its higher use of broadband. He also concurs with a recent American study that “some level of digitally-enhanced democracy is occurring” but that the medium is still dominated by official channels.
McAllister and Gibson use figures from the 2007 Australian Election Study to demonstrate the growing importance of new web 2.0 technologies to the modern Australian campaign. From a professional campaign perspective, a randomised field study would be required to support their conclusions of the “significant electoral advantage that accrues to candidates who possess a personal website” however their findings about the turning point that has been reached with these new campaign tools is beyond question. The AES found that “voters themselves reported considerably more use of the internet to access election news than at any time in the past.” Although “the Internet is still far behind television as a source of election news”, “it is rapidly catching up with newspapers and radio.” McAllister and Gibson write how the Kevin07 website “became synonymous with the message of engagement, openness and progressive change that Labor and particularly their leader, sought to embody. Mirroring the efforts of the US presidential candidates, the pages contained numerous calls for voters to donate, volunteer, spread the word online and contribute to Kevin’s blog, as well as links through to his pages on MySpace, Facebook and an official YouTube video channel.
McAllister quotes a Chen and Walsh study which criticised politician’s websites for “low functionality, with basic search and feedback facilities existing on less than half of the sites examined”. Even though they conclude that the use of web campaigning has become more complex, there is no critique of poor political website or Internet practice in the McAllister and Gibson. Practitioners in 2007 and in previous elections are aware of many poor political websites which could possibly lose as many votes as they earn, so there is certainly more room for some case study analysis, combined with randomised sampling to try and measure the effect of different styles of web campaigning and focus on different functionality (video, policy information, still photos, biography, blogging, interactivity, etc.) affects electoral outcome. Practitioners (mostly MPs and their campaign teams) who don’t understand the statistical science behind McAllister’s study will predictably react with the notion that their conclusions about correlation are beyond dispute but that the causal links between web activity and electoral success are still in doubt due to the numerous local, candidate, national and state factors which may not have been considered in the statistics. The author witnessed such an exchange of ideas between an MP and McAllister and Gibson, during a discussion about their 2006 paper linking electoral success in the 2004 election and online campaigning, and the authors have since written “whether such conversion power can be attributed to the viewing of a website is clearly debatable”. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the disputed premise of their earlier study has in fact proven to be correct from a practitioner’s viewpoint, given the electoral benefits of the Kevin07 online campaign. But it is debatable which elements of the online campaign can be successfully replicated by individual MPs and parties in the future. The practitioners will always be primarily concerned with any electoral competitive advantage that can be gained from such analysis and where they cannot discern it, will revert to methods they believe are more effective.
Supporting views from Miskin, Bruns and Kissane add weight to the argument that one specific aspect of their online campaign, both party’s YouTube postings, were primarily targeted at journalists in the mainstream media, in a successful strategy to capture airtime on TV and online news sites “rather than “craft a message to suit the medium”.
Australian characters have also featured in American online campaigning discourse. In the lead up to the 2007 federal election, Prime Minister John Howard made a widely reported and unveiled attack on Barack Obama and the US Democrats when he described the US Presidential Primary contest and likely win by Barack Obama: “If I were running al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.” Obama, campaigning in Iowa, told reporters he was flattered that one of Bush’s allies “started attacking me the day after I announced (his presidential run) – I take that as a compliment.” The Democratic presidential hopeful said if the Australian Prime Minister was “ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq,” he needs to send another 20,000 Australians to the war, “otherwise, it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”
Within hours, US television networks were reporting the exchange and it was only a matter of time before comedians like Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report (which humorously poses as a neo-conservative media show) joined in the fray when he let fly with a stereotype-laden retort that was widely distributed via YouTube:
“Bravo Prime Minister, or as they say in Australia, didgeridoo your mateship. (audience laughs) I guess now we know what those kangaroos are hiding in their pouches, (gestures with hands) kookaburra-sized balls (laughter). The conservative Howard knows that in this war you are either with us, or you’re a Democrat (laughter). Which brings me to my next wag of the finger, (pointing sternly at camera) to Australian Prime Minister John Howard, for slamming a citizen of the United States (laughter). Listen you sawed off wallaby, we know ‘fosters’ is Australian for ‘beer’ but what’s Australian for ‘shut your damned trap’? (laughter) Keep your shrimp-stained fingers off Barack Obama. (laughter) Leave the ad hominem attacks on him to Americans. Why don’t you go back to worrying about your little cane toad problem and the fact that your whole damned country’s descended from criminals? (laughter) Oh, and the next time you’re ‘Waltzing with Matilda’, you might want to check out her Adam’s apple, ‘cause she’s a dude! (Audience in uncontrollable laughter, while Colbert composes himself and shuffles papers together, adjust suit and glasses). That being said, I agree with everything he said.”
