The US leading us down an exciting but expensive path
The way the American media reported it, the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the week was a bruising, bare-knuckle affair—the roughest and most aggressive presidential debate ever. Crocodile Dundee comes to mind. “That wasn’t aggressive. THIS is aggressive.”
The Democratic president and his Republican challenger presented their arguments forcefully, and there was plenty of needle in the contest. But, compared with what we’ve become used to in Australia in recent times, they were remarkably respectful towards each other in the language they used.
The most offensive term I heard during the 90 minute telecast was “offensive”. Although each man was out to convince the massive TV audience that his opponent was telling untruths, neither uttered the word “lie”.
Romney even thanked the president for being part of the debate. Obama described Romney as “a good man”. It would be nice to think that Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott could abandon crude invective and start to behave in a similarly civilised manner - but don’t hold your breath. Other aspects of the US election, however, will have an influence in Australia.
Our politicians and backroom operators in both major parties are watching and learning.
Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane plugged directly into the Romney campaign when he attended the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida. The Liberals are believed to have a representative embedded with the Republicans for the duration.
Gillard’s staff are in close contact with Obama’s people. One of her senior advisers recently held talks with the president’s pollster in New York. And Labor and Liberal officials will get detailed briefings on campaign techniques and strategy—what worked and what didn’t—from their Democrat and Republican counterparts after the election on November 6.
The Liberals are paying particular attention to Obama’s so-called “class war” strategy, because it is similar to Wayne Swan’s efforts here to rebuild Labor’s base by attacking mining billionaires and linking Abbott with them.
Obama’s pitch aimed at middle class voters is that he is concerned about all Americans while the wealthy Romney is for the richest one per cent. Hence that moment in the debate when Romney unwisely asked Obama: “Have you looked at your pension?” The president replied: “It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long.”
The “gender war” that has recently dominated Australian politics is also reflected in the US campaign.
Obama went to great lengths in the debate - as he does at every opportunity - to position his opponent as “anti-women” on things like abortion, health care and pay equity.
Romney’s counter-strategy is to direct his economic management message directly at female voters, in the belief that women are at least as concerned about economic issues as men and possibly more knowledgeable.
For obvious reasons both Gillard and Abbott will keep a close eye on how this tussle turns out. In terms of campaign techniques being used in the Obama-Romney contest, the area of most interest for Australian politicians and their minders is the growing importance of social media.
As one commentator wrote: “The 2012 US presidential election campaign is being fought with tweets, hashtags, Facebook updates and emails in a battle for digital supremacy which may be a key to victory.”
According to a Labor apparatchik who has been closely following the campaign: “The volume is incomprehensible, and the speed of the rapid response game now is what stands out.”
Both the Republicans and Democrats are able to produce videos responding to claims or mistakes of their opponents and get them on the internet within an hour.
The cost of resources required is already frightening Australia’s political parties.
“There’s a lot parties here can learn here about the digital social media stuff, especially about rapid response” says a Liberal minder. “But only if we’ve got the money.
“The skill will be in determining what’s the hoop-la and what’s actually been effective in moving votes.”
Obama pioneered the use of social media in his 2008 White House campaign, and is still way ahead of the Republicans in this area. “We’ve been working really closely to learn lessons from Obama,” a Labor source told me yesterday.
“One thing we learned was that you can’t tell people what to do on social media. You want to kind of receive rather than transmit. You want to have a conversation.”
An example of this Obama influence is a recent Gillard video that invites people to tell the PM about their favourite teacher. The aim is to open up a discussion via video, email and Facebook about education policy and the proposed Gonski reforms.
Obama’s pollster advised that, in advertising, too, middle-ground voters don’t want to be shouted at or told what to do or think. They want information and a chance to deliberate on it.
Consequently many of Obama’s TV commercials have been longer than the usual 30 seconds, are delivered in a soft rather than hectoring voice, refer to a plan, and provide an internet link where voters can get more information.
Labor is already looking at a similar approach.
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