Party politics leads campaign down US trail

Zim Nwokora, seated, makes a point with right arm gesticulation
Dr Zim Nwokora says ALP strife has led to Kevin Rudd's presidential-style election campaign.

Dr Zim Nwokora is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Griffith’s School of Government and International Relations.

One of the distinctive aspects of US presidential campaigns is that presidential hopefuls have to face off against each other in the nomination process in the period immediately before the election.

This happens in both parties if there is no incumbent president running or in one party if there is an incumbent president running for re-election.

This fact, the need to win the nomination, creates an important dilemma for presidential aspirants: the best strategy to win the nomination may clash with the best strategy for winning in the presidential election that follows.

This is mainly because of key differences in the composition of the relevant electorates. Generally, the folk who participate in the primaries and caucuses that make up the nomination process hold more extreme political preferences than the average voter. So, for example, the average Republican primary voter is probably more conservative than a similar individual who votes Republican in the presidential election but does not get involved in nomination politics. The result of this dilemma is a tricky balancing act.

This dilemma of balancing nomination and election campaign strategies doesn’t usually occur in countries such as Australia or the UK, because party leaders are normally in place for a substantial period before the general election, and because leadership selection is a more closed affair. The result is that party leaders are guarded against internal party politics, especially in the run-up to an election because their party will want to look as united as possible.

Against this background, the forthcoming Australian election is very interesting. On the Labor side, we have a Prime Minister who has faced an Australian version of the dilemma outlined above. In Kevin Rudd’s case, he has maintained a relatively high standing in the nation while struggling to keep his parliamentary colleagues on his side. Indeed for three years they backed an alternative choice as party leader and Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, despite Rudd’s obvious availability and generally higher standing in the nation. The legacy of this recent intra-party strife is likely to be a key issue in this election. This is rare in Australia, where the party leader tends to be well established in position some time before the election. But this class of problem – how to reconcile defeated internal opponents while appealing to the nation – is common in the run-up to American presidential elections.

We often hear of the “Americanization” of politics in Australia (and elsewhere). This phrase is a bit unclear, but normally it concerns the perception that politics and elections in particular are less issue-focused, more personality-focused, and more expensive. If this captures some of what is meant by “Americanization” then Australian politics are clearly headed in that direction and, from what I’ve read, have been for some time.

The explanations for such trends are a more complex matter. One interesting question is the extent to which the parties themselves are driving such changes, or whether the changes are due mainly to factors such as technology advancements or broader cultural changes.

Kevin Rudd has brought in some experienced and talented campaign strategists from the US. This is not new. There is a vibrant international trade in campaign strategists, with strategists offering advice to clients in far-away places. Sometimes they even take up formal staff appointments for overseas campaigns.

The record of obvious successes/failures is quite mixed. It is hard to know in precise terms the impact of such advice and appointments. To find someone who can reliably win against his/her rivals in this game is tough and highly valuable. There may be precious lessons that such winners can pass on.

On the other hand, there are grounds to doubt that such appointments will make a big difference. While it is easy to identify who wins in an election, it is often hard to know why they won! A candidate can win because of his campaign operation or despite it, and telling the difference is not as easy as it may seem. Also, there are key differences between countries, cultures, and candidates that may make it difficult for winning tricks in one context to be transported to another context. For instance, a key strategic concern for US candidates and their advisers is how to maximize their turnout and suppress their rival’s, yet this is pretty irrelevant in Australia because of compulsory voting.

In short, it’s hard to tell whether Rudd’s recruitment of Obama strategists will be, overall, a good or bad thing for his prospects. If he can draw out their valuable advice, apply it to the Australian context, and use it to enhance his prospects without looking uncertain or inconsistent in his campaign approach, it may yet turn out to be a big plus.