Having recently been idolised in the Tory media for heading the Conservatives and being the brains behind their victory in the 2015 UK General Election, Lynton has long since dropped his guard and decided to share his ideas and theories about campaigning to a much wider audience back in 2013. Here is a very interesting YouTube video titled “Lynton Crosby AO – Master Class: Political Campaigning”.
It’s worth watching. It reinforces the essential elements of campaigning: message, targeting and many other features of campaigning that have universal application on campaigning inside and outside of the politics.
In case you haven’t read this article (published in April, prior to the result of the 2015 election) about Lynton’s work it’s worth it just for the insights into the UK election campaign: Lynton Crosby: Master of the dark arts
Interesting excerpts include:
“the Australian who guided John Howard to four election victories and in the past half-decade has become the guru of British politics”
“Lynton Crosby is to his critics that gruff Australian forcing the Conservatives to adopt foreign — and tackily blunt — policies, a win-at-all-costs strategist who is a short-term blow-in. To his fans — including some of the country’s most senior Conservatives, from Cameron to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson, touted as the next Tory leader — he is the election messiah who can keep the party on message and on track. Crosby and 10 of his staff, including his Australian business partner Mark Textor, are ensconced in the heart of Tory planning at Matthew Parker Street in Westminster, along with 200 party staff, in the lead-up to the May 7 British general election. Here Crosby arrives each morning before anybody else, often at 5am, already dressed in a well-cut suit for the day’s meetings and functions. But the accompanying open shirt and RM Williams boots that punctuate Crosby’s sartorial style only hint at the Australianness that oozes from his pores. He has no time for the very British hierarchical trait that sees functionaries defer and ponder, adjourn for meeting upon meeting and dissect minutiae.”
The article also describes the video above: “In a rare 2013 political masterclass Crosby gave to the Patchwork Foundation — a charity that encourages under-represented, deprived and minority communities to join British political society — he underscored how he formulated his messages and used emotions to make a connection with voters. He said: “Think about what is your message, and how do you make that relevant to people. At its simplest, who decides the election outcome, where are they, what matters to them and how do you reach them? You have to engage in ways that are relevant and connect with them emotionally.’’
Crosby told the masterclass it was critical to define yourself but also your opponent. ‘’Know what you want to say about your opponent and have evidence to back it up,’’ he said. Candidates should carry the positive messages, while the negative ones, underscoring an opponent’s weakness, should be conveyed by the campaign itself, in literature or delivered by surrogates. Crosby’s opponents have attacked him whenever a negative Tory line is highlighted, but he insisted — to the students at least — that the tone of any message was critical and it should be more positive than negative. It should never be hysterical or personal, he said.
Campaign foundations: strategy, message, finance, research
Are basic political strategies in Australian politics and American politics similar in style and are campaigning techniques (from political strategy formulation to voter contact) and skills transferable between these two systems? The case against states there are big differences in our systems (differences in size, cultures and history, political structures, regulations and industries, wealth, academic influence and scholarly research) and some of our basic strategies are fundamentally incongruous (e.g. persuasion vs. voter turnout/suppression). The ‘Yes’ case states that the basics of electoral success are essentially the same: Understand your landscape, raise and spend more money than your opponent, test your message, campaign on local and personal issues, have credible, articulate and attractive candidates, repeat your message with clarity, simplicity and supporting evidence and endorsements, organise local support, alliances and activities which highlight your ‘strengths’ and ‘your issues’, utilise earned media effectively and complement it with paid advertising.
Central message control and dissemination is certainly not a new concept. Up until a few decades ago, the fashionable description was ‘propaganda’ but as O’Shaughnessy explains in Politics and propaganda: weapons of mass seduction, the term “faced conceptual extinction because it became an anachronism”. He asks rhetorically, “how could a cynical, media-literate cadre ever respond to (propaganda’s) histrionic excess as earlier, more naïve generations had done?” and then answers the question by explaining that effective propaganda is “seductive” and “not usually a lie” but in fact “persuasion”. O’Shaughnessy accurately describes the manner in which old political ideas and techniques often ‘become new again’ when he writes “ideas do not die, they merely hibernate” and “the whirligig of fashion applies to concepts as well as clothes.”
O’Shaughnessy’s historical dissection of the essential propaganda elements of “rhetoric, myth and symbolism” and the application of this model to modern political communication and persuasion techniques are expansive and applicable to many modern political contests (and worthy of a separate thesis).
Propaganda is clearly designed to affect voter behaviour. An ANU news article describes how marketing experts can provide sound theories to explain voting behaviour.
Writing in the Monash Business Review in 2008, Stephen Dann and Andrew Hughes outlined five lessons learnt from the election campaign, including: having a less confusing message, using better communication, reducing risk for voters, not taking votes for granted and successfully using celebrity candidates. Hughes said the Coalition’s campaign came unstuck before it had even begun, and that the party should have listened to what their research was telling them. “The Coalition marketing campaign was just terrible – they got it so wrong. It started badly, continued badly and finished badly,” he says. “The marketing research the Coalition had was ignored when it should have been listened to. Opinion polls are great market research, and if the Coalition had acted on what those polls told them they could have stayed in government. But the marketing people should have told Howard it was time to go.” Hughes says there were plenty of opportunities for the Coalition to alter the course of the campaign but time and again these were missed.
