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Dr Muriel Newman

Old vs new politics

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In his victory speech, newly re-elected US President Barack Obama expressed his hope for the future, saying that what made America great was love, duty, sharing and patriotism.

“Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward. It moves forward because of you. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.”

As uplifting as these words may be, Barak Obama’s presidential success has been widely attributed more to his formidable campaign “machine” than his comments about nationhood. As the campaign began, he hit the ground running. Many of the office networks he had established in 2008 in swing states had been maintained, with organisers deeply embedded within their communities identifying potential voters and passing the information on to the Party’s database.

Expert data-mining was central to the campaign. There is a story about three journalists, who had given their mobile phone numbers to the Obama campaign at a function earlier in the day. That evening they were sitting together in a bar when their phones simultaneously received text messages. The intern was asked to text back and donate US$5, the assistant producer was asked for US$12, and the senior executive was asked for US$120. “The Obama campaign could divide us up by rank and disposable income within five hours of getting our data,” one of the astounded journalists said.1

As well as a sophisticated database and an army of analysts, the Obama campaign’s “get-out-to-vote” operation (that focussed on finding, persuading, and turning out voters) outperformed all expectations. In many areas their vote surpassed that achieved in 2008, despite expectations that support for the incumbent President would wane. Ensuring Obama supporters actually voted was critical to their success.

There is no doubt that campaign slip-ups affected the end result. Mitt Romney’s “off the record” comments about how 47 percent of voters were dependent on the government and believed they were “victims”- and would therefore probably never support him – allowed opponents to claim that he only cared about the rich. And Barack Obama’s dismal performance in the first presidential debate, which made him appear tired and disillusioned, seriously derailed his campaign.

Exit polls have provided an interesting snapshot of voter behaviour and preferences. Most voters had made up their mind who to vote for well ahead of voting day. Only 3 percent of voters made their choices on the day, 6 percent decided in the week before Election Day, 11 percent had made up their mind in October, 9 percent in September, and 69 percent well before that.2

According to those polls, 59 percent of voters said the most important issue facing the country was the economy, 18 percent said healthcare, 15 percent the deficit, and 5 percent foreign policy. When voters were asked to rank the most important candidate quality, 29 percent said they must have a vision for the future, 27 percent thought they should “share my values”, 21 percent said they should care about people, and 18 percent said they should be a strong leader.

Of those who were married, 38 percent of men and 46 percent of women voted for Obama, while 60 percent of men and 53 percent of women voted for Romney. For those who were unmarried, 56 percent of men and 67 percent of women voted for Obama, while 40 percent of men and 31 percent of women voted for Romney.

By demographics, 45 percent of men voted for Obama; 55 percent of women; 60 percent of youth aged between 18 and 29; 93 percent of African-Americans; 73 percent of Asians; 71 percent of Hispanics; 60 percent of those with an annual income of $50,000 or less; 44 percent of those with an income over $100,000; 62 percent of Americans who live in urban areas, and 39 percent who live in rural areas.

Governor Romney failed to win the vote of young people, African-Americans and Hispanics. This has been interpreted as showing that the Republicans are ideologically out of tune with the fast-growing segments of the population. In addition, their hard-line approach on moral issues like gay rights alienated many liberals, and their opposition to abortion in particular, enabled the Obama campaign to claim the Republicans were waging a “war on women”.

The US presidential election result is a reflection of the shift that is taking place within society – a shift from old to new. Mitt Romney represented “old” America, while Barak Obama represented the “new” America. Obama’s superior campaign machine connected with new America and ensured voters who might otherwise have been expected to stay at home got out to vote.

It is always interesting when analysing overseas elections to look for parallels here at home. New Zealand has always had a traditional left-right voting split based largely on economic issues such as taxes, benefits, and the role of government. Over recent years however, this has been changing as a consensus on how to best run a modern economy has been developing between political parties. Most would now support free trade, free enterprise, lower taxes, less government debt, a balanced budget, and the basics of the Reserve Bank Act, which means that traditional party differences are largely a matter of degree rather than position.

