The US Election and the Changing Face of Electoral Politics

July 4, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

As the second term of President George W. Bush comes to an end, the majority of Americans are unhappy with the job he has done and that of Congress and the Supreme Court. Fuelled by this desire for change, the 2008 contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has shown that candidates who most symbolise a new approach to politics are the ones who are going to be most successful in the early twenty-first century.

Beyond the obvious and important manifestations of this need for change, the first black or female president, three key trends have also emerged. Firstly, it has become evident that the Democratic Party is moving away from policy driven campaigns in favour of those focusing on emotional appeals. Secondly, this campaign has signified a trend for more centrist politics, a factor which has also led to the nomination of John McCain as the Republican candidate. Lastly, the internet has played a noteworthy part in each campaign, both in terms of raising money and through the influence of the commentary written on the web.

By examining the differences between the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama it is possible to ascertain that the candidate who became less involved in detailed policy explanations and focused instead on constructing a clear and emotional message of change was more successful. This led to what many thought would be a strength for Clinton – being the wife of one of the most popular presidents in recent times – turning out to be a weakness by associating her with the past. It was also clear that the more she talked emotionally, such as in the New Hampshire primary, the more votes she polled.

While Obama mastered the personal narrative and emotional style required to attract voters, there was also a trend amongst all the Democrat candidates to adopt this style. His campaign, though, was based, more than any previous Democrat, around who he was and where he had come from, leading him to talk about his life rather than his ideas; something which Republican candidates have been doing successfully for decades.

This has not been the case in the past for Democratic candidates, who have tended to believe that emotional campaigns are inherently manipulative. Rejecting this notion signifies an end to the politics of the previous century, when the Republicans concentrated their campaigns on appealing to the emotions of the American people whereas the Democrats relied on rational argument and detailed policies.

In his book, The Political Brain, Drew Westen explains how the emotional parts of the brain override the rational and how this has led to the failure of the majority of Democrat presidential candidates. ‘You can slog it out for those few millimetres of cerebral turf that process facts, figures and policy statements’ in the way Al Gore and John Kerry did or ‘ you can take your campaign to the broader neural electorate,’ in the way we have seen Obama and to a lesser extent Clinton doing.

Whilst the candidates have tried to avoid drawn-out policy debates, when they have revealed their specific ideas these have been designed to appeal to the centre ground. For Obama this began in 2004 when, in a speech to the Democratic convention, he called for an end to the bickering of partisan politics. The New York Times reported that Obama ‘moved from his leftist Hyde Park base to more centrist circles; he forged early alliances with the good-government reform crowd only to be embraced later by the city’s all-powerful Democratic bosses; he railed against pork-barrel politics but engaged in it when needed; and he empathized with the views of his Palestinian friends before adroitly courting the city’s politically potent Jewish community.’

The 2008 primaries have also signified that the traditional sources of political news, while still the most important, are now being rivalled by those online, with 24% of Americans regularly learning something about this campaign from the internet. Moreover, the figure is 42% for voters aged 18-29, a sign that in the future the internet will be as significant as broadcast and print media to the success of political campaigns.

Not only is the internet providing people with a new medium from which to receive news, it is also breaking exclusive stories, utilising information from citizen journalists close to the campaign trail. Exemplifying this, the Huffington Post exclusively reported Obama’s comments that ‘it’s not surprising then they [citizens in small-town Pennsylvania] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion ‘ as a way to explain their frustrations.’ The resultant controversy threatened to damage Obama’s campaign and candidates must realise that as more people start blogging and setting up political websites their comments are going to come under greater scrutiny.

Whether the contest for the Democratic nomination heralds a new era, where people can rise to the top in politics or business without their race or sex being an issue, is impossible to deduce. Over thirty years ago Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the British Parliamentary Election was heralded by some as a symbol of the end of sexism in Britain. Yet, since then, none of the main parties have had a female leader and there pay inequality between men and women remains rife. In the past, however, the election of a non-white or female president was never a serious possibility, so while the extent of this campaign’s impact on society remains to be seen, it is already a significant step towards equality.

What the primaries and the early stages of the presidential election campaign have signified is a change in the way elections in America will be fought in the early twenty-first century. American politics will be about the battle for the centre ground, where key swing voters decide election results. Both parties will be appealing to the emotions of these voters, as Democratic politics becomes less about detailed policies and more about personality. What has also been evident is the role that the internet has played in the campaign strategies and success and failure of Obama and Clinton. As this century progresses it seems certain that these three changes will grow in significance, shaping American politics in the future.

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This post was written by Matt Genner

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