The marketing research which Hughes refers to Federal State of Play – Oztrack 33, presented by Mark Textor on 21 June 2007, was actually leaked during the 2007 election and was widely available online for a short period of time, until the Liberal Party pollsters Crosby Textor threatened legal action against the websites hosting and distributing the files. The research document begins with an explanation of ‘regression analysis’ a term and technique commonplace in market research and political microtargeting, which will be discussed later. The contents of the research are very revealing of the concerns that were being expressed within the inner circles of the Liberal campaign team in 2007. The document reveals the weaknesses of the Liberal brand but also suggests a strategy to counter Rudd and Labor by “comparing team strengths and highlighting Rudd’s inexperience and influences (unions, left factions and State Premiers).”
A post 2007 election article Me-tooism Claims Backfired On The Coalition quotes Andrew Hughes and reveals the strategic error in Liberal accusations of “me-tooism” and how they boosted Mr Rudd’s chances last year.
“The Liberals inadvertently enhanced the ALP when they continued to allow Rudd to be positioned as ‘John Howard Lite’. In marketing terms, the comparison of Rudd as ‘Howard Lite’ produced a dual positive effect for the Labor leader. First, the endorsement reduced the risk of switching from Howard to Rudd … Second, closing the gap between the two leaders reduced the options for the Liberal campaign to criticise Rudd without it impacting on their own leader’s reputation.” The Labor leader added his own gloss to policies, according to Mr Hughes. “Rudd may have been saying ‘me too’, but he was also saying, ‘I’ve taken their policy and made it a bit better’. Coming from Rudd, it looked a lot better than coming from Howard. Rudd as a brand was fresh, new and keen.”
The 2008 US presidential election analysis includes many political marketing stories, with frequent references to “brand” and “marketing” and “selling”. In an online article titled The Brand Called Obama, Ellen McGirt writes
“Obama and Clinton make an interesting contrast in brands,” says Professor John Quelch, Senior Associate Dean at Harvard Business School and co-author of Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy. “Obama communicates that he loves people, and Clinton communicates that she loves policy.” Consider Starbucks, Quelch says. “People love it for the experience, not for the specifications of the coffee.” Obama, through his inclusive Web site and, yes, his lofty rhetoric, reinforces the notion that everyone is included and that this movement is actually a conversation to which everyone is invited.
There is clearly a firm belief in the powers of marketing principals in US politics that has certainly had strong influence on Australian politics but has not been adopted as wholeheartedly by either our practitioners or those who study and write about their activities. Perhaps the academic disconnect between political science and marketing in most Australian universities has influenced the penetration of marketing viewpoints in Australian political science? Some of the marketing principles that Mills wrote about 20 years ago are still utilised by practitioners, such as the links between strategy, message design and research.
Although it didn’t help John Howard, the Crosby Textor research Federal State of Play – Oztrack 33 is a recent example of “tracking and targeting” of messages and advertising during election campaigns. This was first done during an Australian election in 1968. Mills describes how in Don Dunstan’s replacement of FH Walsh as Premier of South Australia in 1968, following a “party room coup”, gave a striking example of how incumbents can use “tracking and targeting” to advantage. Mills uses excerpts from Blewett and Jaensch’s Playford to Dunstan: the politics of transition and describes the “brilliantly successful campaign which saw the first Australian use by an incumbent of modern market research, and of a long-term American-inspired TV advertising effort built around the personality of the leader himself.”
Young writes that “central campaign control and decision-making was a product of modern campaign techniques.” Although 1972 saw the centralisation of strategy, message and planning in the famous “It’s Time” campaign for the ALP, in 1972 the Liberals were still leaving their advertising and publicity to the various state branches of the Party. “There was no cohesion or central planning. In contrast Labor used a full-time campaign director and national campaign structure.” The success of Labor’s approach “prompted the Liberals to use a central advertising agency and national campaign committee the following year.”
In the chapter Timely vibrations: Labor’s marketing campaign from the book Labor to power: Australia’s 1972 election, Vicky Braund writes that Paul Jones, the “communicator” or ad agent who designed “It’s Time”, was a “McLuhan disciple”. Marshall McLuhan is a famous American writer and media theorist who said “the medium is the message”. She describes how Labor was using people who understood the dramatic effect which TV advertising could have on voter perceptions, where “people make emotional, not rational decisions and that these decisions can be influenced to varying degrees by the judicious use of media”.
Stockwell’s 2005 conference paper Grazing The Field: Voter Uses Of The Media In Election Campaigns underlines the importance of centrally-coordinated campaigns which can repeat messages in various formats, more effectively reminding voters of a central theme or message. Knowing voters use various mediums allows political campaigners to utilise “a variety of information sources to deliver messages which are uncorrupted by the media”.
