Alpha dogs, by James Harding

Vote-hounds at the thin end of a social wedge
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The Independent Culture

From the Maoist rebels of Nepal who recently left the jungle to enter politics to the Republicans and Democrats in the US, fighting through battleground states, everything in politics is becoming dominated by the internet. What was once a haphazard process of collating voter records and stitching them together on print-outs is now an incredibly sophisticated operation. Since the late 1990s, the Republicans (with Voter Vault) and the Democrats (with DataMart) have begun collecting files on each of America's 168 million registered voters. Every call is logged, and in a tight race, will earn a knock on the door.

There is enormous excitement, but also alarm, as so many aspects of elections become digitised. These are the same emotions that James Harding, now editor of The Times, reports the people behind the campaigning company Sawyer Miller felt in the late 1970s, when they identified the power of television to usher in direct dialogue and a more inclusive democracy. His tightly-written book Alpha Dogs is about this American company, which dominated political campaigns across the world.

It helped Cory Aquino get rid of President Marcos and his shoe-obsessed wife Imelda in the Philippines, by feeding stories about their excesses to American journalists. The man who got George W Bush elected twice to the White House was Mark McKinnon, a former Sawyer Miller man. One of Hillary Clinton's top advisers in her campaign was Mandy Grunwald, another veteran.

Harding's name came from watching dogs, where there is always a leader of a pack who controls things. The company eventually fell apart amid intrigue and miscalculations. But the techniques it developed, which put a premium on reaching an ever smaller number of swing voters, is even more pronounced this election time, with a black candidate in the race.

Rather than speak to the nation, politicians increasingly try to sway the few million Americans who matter. Thus the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a born-again Christian, is energising socially conservative voters. Already, data mining and polling by the parties are shaping the last weeks of the election. Listening to pollsters, Obama all but abandoned Georgia, which he once thought he might win. Instead he is criss-crossing Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan as the race gets tighter.

The men from Sawyer Miller have already seen their dreams of inclusive democracy turn to ashes, and they are predicting the same for the internet and democracy. Well-funded politicians now deliver slivers of policy to small segments of the electorate. The 2004 race for the White House was settled in southern Ohio, one wedge issue at a time. And the same may happen again this year.

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