In many ways the new technologies have replaced more traditional forms of political entertainment that were once provided by Soap-box debates in forums such as Melbourne’s pubs or Sydney’s Domain.
Ian Ward wrote that the although both major parties in the 2007 election did develop a Web2.0 Internet campaign, neither major party engaged an online audience in their campaign in the way modern US campaigns do, or even the way the activist site GetUp has demonstrated is possible. The most watched YouTube political videos were not party ads, but satirical clips such as that produced by a Sydney law student depicting Kevin Rudd in the style of Mao Zedong in Chinese propaganda films, and take-offs of 80s music clips with lyrics that ridiculed John Howard.
Ward writes that “Labor’s pitch to the YouTube generation is one key to explaining the sizeable swing the ALP obtained on November 24. The key point to be made is not that Labor made effective use of Web2.0 to engage Generation YouTube, but that it was able to use its Kevin.07 website and Facebook, MySpace and YouTube to brand Rudd as a new generation leader with fresh ideas, and the ALP as the party of innovation. Relatively few Gen Y voters visited its website or downloaded its ads from Labor’s YouTube channel. Nonetheless Labor was able to employ its Internet presence as a marketing tool, to connect with younger voters more broadly, and to reverse the Liberals’ ascendancy amongst voters in the 18 to 34 age range.”
In an article describing the 2007 election debate about Industrial Relations, Diana Kelley wrote “Perhaps the most effective use of new media came through the progressivist and activist sites such as GetUp and, the ACTU directed Your Rights at Work. These offered opportunities not only to express ideas, debate and discuss issues, describe personal experiences, but most notably to be engaged in the election process, rather than as passive recipients of information.”
The most memorable (because they were the most entertaining) episodes of YouTube campaigning on the Internet were provided by highly engaged voters, operating without party instruction or affiliation. The best examples were from a 24 year old Sydney Law Student Hugh Atkin produced the now famous online “Chinese Propaganda Video” portraying Kevin Rudd as mandarin-speaking clone of Chairman Mao. So popular was this video that it was literally viewed by millions who saw it regularly rebroadcast on TV through shows like “Insiders”, “Sunrise” and various talk-shows. It was a great demonstration of the viral nature of humorous YouTube videos, especially the dramatic effect they can have if the virus leaps into another broadcast medium.
Another popular video was “John Howard 2007 Bennelong Time Since I Rock and Rolled” which was put together, along with many other anti-Howard online videos by a resident of Howard’s electorate of Bennelong, Stefan Sojka. Stefan’s experience as a creative director in a Sydney-based web design company meant he was armed and ready for the 2007 campaign and made the most of his creative humour and intimate knowledge of Howard and his policies to impress a growing online audience.
Macnamara describes how “most journalists and commentators reported that the ALP’s use of new media was more effective than the Liberal Party’s based on online feedback, viewer ratings, volumes of ‘friends’ and public discussion.”