But sometimes, the best laid plans and intentions, and adaptation of proven methods, is undermined by circumstances beyond the candidate’s control. If the message is not resonating or the strategy is flawed, no amount of money or innovation will assist a campaign that has lost popular support.
Shane Easson, Executive officer to the NSW Premier in 1988 describes US literature on campaign techniques as one of the factors in Labor’s attempts to portray Unsworth as being in touch with common voters by travelling around to different electorates in a mini-bus during the 1988 campaign. Milton Cockburn, political editor in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, described it as “the Harry S Truman strategy of being the ‘Plain Man’s Politician’”. Easson said “I have to confess that the day I joined Unsworth in September 1986 I gave him a book called the ‘Loneliest Campaign’ on Truman’s 1948 US election. He carried it with him until election night and then threw it in a corner.”
Both teams were trying to utilise American presidential campaign strategies. Ian Kortlang, Easson’s counterpart in the Liberal campaign in 1988 stated “We made a conscious decision to run Greiner’s campaign on a Presidential basis, and when Barry got into the bus it emphasised that even more…. You chose the low ground and we consciously chose the higher ground. We always had Greiner standing back from the media behind a lectern.”
Mills describes the political strategy of “tracking and targeting” as “innovations of polling and TV advertising” (which he identifies as American-derived influences) working “hand in hand” in a “synergistic relationship”. He explains “Tracking” is the “use of public opinion polls and other research methods to monitor changing attitudes in the population” and “targeting” as the “use of TV advertisements to aim political messages at electorally strategic parts of the population”.
Modern day political targeting involves a variety of campaign techniques, not just TV advertising. Recent Australian campaigns have targeted people using a variety of techniques including direct mail, phoning, doorknocking, Internet banner ads and robocalls. In fact, not “targeting” any campaign technique seems to run counter to much of the latest information and advice available to professional political campaigners. Mills explain how demographic data can be used to assist targeting, how the “electoral pendulum” defines the key electorates “which must fall if the Opposition is to form the next Government” and how “Parties in Australia focus their efforts on appealing to the swinging or undecided voters within these electorates.”
“Market research plumbs the depth of voter’s fears, perceptions and enthusiasms; television, a more emotive medium than cold, hard print, perfectly projects a personality-oriented, value-laden style of campaigning. In the lead-up to the 1984 elections both major Australian Parties tracked and targeted their campaigns. The Liberal Party conducted a highly disciplined campaign of tracking and targeting. The Liberal research revealed chinks in the otherwise strong government image: fears amongst some sections of the community about possible new taxes by the Hawke Government…. Targeting their advertisements to the sections of the community which research had revealed were most concerned about the tax fears…. It was a focused, targeted appeal which was drawn out over several months before the election began, beginning with a mini-campaign.”
This adoption and utilisation of research and targeting haahs become more widespread and has also been exported from Australia as left-leaning governments wax and wane across the globe, sharing ideas with each other as they aspire to government from opposition. There exists scholarly research pointing to Australian influences in modern political strategy, policy formulation and messaging in the UK and the US in the 1980s.
In The New Progressive Dilemma: Australia and Tony Blair’s Legacy, David O’Reilly describes “in its formative stages Blairism cherry-picked ideas far and wide”, including from Australia in the 1980s and early 1990s. In a critical analysis of Blairism, O’Reilly also predicts “a disturbing warning” that the same fate awaits UK Labour that the ALP suffered following its defeat in 1996. O’Reilly’s account focuses on the Australian influences of Blair’s (and Bill Clinton’s) famous “Third Way”, but also points to important campaign influences, such as the choice of more marketable leaders by the party hierarchy and visits to Australia (to look at the Hawke-Keating experience) by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Patricia Hewitt and Phillip Gould. O’Reilly notes that due to the timing of the election cycles, “The Blairites looked to Australia first, before Clinton was even a ‘New Democrat’. Australia represented a first-phase influence, the US a second.”
O’Reilly describes the strategic outlook of “a corps of party officials and leaders” in Australia in the 1980s “and in Britain and the US later in that decade”, who were determined to “jettison any policies as well as practices, deemed to be creating obstacles to electoral victory” and “this was all part of a conscious act of strategic repositioning.”
“to keep their opponents off-balance … Labor modernisers in Australia and Britain employed for the first time cadres of tough apparatchiks whose new expertise was tough-minded, opinion-poll-driven electioneering logistics and media manipulation.”
In 1989 the newly set up US Democratic Leadership Council commissioned a study by Seymour Martin Lipset of left-of-centre parties around the world. Lipset’s study ‘Political Renewal on the Left’ held up Australia as one of the most advanced nations fomenting new ideas, lauding the Hawke-Keating economic and social model. O’Reilly describes how the Lipset study instigated a series of regular exchanges between the DLC, federal and state ALP branches and Hawke-Keating government ministers and staff “keen to talk both about skills-set politics [campaigning] and specific policy reforms”.