This convergence on core economic issues is no doubt contributing to the defining of voter issues on social grounds. In New Zealand, while the growing societal split between old and new is essentially between social conservatism and liberalism, our political parties are not as strongly aligned on these issues as they are in the US. This is probably due to the fact that moral issues are largely determined by the conscience votes of individual Members of Parliament, rather than a Party vote. Parties themselves often do not take strong positions on controversial social issues.

Professor Jack Vowles from the New Zealand Election Survey reminds us that sometimes party policies and positions can be so similar that elections become more like popularity contests. In a study of the 2008 election, he explains the major contest was not the economy, but what he calls “valence” – factors that are liked or disliked by the electorate: “National presented itself as a party of the centre, making little challenge to Labour’s major policy achievements. It won with a combination of positive and negative valence strategies: the negative, by casting the declining competence of Labour’s final years in government in the worst possible light; and by selecting a new leader who could promise a better future.”3

In comparison, with the global financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes impacting heavily on the country last year, the focus of the 2011 election was the economy. Traditional policy issues of taxation, government spending, welfare reform, and unemployment dominated the campaign, with voters looking for the safest pair of hands to manage the country. As a result, the left-right voter split was greater than in 2008.

One of the surprises of the 2011 election, was the success of the Green Party, which won 11.1 percent and 14 MPs. Dr Bryce Edwards, a politics lecturer at the University of Otago, explains that “The environment was a valence issue in 2011: no one was ‘against’ the environment”. While parties all had environmental policies, the issues had failed to gain traction – that is until the container ship the MV Rena ran onto a reef off the coast of Tauranga 6 weeks before the election. As Dr Edwards puts it, “The clear political beneficiary was the Green Party… the grounded boat was the largest and most effective free billboard that the Greens could have asked for.”4

While the Rena disaster undoubtedly raised the profile of environmental issues, the party itself had taken major steps to modernise itself – repositioning, re-branding, and renewing itself as the last of the party’s founding MPs retired. In addition it ran an energetic and IT savvy campaign, which saw it reach out to voters, who were attracted to its liberal policies – and obviously not turned off by economic ideas that sound good but do not stand up to scrutiny.

The reality is that politics is won at the margins and politicians will do whatever they can to get their parties the support they need to get them over the line.

MMP has added another level of complexity to New Zealand politics. It is no longer just their voters that government parties have to satisfy, but coalition partners as well. Sometimes these can be in conflict, as we have seen in recent years, where National Party supporters who want one law for all find themselves as coalition bedfellows with Maori Party supporters who are pushing for sovereignty.

Satisfying coalition partners and their supporters is also expensive – taxpayers pay a high price when politicians engage in coalition courtship. The government has justified asset sales as a means of providing itself with an estimated $5-6 billion of discretionary funding – ostensibly earmarked for schools and hospitals. Professor Roger Bowden, the former head of the Department of Economics and Finance at Victoria University and this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, is sceptical. He has been analysing the government’s accounts to determine whether there are any potential budget blow-outs that the asset sales money might be needed for. And he didn’t need to look far. Vote Treaty Negotiations reveals that the true cost of the Treaty settlement process is expected to reach a massive $5-6 billion dollars! In his article Schools, Hospitals and Raw Prawns – those asset sales again, he states:

“Let’s start with the annual appropriations for running costs, covering such things as negotiation costs, the Waitangi Tribunal & representation, and disbursements under the Marine and Coastal Area Act. The 2012 budget request is $169,969m. The same annual sum capitalised over 10 years at the current NZ govt bond yield, as the opportunity cost of capital, comes to $1,409m. Now add in the cost of outstanding and projected settlements up to 2016, amounting to $2,800m. Together with the capitalised running costs, that comes to $4,209m.”

When the top-up payments and co-management costs are added in, the promised funding for health and education from the government’s asset sales programme looks likely to be swallowed up by the on-going cost of the Treaty gravy train. Professor Bowden concludes, “Any way you add up the sums, the message is that present and future commitments under just the one Vote, Treaty Negotiations, will comes to something like 5-6 billion dollars in total present value, probably even more. It’s hard to find Votes with a similarly spectacular explosion.”

As diverse as America is, in his victory speech President Obama was able to genuinely say “…we are an American family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.”

As things stand, could our Prime Minister honestly say “…we are a New Zealand family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people”?