US consultants: From swingometers to social media

UK politicians have long been in thrall to imported US consultants, but will it work for the 2015 general election?

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The Independent Online

American cultural imperialism – where in Britain will it ever end? TV shows, movies, music of every hue, even an assortment of Premier League goalkeepers; the eastward flood across the Atlantic knows no bounds. And now political advisers. Will a Yank be the deciding factor in who occupies 10 Downing Street after next year’s general election?

It’s true that the US hasn’t entirely cornered the consultancy market. An Australian, Lynton Crosby, will run the next Tory campaign, while Ryan Coetzee, a South African, is a top adviser to Nick Clegg. But the news that Ed Miliband has enlisted David Axelrod, architect of President Obama’s two presidential victories, as a senior strategist for 2015 surely trumps everything – with the added spice that one of his opposite numbers in David Cameron’s camp is Jim Messina, who was Obama’s campaign manager last time around. Apostasy, it would seem, has no limits.

Study the phenomenon more closely, however, and it’s probably less than meets the eye. Axelrod may be a superstar, but cross-fertilisation between British and American political campaigns has been around for decades. Long before Miliband decided to tap Obama’s team, Tony Blair’s campaigns were populated with Bill Clinton operatives; before that, John Major’s people gave a helping hand to George H W Bush and the Thatcher and Reagan teams regularly swapped notes.

And those with longer memories will recall Bob McKenzie, he of the swingometer, that fixture of UK general election nights. McKenzie was a BBC employee rather than a consultant, and a Canadian, not an American. But for me at least, his transatlantic tones added an exoticism, a dash of foreign expertise, to proceedings.

If Americanisation has lately gathered pace, the ever more “presidential” nature of British elections is the obvious reason why. In theory, these are no more than the sum total of 650 simultaneous constituency campaigns; in practice, they revolve almost exclusively around the respective party leaders, who might as well be White House candidates. The influx of high-powered (and high-priced) US campaign talent is thus anything but surprising.

In terms of modern political technology, McKenzie’s swingometer is a stone age flint compared to a thermonuclear device. And as with nuclear weapons, the Americans are market leaders in the science of elections: the use of the internet and social media to mobilise activists, target voters and get them to the polling stations.

But as so often in Anglo-American relations, cultural affinities have their limits. In the US, the top political consultants are celebrities in their own right. Stereotype dictates that they must be possessed of ruthlessness, manic energy and a limitless appetite for late-night pizza. They must be spectacularly profane. They must be masters not only of the dark arts of push polling and dirty tricks, but also of the slick phrases by which campaigns are remembered, and perhaps won and lost too: George W Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, for instance, or Ronald Reagan’s “It’s morning in America”.

The best of them – such as the 1980s Republican operative Lee Atwater; or James Carville, the “Ragin’ Cajun” of Clinton’s campaigns; Karl Rove (aka “Bush’s brain”); and most recently Axelrod and Messina – become part of US political legend. And if the world they inhabit feels like Hollywood, where life and art imitate each other shamelessly, that’s because it is.

The 1992 Clinton campaign spawned an acclaimed documentary, The War Room, featuring Carville, George Stephanopoulos et al. It also was the inspiration for the hit movie Primary Colors, based on Joe Klein’s roman à clef of the same name, in which Billy Bob Thornton played to perfection a cut-throat, redneck political consultant modelled on Carville.

As for George Clooney’s 2011 drama The Ides of March, the best character is the crumpled, battle-weary campaign manager portrayed by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. And there’s The West Wing on TV, sprinkled with idealistic, pizza-guzzling aides, which has probably done more to shape perceptions about how American politics works than a dozen real-life presidential elections.

In Britain, though, it’s not quite like that – or not yet. Often the US political consultant is more colourful than the candidate he works for. (Take Atwater and the first president Bush.) And if they’re guns for hire, who cares? Messina is a prime example of that, although in fairness Cameron is closer ideologically to Obama than to the Republicans, the Tories’ supposed American counterparts.

By comparison, our politics retain a certain staidness. And however popular The West Wing is among British viewers, we don’t like the idea of our system being run by foreigners, even good-humoured souls such as David Axelrod, let alone by the Roves of this world, still tainted by the Dubya connection. So we may not be hearing too much more of Messrs Axelrod and Messina. Both will apparently be doing much of their work from the US, so don’t look out for them on the hustings in Leeds South East, or in post-debate spin rooms at Westminster.

And will they really have an impact? Do political consultants really make a difference, even on home turf? In Axelrod’s case, he indubitably did – but not in terms of helping his boss to beat Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney to win the White House.

His real feat was to have helped mastermind Obama’s victory in the 2008 primaries, against all the initial odds, over Hillary Clinton. By the time the election rolled around in November, Bush fatigue and the economic meltdown meant that Obama was as much a shoo-in as Blair in Britain 11 years earlier – when Caligula’s horse might have won Labour a landslide and the cleverest, most ruthless consultant on earth couldn’t have saved John Major.