Many believe that last year’s US presidential elections brought about a seismic change. The Bush strategists found a new way to identify and communicate with potential supporters. In so doing, they undermined established ideas of what elections are about and why people vote as they do. Will the British general election, the first major election in the west since George W Bush’s triumph, reflect this new world?
The Republicans’ success rested on two factors. First, they dictated the agenda, keeping it away from the conventional political indicators – the economy, jobs and health – where they were weakest. Second, they targeted their campaign at individuals, or groups of individuals, using what has become known as the “dog whistle”, so called because the whistle, though audible to others, is pitched so that only one particular dog responds.
All the analysis, by pollsters and newspapers alike, before and after the election, showed Bush’s main opponent, John Kerry, in the lead according to the indicators that have usually determined victory or defeat in western democracies. Majorities – sometimes large majorities – favoured abolishing offshore tax havens, reforming healthcare, writing labour and environmental protections into trade accords, and protecting benefit levels and spending on education and health, while 45 per cent opposed Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. All these policies were promoted by the Democrats. It is doubtful that Iraq gave Bush a decisive advantage: only 8 per cent of his voters cited it as the reason for voting Republican. Americans relegated the traditional political battle points low down the priority list and re-elected the president on the basis of other issues. A third of Bush voters gave “moral values” as their reason for supporting him and 28 per cent cited “terror and national security”. Ten per cent plumped for “the economy and jobs”.
The Bush campaign did not use those first two issues to appeal to floating voters. Rather, the Republican strategy was to get conservative voters to the polls by appealing to their most basic values, fears and prejudices. They also tried to damp down the pro-Kerry vote by sowing doubt in his potential supporters’ minds about his trustworthiness. Research by the University of Wisconsin indicates the Republicans ran 101,000 advertisements attacking Kerry’s character, while up to 95 per cent of Kerry’s ads were based on issues. Asked after the election why they didn’t vote for Kerry, 35 per cent said it was because they didn’t trust him, with gay marriage (23 per cent) and abortion (18 per cent) the next most important issues. Even so, the Democratic vote rose by 6.8 million; the Republican vote went up by 10.5 million. The Bush strategists had a $3.25m (£1.7m) contract with TargetPoint Solutions, which allowed them to target voters with pinpoint accuracy. TargetPoint and other Republican firms had for some time (possibly as early as 2002) been buying up every commercially available database in the US. They studied them for what people were purchasing, eating, drinking, listening to, watching, and so on. They cross-surveyed this data to look for “anger points” compatible with the Bush agenda. From this, they were able to establish, for example, that drinkers of Coors beer were more inclined towards Bush than other beer drinkers; that bourbon drinkers were Republicans, but brandy drinkers Democrats; that theatregoers were Democrats; that people with caller ID on their phones voted Republican. When all this data was merged, it enabled the direct-mail marketers, telephone canvassers and those knocking on voters’ doors to do so with a precisely targeted message and a level of accuracy unseen in previous elections.
The message delivered was overwhelmingly reactionary. Voting for Bush was the secondary objective. The primary objective was to stimulate the target’s “anger point” and, through it, to drive him or her to the polls – in the knowledge that, once there, he or she would vote for Bush. For example, as TargetPoint put it, “a right-to-life voter would get a call warning that, if you don’t come out and vote, the number of abortions next year is going to go up”.
The targeting was so precise that it embraced much more than the macro issues of abortion and gay marriage. It also allowed the Republicans to stimulate anger points concerning local issues – the teaching of Darwinism at the neighbourhood school, for example. The overriding Republican message was: if these things anger you, get out and vote, or they’ll just get worse.
The Republicans thus shifted most of their spending from undecided voters – the usual campaign target – to voters who were inclined towards Republican issues but who in the past either had not registered to vote or had not voted. Democrats were often baffled by the apparent lack of Republican activity in key areas, but they were looking in the wrong places. The Republicans were operating under the political radar screen. They were active in churches, golf clubs and even front rooms of private houses where people met and where, the data suggested, they were likely to support the Bush agenda.
The pollsters also looked in the wrong places. On election day, every exit poll showed a clear Kerry lead. Yet the polls were wrong, because they were wrong in the weightings they gave to different socioeconomic groups and in the assumptions they made about who would turn out to vote. The Bush team had, in effect, destroyed all the methodology on which polling and electoral analysis had been based for the past 50 years.
The potential analogies with the British campaign are obvious, even though the left-wing party is the incumbent and the right-wing party the challenger. Here, too, the right-wing party can eat away at the natural support for its main opponent’s leader by characterising him as untrustworthy. Indeed, some of the first polls of this campaign found 35 per cent expressing distrust of Tony Blair. Here, too, the Tories have an interest in underplaying conventional issues, such as the economy and health, on which they are thought to be weak. Here, too, the Christian right is growing in strength, as suggested by the well-orchestrated and unparalleled campaign to stop the BBC’s Jerry Springer: the opera in January. The Bush campaign succeeded partly because it wasn’t just the “official” Republicans speaking to the electorate. The Christian right was also delivering the message. According to the Charity Commission, in the past eight years, 5,000 new Christian organisations have registered for charitable status in the UK. Most have legitimate charitable purposes, but not all.
And here, too, the Tories can exploit “anger points” – on immigration, minority groups, crime and abortion – though it seems they will need to make subtle adjustments to the Republican strategy, given that British voters aren’t going to be as “angry” as American voters. Even before the campaign officially began, Michael Howard had commented on immigration, abortion and travellers, and had clearly gained traction with a section of the electorate. He kicked off his campaign on 10 April with more on immigration.
We shall not know the full story of the Tory campaign until after 5 May. The Tories subtly aim to convince voters that they can take the smile off Blair’s face without taking him out of No 10. If Labour does lose, it will be because the sizeable conservative vote in this country turns out and the more moderate “undecided” vote stays at home, or votes Liberal Democrat.
Steve Morgan, chairman of the UK consultancy Morgan Allen Moore, managed the foreign media for Kerry’s 2004 campaign