It was frequently reported that the Kevin07 site followed the conventions of new media more closely and that Kevin Rudd was generally more comfortable and familiar with the protocols and etiquette of the Web. One journalist noted: “Launching his MySpace site in mid-July, [Kevin Rudd] deftly promised – in response to a teenager’s criticism that his website was ugly – that he was ‘having it pimped’” (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2007). Another reported that: “John Howard’s foray into YouTube was a complete flop, provoking hundreds of ‘mashups’ satirical responses attacking the PM and his policies. ‘It was like vultures picking at a carcass. Howard failed because he didn’t understand the medium and its rules. He just plonked himself in YouTube without even an introduction,’ [digital marketing expert Julian] Cole says. Kevin Rudd is choosing to campaign with his Kevin07 website, which links to his pages on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube: innovative media choices that Mr Cole says add weight to the ALP leader’s ‘fresh ideas’ philosophy” (The Age, 25 October 2007). Australia’s leading media buyer Harold Mitchell observed that John Howard appeared uncomfortable in his use of new media.
Some of the best users of the new ICTs have been third party groups like Unions and GetUp! In an online article on Crikey, Andrew Hughes explains “the influence of stakeholder groups has long been an issue in Australian politics. Some stakeholder groups have direct influence on the formulation of not just party policy, but party administration, choice of candidates and campaigning. The union movement still exerts a tremendous influence on the Labor Party and there is no doubt that business groups such as the Business Council of Australia have a direct influence on the Liberal Party. Even the so called minor parties are not free from the influence of stakeholder groups – the Greens are influenced by the larger organisations in the conservation movement such as the ACF, the Nationals by the NFF and Family First by the new religious churches such as Hillsong. In its short three years of operation GetUp! has grown more rapidly than any other political organisation in Australian history with its simple product offering people everywhere to have a say on the issue of their choice. They know their power is their massive membership base, particularly in the critical 18-39 age middle class segment. Ask any consumer goods marketer and they’ll tell you that if you can crack this segment then you can nearly control the market. No surprise then that this is now the hottest segment to control in politics. Win this segment and you win elections. GetUp!, with so many of its members falling into this category, has suddenly won a lot of friends and learned how to influence people. If it fails to act impartially then GetUp! will notice that the 18-39 segment is also fickle and will leave it in droves. GetUp! and other stakeholder groups are a fixture of Australian politics whose true influence we are only now beginning to see.
The use of TV commercials which have a strategic role in convincing the media of a theme or message continues and has expanded to include new technologies such as YouTube. In 2007 both sides effectively utilised the news media’s interest in the campaign to promote their message.
Commercials that only had a short run on TV, or in some cases, only appeared on the Internet, even though they were referred to misleadingly as “TV advertisements” got more “airtime” via news reporting of the message rather than the paid advertisements themselves.
In 2007, the media widely reported that the Labor Party was utilising a new campaign technique introduced to Australia by the Liberals in 2004. Automatic phone messages, often referred to in the US as ‘robocalls’ were copied directly by the Liberals from the US Republican campaign handbook. It was reported earlier that one of Mr Howard’s sons had worked on the 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign in the US. In October 2004, the following phone message was sent by the Liberal party to homes across Australia:
“Hello this is John Howard. I’ve taken the unusual step of contacting you with this recorded message to support your local Liberal candidate for Bowman, Andrew Laming. As part of my Federal Liberal team, Andrew Lamming … I know Andrew Lamming and I know he will get things done for Bowman. This is John Howard on behalf of Andrew Lamming. Thank you for your time.”
Unfortunately the 2004 calls seemed to generate a large amount of negative feedback. Robocalls a widely used in the US for a variety of purposes. So widespread is there use (and misuse) that legislation exists in a number of states to limit their use. The legislation is hamstrung by the fractured and inconsistent nature of state-based laws in the US, thus providing as many loopholes as restrictions for candidates and campaign teams in the use of this new weapon. In 2004 in Australia the headlines reporting this new campaign method included “Liberal telephone calls anger voters” and “Liberal phone spam doesn’t ring true, say unhappy targets.” ABC reporter Karen Barlow described how “phone spamming” is “just one of the new ways that political parties around the world are bypassing the mainstream media.” The complaints lodged with the ACA at the time included the use of unlisted numbers and mobile numbers (which resulted in reports of voters being charged to retrieve the phone message).