O’Reilly also describes an interesting 1987 interview with Gary Gray and British MP Patricia Hewitt (who was Australian-born) in which both confirm the superiority of the ALP’s campaign practices and utilisation of central campaign management, strategy and technology to assist local MPs. Hewitt says “the ALP was streets ahead of us” and “using stuff that we hadn’t even woke up to”. O’Reilly also describes an encounter between Blair and Keating in which Blair admires the “internal discipline” of Keating’s “powerful ALP right-wing faction in NSW” and dinners and meetings between Blair, Brown, Keating Government Ministers and ALP officials during which they discussed “policy development” and “campaigning”.
These exchanges continued and in 1996 UK Labour directly adopted the Australian model of a campaign media unit, based on the NMLS unit operating in the Keating Government. UK Labour also sent a party official to work at, observe and learn from the ALP federal election campaign, a practice that has been repeated frequently since then.
Another similar study by Chris Pierson Australian Antecedents of the Third Way (again focusing on policy development but occasionally illustrating interest in the exchange of electoral marketing ideas and techniques) shows “there are many common themes in Australian Labor practice and New Labour rhetoric, and some evidence of specific policy transfer from one to the other, a plausible case can also be made for seeing many of the policy initiatives of the Hawke/Keating era as a reworking of an older Australian Labor tradition of regulatory state activism,” indicating evolving Australian political messages and techniques having an overseas influence in the UK, rather than straightforward adoption of American influences here.
Pierson also describes how visiting British Labour Party elites “were principally interested in the electoral strategy (and success) of the ALP – especially after its triumph in the seemingly ‘unwinnable’ election of 1993. In part, this success was attributed to vote-getting policies but at least as much it was seen to be down to skilful and highly disciplined party organisation. In particular, Gary Gray had been extraordinarily effective in concentrating resources upon key seats and delivering a better than anticipated national outcome by ‘over-performing’ in Labor’s target seats.” UK Labour MP Patricia Hewitt reported that lessons from the Australian experience “had a significant impact upon Philip Gould, Labour’s own emergent electioneering guru” and “when Blair visited Australia in 1995, he was repeatedly asked what lessons he drew from the success of Australian Labor. Always at the top of his list was the ALP’s capacity to win elections and retain office”.
In their book Political Marketing: A Comparative Perspective Lilleker and Lees-Marshment argue that of the three models for modern political parties, the “market-orientated party”, with it’s more advanced intelligence-gathering techniques, will be most successful as it’s “product” will be appropriately adjusted to maximise electoral support. The 1997 landslide electoral success of the UK Labour Party is used as evidence of the wisdom of the “MOP” approach, after which “a consensus in favour of the MOP approach has emerged within the two major parties.” This study is interesting from the point of view of “New Labour” and “New Democrat” influences on Australian politics (and vice versa) as well as the (now outdated) debate surrounding the “third Way” which seems to have reached it’s peak in Australia during Mark Latham’s brief leadership. The authors highlight clear weaknesses in the MOP model and although comparisons are made with American, New Zealand, Canadian and European democracies, I haven’t been able to find any Australian references, although the language and techniques (and limitations of political marketing) used are similar to those described by Australian writers.
One could argue that one of the important lessons from the ALP for the UK labour Party was the importance of matching policy with electoral appeal, through the use of effective “frames” to describe and define policy positions and issues in electorally appealing ways. “Framing” is an essential consideration in political messages and political advertising and communications materials. There are several very influential texts on the subject available to US (and Australian) practitioners. These include George Lakoff’s Don’t Think Of An Elephant (Know Your Values And Frame The Debate) and Thinking Points, as well as Framing The Debate by Jeffrey Feldman.
There are few Australian equivalents but these texts, particularly Lakoff, have had an impact in Australia, most notably within the leadership of the Australian Union movement. The ACTU’s YRAW campaign, with its potent message and imagery, is a great example of a ‘positive frame’ for an issue that has very commonly been portrayed in a negative light in recent times.
In an article about the ‘Industrial Relations Frame’ in the 2007 election, Diane Kelly outlined the common US perspective, quoting a book Framed! Labor And The Corporate Media” by Christopher Martin (2004), she lists five negative frames used against unions in the US and writes “These assumptions offer ways of investigating and analysing the framing of coverage of industrial relations in the 2007 Australian election…. These five assumptions underpinned much of the framing of debates in the 2007 election, and indeed much of the representation of industrial relations, particularly in the conservative media.”
One aspect of strategic issue and message management that hasn’t had much coverage in Australia is the process of “priming” whereby media coverage about favourable issues or policies benefits certain candidates as voters begin to think about those issues more and which candidates support or oppose their viewpoint. In Candidate Strategies to Prime Issues and Image Druckman concludes that priming strategies are “tailored” by “public opinion” and “strategic opportunities offered by the political conditions of their time.” Examples of issue priming in Australian politics is the use of economy and interest rate discussions by Liberals to focus voter’s minds on “economic management” or alternatively, using negative stories about unions to paint Labor in a bad light and remind voters about Labor’s close association with unions.
