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Election Campaigns

Are campaign consultants, and their techniques, of any use?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Political communication consultants (in their modern incarnation, an American invention) have become global celebrities. Political leaders in particular listen to the major ones with rapt attention, and their books and diaries tumble unto bookshelves with regularity. An example is Dispatches from the War Room: in the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders by Stanley B. Greenberg. In the memoir, Greenberg, one of the most notable pollsters and campaign consultants of his generation, chronicles the campaigns he ran with Bill Clinton of the United States, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Tony Blair of Great Britain, Ehud Barak of Israel, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia, and many more. What is more, major documentaries and movies are being made about what these political communication consultants do. The most recent is Our Brand is Crisis (2015), starring Sandra Bullock and Bob Thornton. 

Not only are these consultants getting to work all over the world and earn container- loads of cash, their methods are spreading. And the methods are also influencing what other campaigns do, including efforts by social movements and civil society organizations worldwide. The challenge is more or less the same: how do you get citizens to make a move (vote, protest against injustices, support a good cause/reform efforts etc.)?

How to Insult Your Opponent

Sina Odugbemi's picture

You really should not go around insulting those who take an opposing viewpoint in public debate. The ideal is clear. You treat opponents with respect. You take seriously what they are saying. In responding, you do not cheat, you do not unfairly sum up or characterize what they are saying. You acknowledge facts; you are not entitled to inventing your own facts. Above all, as much as possible, you avoid logical fallacies. You argue logically and cogently. For, that is the only way that the search for truth is advanced, and it is the only way that informed public opinion created. In short, abuse is no argument. Civility in public discourse is a great and worthwhile ideal.

And yet!

Much of public debate and discussion takes the form of invective. It was always thus; and it seems it will always be thus. The culprits, I suppose, are human passions; those self-same unruly horses that carry us to great heights when we want to achieve something worthwhile. We often become so convinced that we are right that we cannot imagine how anyone would disagree. And when we confront opponents who are as certain as we are that they are right something seems to snap. Faces contort. Abuse and spit fly. No matter how often people are told to calm down, commit to logical reasoning, respect facts… nothing seems to work. A huge chunk of public debate on the great issues of the day is characterized by the trading of insults.

Insults must serve a purpose, otherwise how come all public political cultures have them?

For Political Communication, the Age of Nerds and Big Data is Here

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Sophisticated campaign communication (an important part of political communication) is a field both invented and dominated by American practitioners and scholars. When I ask my associates in the field why this is so, the reason they usually give me is the sheer quantity and frequency of democratic elections in the American political system. Therefore, they point out, human and material resources have been poured into the science and the art of winning election campaigns.  What is important for our purposes is that  the practices of American political communicators tend to spread worldwide... like much else in American culture. Politicians in newly democratizing polities have for decades now invited American political consultants to help them run and win elections. Local specialists have also mushroomed, many of them trained by the American universities who offer amazingly good degrees in communication, particularly political communication. If you are interested in campaign communication as a global phenomenon, a good place to start is Fritz Plasser's Global Political Campaigning: A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices (2002).

My bet is that at least two aspects of the recently concluded presidential election campaign in the United States -- a spectacular showcase of political communication at work -- will prove influential globally. President Obama was re-elected and it was a big win, but for campaign communication two methods won big victories of their own and they are likely to be flattered with imitation worldwide. They are as follows:

The Perils of Biased Communication: Lessons From an Election Campaign

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

While we're advocating for the role of communication in governance it is important to sometimes point out when communication doesn't work, or doesn't work the way you want it to. Critical questions for campaigns in general are: Can communication change people's minds and the way they decide? Can communication have any adverse effects that would go against the objectives of the campaign?

The Annenberg Public Policy Center and their initiative FactCheck.org organized an event last week, which had US interest groups discussing their campaign advertising in this year's US midterm election. A recent Supreme Court decision allows unlimited corporate funding for independent political broadcasts in candidate elections. This was first enacted in the 2010 election campaign and led to a wave of political advertising by groups other than parties and candidates. This created a veritable cacophony of voices from all sides of the political spectrum and made one wonder about the usefulness of it all.