There was also speculation, although no evidence is provided, that the Liberal Party connection to Acxiom may have been a useful source of the telephone data. Axciom is a US-based international direct marketing technology company which had (prior to his preselection for the federal seat of Goldstein) Liberal Andrew Robb as its Australian Director. Prior to running Axciom for the Packer organisation, Rob was Liberal Deputy Director, then he was opposition leader Andrew Peacock’s chief of staff, and, in 1990, Liberal federal director. In that job he ran the 1993 and 1996 federal election campaigns for the Liberal Party.
Acxiom in Australia, established in 1999, is “a wholly owned subsidiary of US-based Acxiom Corporation. Until April 2002, Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL) owned 50%. PBL have retained a strategic interest in Acxiom Australia. For 33 years Acxiom Corporation has helped companies integrate and manage their internal customer data to increase marketing efficiency. Acxiom’s stock in trade includes merging customer data from disparate databases, mining this customer data, profiling customers to help companies target their marketing efforts and providing consumer and business data to assist in acquisition or retention strategies. With offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, Acxiom provides these services built for, or tailored to, the local marketing environment.”
In her post-election research paper for the Australian Parliamentary Library, Sarah Miskin wrote that Academics Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen had predicted in July 2004 that electronic phone messaging would be used in the federal election campaign, albeit in a limited way due to its ‘infancy’. She also wrote “Voter reaction to the pre-recorded message calls may have been more positive had the Prime Minister actually made the calls, as one reported comment revealed: At first I thought my God, the Prime Minister’s calling. But then—as soon as I realised it was a recorded message—I just hung up”. She was quoting from another critical article that appeared in the West Australian titled “Voters hang up on PM’s phone spam”
Although Miskin repeats claims made in newspapers by the Liberals “that the calls had helped the Coalition win as many as six seats” this could be interpreted as boastful speculation rather than empirical analysis by Liberal campaign managers. Liberal pollster Mark Textor was quoted in the Age saying that the calls would be used in future elections because they had been so effective: “people appreciated the fact that they got a direct and unfiltered message from a political leader in a new, effective way”.
Miskin writes that “at least one Liberal candidate in the ACT election (held on 16 October 2004) was reported to have opted for the strategy, ‘bombarding the home phones of 17,500 voters with pre-recorded campaign messages’ authorised by the Canberra Liberals’ divisional office”. There is no mention of the name of the candidate or if his/her tactic was successful.
Automatic phone messages were used again but in 2007 it seemed that the Liberals had not adapted their techniques or learnt from previous campaigns. Despite intrusive telemarketing calls becoming a real nuisance for many people, to the point where a ‘Do Not Call’ register had been developed by the Government in response to community anger, the Liberal campaign chose to ignore it. The Labor Party campaign headquarters received numerous complaints about Liberal party automatic phone messages from voters who, as in 2004, claimed that their numbers (including mobile numbers) were not listed publicly or, alternatively, were on the new Australian “Do Not Call Register”. These reports were passed on to and known to the media, who also received information from Labor’s campaign spokesperson Penny Wong, how the Labor Party’s automated phone message was more carefully targeted and the lists used by the Labor Party had specifically only used publicly listed numbers which were commercially available and specifically removed people who were on the new Australian “Do Not Call Register”. Unlike the Liberals, Labor had learnt the important lesson from 2004 about the political cost of annoying calls. Even though there was no legislative requirement, the Labor campaign had made the correct decision to carefully avoid calling people who had registered on the new Australian “Do Not Call Register” and also chose to remove any publicly listed mobile numbers from the telephone lists which it had purchased.