Although there is little written about it, figures and discussion about Australian campaign finance and fundraising eventually see the light of day, due to public disclosure laws, which on the surface, seem more restrictive but at the same time less effective than Australian regulations. In 1972 there was a strategic shift in the professionalisation of Australian federal campaigns with Labor’s ‘It’s Time’ campaign. In 1969, the ALP’s campaign budget had been $50,000. In 1972 it was more than $700,000.
The expansion of expenditure for campaigning drove more innovation in fundraising efforts and approaches to corporates who had not previously donated to the ALP. The 2007 federal election campaign saw massive online fundraising efforts by many groups and parties, in particular the ACTU and GetUp!, who utilised the ground-breaking models from the 2004 US presidential elections and more recent experience by unions and organisations like MoveOn in the US, to expand the use and effectiveness of online fundraising in Australian politics.
Gallop had revolutionised political polling in the US through the use of random sampling to predict the re-election of President Roosevelt in 1936. His published polls were syndicated across the US and sprouted several copycats who adopted his methods.
In The New Machine Men: Polls and Persuasion in Australian Politics Stephen Mills describes the first big American-derived innovation in the Australian political process when “immediately before the start of the Second World War, a young finance journalist with the Melbourne Herald (part of the Murdoch empire) was sent to Princeton, New Jersey, to learn from Dr George Gallup his new and apparently accurate theories of public opinion polling. On his return, Roy Morgan set up an Australian polling organisation modelled closely on Gallop’s methods for which 30 years provided the sole measure of Australian public opinion.”
By 1972 there were three big pollsters in Australia, all interpreting public opinion for major news organisations. Mills reports that “as many as five national pollsters competed to predict the results of Federal elections in 1980 and 1984”.
Although television arrived in Australia just in time for the 1958 federal election it was not creatively utilised until a few years later, after the US adaption of corporate market research techniques and advertising to politics had begun. Mills writes that in 1966 one of the first political surveys in Australia was “conducted by a group of Melbourne advertising agents for the Victorian ALP.” Then in 1968 the ALP’s campaign for Don Dunstan in South Australia broke new ground for political campaign innovation in Australia.
In Playford to Dunstan, Neal Blewett and Dean Jaensch write how in June 1967, only four weeks after becoming premier, Dunstan began a series of conferences, held mostly in Sydney, between his aides and the Labor advertising firm of Hansen-Rubensohn-McCann Erikson during which “the overall strategy of Labor’s electoral campaign was determined.” One of several important decisions made at these meetings was that “a survey of public attitudes should be undertaken as soon as possible to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the ALP in South Australia, the survey to provide a basis for Labor’s campaign emphasis.”
Gallops early competitors included Rod Cameron’s Australian National Opinion Polls (ANOP), which became Labor’s preferred pollster for many years. Mills describes how a series of research papers by ANOP for the ALP in 1979 helped reshape the Party’s outlook and fundamentally shifted it towards (eventual) electoral victory in 1982. The foundation of this breakthrough analysis was a defining portrait of “the swinging voter” that sounds strangely familiar to political readers of the 2007 federal election:
“Politics is dull, boring and largely irrelevant to their lifestyle. Politicians are held in low esteem. Politics is ‘out of touch’ with their interests and lifestyles… There is far greater involvement and interest in matters concerning their personal and their family’s financial well-being and their day-to-day interests (sport, family concerns, leisure, recreation) than in even simple questions of ideology and government.”
Mills explains “the swinging voter was typically a 30-40 year old parent (usually mother) of a young family, residing literally in the middle of all demographic categories, with a middle-class, middle-suburban, middle-education, middle-income, middle employment lifestyle and middle-of-the-road politics.”
Mills explains the electoral and policy significance of Cameron’s swinging voter portrait was that “the Whitlam days of ALP sponsorship of plans for vast social reform had indeed gone. This was not because of any sense that the programs had failed, or were irresponsible, or contravened some philosophy about the proper role of government. It was because they were disliked and ignored by the swinging voters.”
Various views about the ‘typical swinging voter’ have resurfaced in campaigning conventional wisdom over the past 30 years. Mills reports that at the same time the Liberal pollster George Camakaris was developing and presenting identical views to the Liberal Party about the attitudes and self-interest of swinging voters. There was a further twist, again with echoes (or predictions?) of Labor’s campaign for a return to government in 2007. In 1980, Rod Cameron was telling the Labor party that “it should not just move into the centre, but should do so knowing that its Liberal opponents were already firmly encamped there. The ALP should explicitly ‘me-too’ the Liberals!”
Similar political campaign techniques were being used in other democracies. In the UK, Margaret Thatchers victory in 1979 and second election in 1983, were both managed with the use of political marketing and careful tailoring of her manifesto. In a chapter titled “the Americanisation of British Politics” Margaret Scammel states in Designer politics: how elections are won that “Thatcherism was “more a style of leadership” than an “ideology”, finding a careful balance ‘between the political aims of the Prime Minister and her party and the tolerance of the electorate”.
One big difference between US and Australian politics is our leader’s habit to call elections after assessing the latest research poll. This happens in the UK as well as is documented in Dennis Kavanagh’s Election campaigning: the new marketing of politics where he describes how “it was only when large private surveys confirmed the handsome Tory lead in the public polls that Thatcher was prepared to call elections in 1983 and 1987.”
