Yes we can: will imported talent get Labor over the line?

Kevin Rudd has recruited three strategists from the US to help his election chances, continuing a trend of the ‘internationalisation’ of campaign craft. AAP/Dean Lewins

Kevin Rudd has imported three members of US president Barack Obama’s successful 2012 campaign team to advise on Labor’s September 7 re-election efforts.

This announcement has already achieved one of the things it was probably intended to do: it has generated headlines which frame the ALP as being at the cutting edge of campaign innovation.

In turn, those headlines will probably help achieve another of the things Rudd’s strategists had in mind when they hired Tom McMahon, Joon Kim and Matthew McGregor: to put the fear into the Liberal party by letting them know the ALP has brought the big guns to town.

But beyond giving Rudd yet another headline and conferring a touch of West Wing-style glamour, what can these three American campaigners actually contribute to the coming federal stoush?

Plus ça change…?

Australian political parties have long looked to the US as the “holy grail” of professionalised campaigning and tactical innovation. As Stephen Mills’ book The New Machine Men highlights, much of today’s standard campaign toolkit — direct mail, hard-hitting negative advertising, targeted messaging based on intensive market research — was lifted wholesale from successful American campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s.

More recently, the success of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 efforts has spawned a whole library of how-to-guides and manuals which line the shelves of our parties’ campaign headquarters. It has also generated a nice little earner on the Australian conference circuit for people like Obama’s chief digital strategist, Joe Rospars.

So there’s nothing very new about an Australian political party importing American know-how and ideas to give their campaigns a sharper edge. It’s also worth noting that election consulting has become a globalised industry with consultants regularly criss-crossing the world to share their knowledge. This includes Australian Lynton Crosby, who is currently advising David Cameron on the Conservative party’s political strategy for the 2015 UK elections and John McTernan, an ex Tony Blair aide who worked as Julia Gillard’s head of communications.

But the specific expertise of Rudd’s new hires indicates that the party has well and truly caught on to one of the biggest campaign trends in recent years, which is the use of highly professionalised, rigorously tested techniques to generate grassroots political engagement and peer-to-peer activism (somewhat ironically).

Parties use huge amounts of research, meticulous message development and a wide array of technological tools to work out how to spark political activity at a grassroots level and mobilise ordinary voters to become evangelists for their cause through their own physical and online networks. One of the Obama campaign’s best-publicised examples of this was the creation of a Facebook app which let people know which of their friends were in key battleground states or regions, and encouraged them to send those friends messages supporting Obama and reminding them to vote.

This combination of the high-tech and the homespun is seen as an important way to help parties connect with voters in a fractured media landscape where cynicism about politicians abounds. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Labor wants to get in on the action under the guidance of those who know these techniques best.

Getting out that compulsory vote

While the tactical side of things is all well and good, one of the most important contributions these veteran politicos may be able to make to Rudd’s re-election effort is in mobilising voters to actually turn out for Labor on election day. Despite compulsory voting, Australia has a real and growing turnout problem. At the 2010 election, for instance, 1.4 million people out of 15.5 million eligible citizens were not enrolled to vote, and a further 900,000 enrolled voters simply didn’t show up at the polls.

Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns in the US are now considered the ‘gold standard’ in politics. EPA/Shawn Thew

In addition to the stereotypical apathetic “Kath and Kim” suburbanites, recent research by Rob Hoffman and David Lazaridis suggests that many of these non-voters are inner-city professionals whose highly mobile, highly globalised lifestyles prevent them from maintaining a connection to local political issues and staying on the roll. The party that can work out how to connect with these voters and bring them into their fold will have a significant advantage at the next election and the ones beyond, so we would expect to see all political parties devoting more effort to this in 2013 than in their past campaigns.

Both Joon Kim and Matthew McGregor reportedly have particular expertise in get-out-the-vote efforts. Their work will help to boost the efforts of local ALP campaigners like Patrick Batchelor, who cut his teeth on the Obama campaign but has since returned to head up NSW Labor’s phone canvassing operations.

Young people are another key target for all political parties as they tend to have less fixed voting preferences and are therefore more open to persuasion, so McGregor’s skills in the use of social media for political mobilisation will no doubt be given a healthy workout over the next few months.

Celebrity wonks?

One final element that is interesting about Rudd’s decision to bring in several well-known political consultants is that the public knows. For a long time, Australian parties have tended to guard their campaign secrets very closely, with those involved rarely having much of a public profile or engaging in media metacommentary about their tools and tactics. This is in sharp contrast to the US, where big name political consultants are treated as celebrities and regularly become a prominent part of the campaign narrative.

Australians who keep a close eye on politics would be familiar with names like Bruce Hawker, Mark Textor, Brian Loughnane and George Wright. However, for the main part, finding out who does what, when and why in Australian campaigns generally involves a fair bit of digging. In the lead-up to this year’s election though, we have seen a lot more openness - particularly from the Labor side.

Some of this is undoubtedly about spin and psyching out their opponents. However, based on the interviews I’ve conducted with party campaigners for my thesis research, I believe it also reflects a growing sense of pride at how professional and responsive Australian campaigns have become. Like anyone who is proud of their work, there is an emerging generation of political campaigners who actually want other people to see and understand what they do. And fortunately for researchers like me, that seems to be driving a greater willingness to make public what would previously have been kept entirely private.

If current polling is right and the election result is now a 50-50 proposition, then Rudd’s new campaign crew will need to bring all their collective expertise to bear in getting the ALP over the line. But even if they don’t manage to get their man returned to The Lodge, McMahon, Kim and McGregor can at least take comfort in knowing they have maintained a long tradition of US influence over Australian campaigning.