To fully understand the American techniques of marketing and communication we must first look at the process of elections in the USA and how they are conducted. It is also relevant to consider the historical base from which this system has grown and to then equate that with political parties in Europe.
`” No nation in the world has as many elections as the USA”. Over half a million posts are filled in presidential years and over one million in an election cycle, anything from school and county boards to the President himself. The USA also has state referendums on local issues but we are interested in the presidential race as this magnifies the marketing in elections. Electioneering begins in earnest in January of the election year when candidates from the two main parties, Republicans and Democrats, put themselves forward for nomination. We shall look at this in more detail later. February starts the primaries in which states vote on who they wish to become their candidate for the White-House. These primaries continue up to July but are not held in every state and in the states where they are conducted they have different systems of voting.
They can be either open, anybody who wants may vote in a primary, or closed so that only party members can vote. These primaries are of key importance to funding as we shall see later. Some areas also hold caucuses, a form of meeting or convention, at either local or state level to discuss the candidates which can be attended by between, theoretically, two and more normally anything up to 132,000.
The purpose of these primaries and caucuses is to decide on a candidate to run for election and towards the end of July states hold conventions to decide on an overall nomination. These nominations are then taken to the national convention in late July where the final candidate is nominated for the presidential race. Once selected the two main candidates, three if an independent stands as did Ross Periot for a while, begin the campaign trail from September to the first week in November when elections are held. Once elected the President is inaugurated in January for his term of office. The whole cycle of elections has taken over a year from start to finish.
`This is in sharp contrast to the British election cycle which lasts for about one month. Instead of the fixed four years of the USA in Britain elections are held at any time within a five year period. This has been as short as six months as in 1974 when Harold Wilson called a second election in October after the first in February to secure a greater majority in the House of Commons. Elections in Britain are called at the discretion of the Prime Minister, convention states that the Queen dissolves Parliament but this is always done on the advice of the P.M.. These are not the only elections in Britain, we also have local and European elections, but again the contrast is amplified in these contests although the elections are conducted in different formats. We must also understand that other variables are thrown into the equation such as the growth of broadcast media and the changing role of society which reflects current affairs.
`Election campaigns have to be funded and the USA spends some $1.8 billion (1988 figures) in the presidential elections year alone whereas Britain spends a mere ï¿½50 million (1992 figures) on estimated figures. Money however plays an important role in American politics much more than can be said in Britain. Until 1974 American political campaigns were funded by parties from donations from individuals and corporate bodies. This was until Watergate when the whole notion of influence through donations was brought into question. Nixons CREEP organisation, a body set up to Campaign for the RE-Election of the President, was found to have used illegal contributions and was “..corrupt to the core…” and much evidence was uncovered on influence peddling. The Nixon campaign had broken much of the 1971 Election Campaign Act which required public disclosure of funds raised. This led directly to the Federal Elections Act of 1974 which strove to limit the influence of political donations by introducing public funding of campaigns albeit on a dollar for dollar basis up to a set limit.
`This law introduced a system for individuals to contribute $1 of their tax each year to their nominated party. Each election the two major parties receive $20 million to fund their campaigns. National and state organisations can raise $2.9 million and $2 million can be used for national conferences. Individual candidates can spend up to $10.9 million on primaries and state conventions. If we compare this to the 1972 election McGovern spent $30 million plus $11.8 million in the primaries, Nixon spent $50 million but still had money to spare which may have been why money was directed to finance the break-in at Watergate. The 1974 act also put a limit on how much could be donated to the parties. For individuals they could donate no more than $1000 for each campaign per year and no more than $25,000 to all campaigns per year. The primaries and presidential campaigns counted as two campaigns. For companies and unions the limit was $5,000 but each part of a multi national company and regional unions could contribute this amount. These financial limits have played a major role in the restructuring of election marketing.
`Prior to 1974 money went to the candidates almost unchecked but with the strict accounting rules new methods of raising finance were needed and so entered the mail-shot as a major source of fund raising. Campaigns now had to collect donations from many small contributors instead of a few large ones. An industrial artform of mail-shot was created to fill this role. The British have no real political equivalent, the closest being the Liberal Democrats who canvass their members for funds, 90% coming in this way according to party literature. The two main parties receive their funding from large organisations, Labour from the unions and the Conservatives from business (over 50%). The 1987 election expenses for each party were, Conservatives ï¿½11.8 million, Labour ï¿½6.7 million and the Alliance ï¿½4.2 million.