Australians have not only used political research techniques adapted from the US, but also sought to replicate specific demographic descriptions and target groups. In her book The Victory, Pamela Williams describes how Liberal Party director Andrew Robb had commissioned specific research in the lead-up to the 1996 federal election to ascertain whether “Australia had its own version of the Reagan Democrats, classic Labor voters sufficiently disillusioned to switch sides. He hoped the pollster’s findings would support his hunch. If Labor’s core supporters were wavering the Liberals could devise a strategy to woo them.”
Many of the political research techniques used in Australia have been learnt and refined in the US or through associations that have direct links with US companies and research organisations. The Liberal pollster, Mark Textor, is described in Parties, governments and pollsters: A new form of patronage? by Ian Ward: “Mark Textor is now the principal of Australasian Research Strategies Pty Ltd, which is part of the Wirthlin Worldwide group founded by the US Republican-linked pollster Richard Wirthlin. After graduating from the Australian National University and working for the Australian Bureau of Statistics doing household expenditure surveys, Textor returned to the Northern Territory to work for the Country Liberal Party. In 1991 he was recruited to the Federal Liberal secretariat where he worked under the tutelage of the then Federal Director, Andrew Robb.”
“Robb sent Textor to the United States after the 1993 federal election. There he worked with the Wirthlin Group on Republican gubernatorial and congressional campaigns in South Dakota, Nevada, South Carolina, New Jersey, Texas and California during a ‘two month stint on the Republican campaign in the US during 1994’. With the experience that he had gained in the United States, Textor became a key figure in the Liberals’ 1996 federal election ‘war room’ (the same year in which he also worked on the British Conservative Party campaign). With his guidance, the Liberals succeeded during the 1996 campaign in overturning the ‘decisive edge in technique’ that Labor had held ‘throughout the 1980s and early 1990s’. In 1998 the Liberals again employed Textor, this time as a consultant, to interpret opinion data, guide electoral strategy, and to secure the re-election of the Federal Coalition government. As in the 1996 campaign, his role was to distil the results of ‘overnight telephone polling’ gathered in 30 key marginal seats and provide the party with ‘strategic recommendations’. “By the late 1990s Textor had indeed emerged as a key Liberal operative. NSW Liberal State Director Remo Nogarrotto said that Textor is ‘a great asset and a person who provides this Party with a significant competitive advantage over Labor’. Textor’s reputation as the ‘doyen of Liberal Party polling’ survived his central involvement in the Liberals’ unsuccessful 1999 NSW State campaign. His reputation as the pollster who ‘regularly polls for John Howard on what messages hit which targets’”.
When he became Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Andrew Robb “spent a month in the US meeting successful political consultants and listening to their recollections of past election campaigns.” On his return to Australia, “he recruited a 34-year old Republican named Bruce Blakeman with 78 campaigns of all descriptions under his belt and experience in applying the latest marginal seat tactics.”
In a chapter titled “The manipulators – leveraging doubt and fear” in his book The Hollow Men, Nicky Hager writes about how the New Zealand Nationals used Crosby/Textor in the 2005 election. The references are very critical of the negative campaign techniques which the pair became known for, as well as their association with American tobacco and their ruthless use of research to tap into fear and apprehension in voters both in Australia and in the UK. Hager writes about the work Textor did for the Wirthlin Group, tobacco giant Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. He also quotes extensively from leaked internal National Party emails that describe how Crosby/Textor have utilised research to “frame” messages that appeal to voter’s fears and prejudices.
Hager also refers to previous “framing” strategies which conservatives in both New Zealand and Australia have borrowed from the US, such the use of the banner “political correctness” in the 1990s to “cut welfare programs for minorities, reduce environmental protections and attack civil liberties.”
In an online article about his new film (based on his now infamous book) Nicky Hager describes how Crosby/Textor are “the market leaders” in “deceptive, secretive and manipulative” party tactics. Hager refers critically to their numerous recent efforts in elections in New Zealand (2005 and 2008), Australia (various state and federal elections since 1990s) and the UK (2005 and London Mayor in 2008). He describes the three key steps or tactics that Crosby/Textor have employed in recent campaigns as 1) candidate/message discipline/control 2) Overtly personal attacks (often referred to as ‘dog whistling’ in Australian media and 3) Issue management – campaigning on issues that your opponent has no control over.
First, Crosby and Textor realised there was a high risk of Johnson tripping up and making mistakes compared with his experienced opponent. Their answer was to tightly control and script all Johnson’s public appearances. Two experienced public relations specialists oversaw him continually, declining interviews that didn’t suit their strategies and strictly keeping Johnson “on message”. Crosby/Textor call this “message discipline”, meaning a politician sticking to prepared lines no matter what the question or occasion lines that are mostly written by others. As a result, journalists saw only “the constrained, on-message Johnson”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. An insider concluded that by scripting all his lines, controlling all his appearances and avoiding challenging interviews, Crosby/Textor “stopped Boris being Boris … and it worked.” The second strand of the London mayoralty strategy was relentlessly attacking Livingstone’s reputation. He had introduced some innovative and popular policies, so they concentrated on personal attacks. News stories appeared (never directly from Johnson) claiming Livingstone had three “secret children” and that he’d hired a Muslim extremist in his office. The major newspapers did not run such stories but giveaway tabloids did. The third strand was “issue management”. They found Livingstone had support on environment, social services and other issues. So instead they ran a narrowly focussed campaign on the rising cost of living and public safety even where these were the result of forces beyond Livingstone’s control.