Although many complaints were received about them, the text of the Liberals’ 2007 calls indicated that a decision about targeting strategy had been made, if not implemented carefully:
“Hello, I’m John Howard. I’ve taken the unusual step of contacting you with this message to let you know about our fully funded nine point plan to keep our economy strong. It includes: A big boost to the utilities allowance, anew cost of living guarantee for pensioners and surveillance cameras to keep our streets safer. At a time of global financial instability we need to keep the economy strong, secure your retirement and pay for vital services. To keep our economy strong please vote for your local Liberal candidate Peter Slipper. I’m John Howard and thanks for your time.”
Robocalls are certainly part of the normal campaign routine in the US. A study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in April 2008 showed that recorded calls are moving ahead of mail and personal calls as an increasingly popular form of political advertising. In Iowa, where the presidential campaign season opened, the number of citizens who received at least one robocall was 81 percent.
In a recent newspaper article a US political consultant explained why the calls aren’t going away: “A direct mail piece now costs about 65 cents for every voter it reaches. Each live telephone call costs about 50 cents. But robocalls cost only about 6 cents each, with the price going down with volume.” While some of the calls are little more than a reminder to supporters to get out and vote, robocalls also can go on the attack. In Indiana in May, National Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, used robocalls to ask voters to reject Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the state presidential primary. In South Carolina, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made her own robocalls to slam another presidential candidate, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. But the celebrity calls may be the most effective, Ross said, because studies show listeners stay on the call longer when it’s someone famous on the line. One consultant said “We did a call with Arnold Schwarzenegger and we found people staying on the line even after it was over, waiting to see if there was more.”
One of the new innovative uses of the internet by political parties in Australia is for secure campaign websites, or ‘Extranets’ to facilitate the distribution of campaign information and materials to state branches, MPs, candidates and local campaign teams. Peter van Onselen’s paper On Message or Out of Touch? Secure Web Sites and Political Campaigning in Australia takes a critical view that begins by confusing the terms ‘Intranet’ and ‘secure web sites’ (commonly referred to as extranet’s in ICT circles, as access is largely obtained via the common Internet and other external networks, rather than through a virtual private network or VPN connection). Van Onselen admits that Intranets are commonly used in the business sector as well as the public sector and yet sees this tool as another example of “what has been described in the US as the ‘permanent campaign’” rather than a natural evolutionary use of new technology for better internal (and by design, external) political communication. Instead van Onselen argues that Extranets signify “another important step in the ongoing centralisation of power in political campaigning in Australia” and asks if the new ICTs possibly even “shift parties further toward the closed or cartelised form?” These are very critical generalisations to make without analysing the role that extranets have in improving communication efficiencies in any large dispersed organisation. Van Onselen underlines his criticisms of the party Extranet system by explaining how it was used by Howard’s Government Members Secretariat (the GMS was disbanded by the new Rudd Government) to provide tax-payer funded campaign support and how secure websites are “uplifted [author note – should be ‘uploaded’] as much as one year before the formal campaign period”, thus “disadvantaging smaller parties”. Obvious exceptions to this thesis would be the three current lower house independents and Senator Nick Xenophon, who success has not been affected by Liberal or Labor Extranets.
Greg Barns writes extensively about the Hoard Government’s misuse of the GMS in his book Selling The Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda From Whitlam to Howard. He also explains the genesis from Hawke’s NMLS, Fraser’s GIU and Whitlam’s AGLS.
The GMS was only one aspect of the impressive professionalisation of staff and message which took place when Howard won in office in 1996. Anne Tiernan’s book Power Wwithout Rresponsibility? Mministerial sStaffers in Australian Ggovernments from Whitlam to Howard describes the Liberal Party’s internal post-1983 Valder Report, which recommended how it would improve its operations by employing and training better political staff once it won office again.