Because British politics is not constrained in its search for revenue the need for mailshots is of little importance here. This is not to say that raising money is not important simply that the ease of collecting large donations makes it unnecessary especially as elections are called only a month in advance which does not leave much time for soliciting. One strange fact is that American politics has a much lower turnout than that of Britain, 50% compared to around 75% which may seem strange in that a political system that asks for so much money fails to galvanise a large turnout yet an ostracised electorate turns out in higher numbers. One answer is that American voters are left to register themselves where as British voters are registered by the state.
`What parties do with their money is, however, more important that how much they have to spend. This is especially true in the USA where it is generally believed that only in the 1968 election, money was a minor issue. American politics only requires money to start the race but it is difficult to hypothesise about whether a candidate would have won if he never enters the race. British parties do not have to elect presidents, both main parties select their own leader, leaving much needed cash for the campaign itself.
`Campaign styles have changed much since Tom Payne spoke to crowds of over half a million a few hundred years ago. The television era is here, 98% of all homes have one compared to under 50% in the early 1960’s. This has resulted in a decline in the printed word which has inevitably led to political parties focusing on the electronic media. Newspapers, with no restrictions on bias both in America and Britain, are seen as unconvertible. Why try to change the papers affiliation especially as in a resent British study only 29% of people trust what they read in the tabloids, which only reach in all some 12 million people. They may not even read the political debates.
Much more important is the television as Nixon learned to his peril back in 1963. Nixon is generally credited with losing this election because he looked bad on television. It was said that he looked shifty and uneasy but the simple fact was he was unwell but this did nothing for his all important image. John Major had similar problems when questioned by the Guardian over the P.S.B.R. but the closest analogy is that of Neil Kinnock in the same election. He has himself stated that the Sheffield conference which was very similar to American national conferences in terms of glitz, cost him the election because it “…looked wrong…”. One idea why is that British politics is taken at a much more hectic pace, only campaigning for a month each cycle, so policy instead of showmanship is important. America has to sustain a year long campaign which means they soon run out of new political ideas to explicate.
`Britain unlike America does not have presidential or leader debates, John Major turned Neil Kinnocks request down, but in the 1992 election Ministers debated with their shadow counterparts on B.B.C.1. Television time is used differently in America where much of the revenue is spent on advertising on television. but political advertising is banned on mainstream television. in Britain. Here the parties rely on political broadcasts but a new trend appeared in the 1992 election. I.T.V. changed its broadcast slot to 6.55pm to catch prime time viewing in between the news and popular programmes and C4 ran them after midnight. Americans are used to political advertising placed at prime spots before popular programmes but both countries rely on extensive news coverage which is, of course, free.
This is why parties in both countries now employ television. gurus such as Brendan Bruce who fashioned John Majors image by manipulating his image. He was shown eating in a Happy Eater and at football matches giving him a man of the people look. This was also reflected in political broadcasts when John Major showed us around Brixton where he grew up. Bill Clinton used similar tactics, playing the saxophone on a chat show. With the end of the cold war the popularity of national issues has increased which led to the defeat of George Bush who was felt to be a world diplomat but not hot on national issues.
`It is clear that much of the techniques of the USA have been used in Britain but has the USA exported these techniques to Britain. In western styled democracies there are many similarities in elections, the use of ballots and so on but electioneering must be tailored to individual countries. The fact that two top Conservative members went to assist George Bush in his election campaign may suggest that it is a two way process. Geography and national laws have more influence on campaign styles as does national issues although these national issues may not be unique to the individual country. The growth of electronic media has meant that increasing focus is attached to the leaders of the main parties, as Tony Benn commented ” We don’t discuss the issues any more…we have got to think about politics, as distinct from admiring politicians…”.
`Financing Politics (1984) Herbert Alexander, CQ Press.
`Elections in America (1980) Gerald Pomper, Longman.
`Presidential Elections (1988) Nelson Polsby, The Free Press.
`Contemporary British Politics (1991) Bill Coxall, MacMillan.
`Le Nurb (16th Nov. 1993) Chris Foster.
`Broadcast Watch (23rd March 1992) Prof. Peter Golding, The Independent.
`Media Coverage (1992) Kim Thorogood, Loughborough College.