In the introduction to his thesis Marketing, Media, Money and America Paul Zagami describes the infamous case of CLP “polling” in the 1994 Northern Territory election. Callers asked voters in 3 marginal seats “whether they would vote for the ALP candidate contesting the election if they knew the candidate had been involved in a bankrupt business”. Both the CLP and their pollster Mark Textor denied all accusations of involvement and “without the cooperation of the WA phone company used to make the calls the ALP was unable to substantiate its claims.”
There is of course evidence that most Australian campaign strategies and techniques are largely derived from home grown sources and not always copied from US sources. The concept of a “mini-campaign” or “dress rehearsal” is a universal one. In 1987 the NSW State Liberals ran a “We’re Ready” campaign to showcase the Greiner team’s credentials prior to the election (which eventually happened in March 1988).
Greiner’s strategy reveals the emergence of the ‘permanent campaign’ or ‘continuous campaign’ on the Australian political scene, a concept which was well recorded in American politics. In Shock Troops: The emerging role of Senators in House of Representatives Campaigns Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen describe how two features of Australian federal parliaments make them well suited to the use of permanent campaign strategies by incumbent governments: unfixed electoral terms and half the senators do not face re-election and are therefore available to assist in political activities anywhere in their home state.
In 1982, Sidney Blumenthal wrote The Permanent Campaign. In 2000, Ornstein and Mann co-opted that earlier title and edited The Permanent Campaign and Its Future. In that book they write “The line between campaigning and governing has all but disappeared, with campaigning increasingly dominant” and one of the causes is “the constraints of news as entertainment create the need for shorter sound bytes and confrontational angles, which turns governing into campaigning”. Their book also describes upsides to the “permanent campaign”, including increased scrutiny and accountability because political activities are reported more often and voters become more aware of what governments and oppositions do.
Greiner’s team new that the scrutiny of a public campaign event would help them get their act together. Ian Kortlang was the Greiner’s principal Private Secretary and a key strategist. When asked why he did a dress rehearsal he answered “… in fact we weren’t anywhere near ready.” After numerous straight election losses across mainland Australia the Liberal machine “had no successes to draw on, there was no standard operational procedure to say “this is the way we do it”.
Kortlang drew on his background as a diplomat and experience in the Army, where “nobody runs anything without having a dress rehearsal”, to organise a rehearsal of the Leader’s tour of marginal electorates as well as the campaign launch. The dress rehearsal allowed the Liberals to test the readiness of their organisation and candidates as well as to make mistakes and learn from them before the actual campaign. There were other benefits as well, which the then General Secretary of the NSW ALP Stephen Loosley acknowledged “It was intelligent politics for the Liberals to create a campaign event-if you create an event in politics, it will always have spin-off value and it will always give you a bit more momentum.” Loosley also states that “We did the same thing at Bankstown at the end of 1987 when we created the idea of a campaign convention. We brought all our people under one roof and gave them sessions on different aspects of advanced campaigning.”
By 1988 both parties in NSW were using research to test all advertising. The Liberal TV ads which appeared during their ‘We’re ready dress rehearsal’ prior to the 1988 election were tested by the ALP. Stephen Loosley describes how “… the commercial succeeded. We actually tested it in research groups and it did have one problem… (a weakness in the Liberal message) … which we used in our own material”. After watching Labor’s “Barrie Unsworth – he’s good value” TV ads, the Liberals’ focus group reports read “the advertising goes too far in attempting to portray Mr Unsworth favourably. Swinging voters see right through it. We doubt if the continued airplay of this advertising will impact greatly on perceptions of Mr Unsworth.”
No doubt the Liberal Party used similar research and focus group techniques to decide that in 2007 its government-funded Work Choices TV ads were becoming unpopular and that they were in fact backfiring because they were not as effective as the ACTU YRAW ads as well as the numerous testimonial stories in the media of victims of the government’s work laws and subsequently the ads were pulled off the air.
Research can help shape Australian Government decisions. Peter Thompson compered the ABC’s current affairs program AM in 1988 and described how ALP research into the Government’s standing brought about the demotion and eventual resignation of a senior minister, Laurie Brereton, adding to the Unsworth Government’s problems at the time. Stephen Loosley explained “During 1987 we tested a whole range of Ministers to see who we would use to support the Premier in the campaign. In one survey Laurie’s ratings were really quite damaging, not only to the Government but to him personally. I don’t think he saw it in that light at the time, but a approval/disapproval rating of minus 58 in two urban electorates is just devastating… Barrie decided to reshuffle the front bench and Laurie decided to resign.” Loosley recounts other factors in the decision to demote Brereton but states that “the research was just another justification”.
Mungo MacCallum describes an example of research-driven messaging in his book Poll Ddancing. The Story Of The 2007 Election. When Howard desperately “seizes on figures” which show a slightly higher number of people thought ‘wall to wall’ Labor governments would be a bad thing. 89 p 83
Zagami describes the “funnel phenomenon of party-voter communication as almost all information from the electorate passes through the narrow filter of the pollster before it reaches party elites. In turn this has removed the need and desire for the politician to get information from the public via face to face contact or though the party membership.” Again this unfortunately reveals the practical campaign inexperience of Zagami and others who approach political marketing from a purely academic perspective. Although it is not well documented outside of the parties in Australia, the foundation of good local intelligence for any politician is via direct voter contact, rather than through opinion polls and focus groups. The campaign manuals that will be dissected later in this thesis describe how to do this as a local representative as well as an aspiring candidate. In the conventional wisdom and personal experience of the author, the nature of “nuts and bolts” local campaigning techniques such as doorknocking, phone canvassing, public meetings, community events and local media events generates a lot of direct communication between MPs and their constituents and third parties within the electorate – none of which is usually filtered by polling or research experts. Even American professional political consulting proponents of microtargeting, direct mail, online campaigning and robocalls and other forms of modern campaign techniques, concede that the single most effective method for voter persuasion is through direct voter contact, as face-to-face communication is the single best method of human communication. The nature of polling and research methods such as focus groups is that they can provide retrospective snapshots of public opinion and insight but the expense of organising them and the time constraints involved in modern campaign requires a reliance on accumulated local intelligence as well as such subjective skills as “local knowledge” and “gut instincts” to develop and refine local strategies and messages. Formal research techniques can then be used, if time and money permit, to test and confirm strategies and messages and perhaps, if they are done well by experts, refine them in small ways.
Public discussions around polling and research tend to revolve around “horse race” commentary and predictions about wins and losses. Occasionally, journalists delve into the accuracy and inaccuracy of various polls and pollsters. Some journalists (e.g. Antony Green) are more educated about politics than others both here and in the US and these discussions wax and wane with election cycles and are occasionally resurgent around regular public polls such as the fortnightly Newspoll in the Australian. Similar examples exist in the US and the unique Australian nature of local discussions usually points to the lack of US influence rather than the reverse proposition.
One of the few elements of the US-inspired virtual political community (commonly referred to as the ‘netroots’, a term derived from ‘grassroots’) in Australian politics is the prominent online psephologists and associated commentators, most of whom are completely unknown outside of professional political circles. They include Mumble, Possum Comitatus, Pollbludger, Crikey and Antony Green from the ABC. All show a distinctly Australian flavour and focus, although each occasionally engages in commentary about US elections. One aspect of the Australian flavour of these discussions is the frequent assertions made into the accuracy and worth of the ‘betting markets’ in predicting results. Possum Comitatus (also known as Scott Steel) summarised the worth of the betting markets in “Good information makes good markets, and there is no better information than good, independent polling. It provides far more than fodder for horse race political commentary, it provides certainty and knowledge and evidence for observable reality.”
After the 2008 Northern Territory elections there was some discussion about the ‘surprise result’. Although one must assume that the ALP and CLP both conducted polling, there were no publicly available polls during the short period of the NT election campaign. Possum Comitatus explained that “With no major polls in the Territory election, information about the election itself was dominated by party propaganda on the one hand and political commentators staring deeply into their navels on the other …- usually finding little more than lint as a result, but lint dressed up as profundity none the less. It’s a pretty simple rule – you can’t really analyse what you don’t really know. What makes betting markets valuable is their capacity to aggregate all available sources of information to predict a result, but without polling information anchoring the market to some semblance of reality, without that knowledge of what people are actually thinking on the ground, the betting markets were left drifting in the breeze, ostensibly being guided by lint powered column inches telling us that Labor was a shoe in because, well, that’s what ought to happen. Sso should we really be surprised that without political polls running in the Territory campaign, the markets were so out of whack with the result?”
Peter Brent from Mumble.com.au suggested that unsubstantiated explanations were inevitable after an unexpected result: “The days after an election, particularly with an unexpected result, are very silly ones, as people who are paid to do so come up with explanations. The Australian’s wild colonial boy, Paul Toohey, at least admits he doesn’t really know what happened. (But proceeds to explain what happened: an arrogant government – the catchall explanation for every election loss/shock.) Let’s face it, we don’t know why Labor won in 2005 with 58 percent of the vote and nor do we know why last weekend’s affair was about 50-50. Maybe 50-50 is less deserving of explanation than 58-42. To just make reasons up, as many people must (because it’s their job), is worse than useless, because some of these things will become accepted as gospel truth. … On the other hand, it is of course desirable to try to get to the bottom of these things. Anyway, being a pattern-guy, I’m now looking forward to the next WA opinion poll. Perhaps another “arrogant”/out of touch etc government is about to get the heave-ho.