Q&A: How are US elections different?

Al Jazeera speaks with Dr Jason Johnson about the presidential race, campaign consultants, and the role of the Internet.

Under a President Romney, a 'return to more aggressive foreign policy' is likely, says Johnson [AP]
Under a President Romney, a 'return to more aggressive foreign policy' is likely, says Johnson [AP]

Dr Jason Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Hiram College in the swing state of Ohio, has been in our studio with us this morning, discussing all things US election-related.

Al Jazeera’s Asad Hashim spoke with him about what distinguishes the US election from other presidential elections, in terms of how it occurs, and the role that campaign consultants play in shaping a candidate’s message.

Asad Hashim: You’ve been an election observer in South Africa and Mexico, and have watched closely, I’m sure, elections in many other countries. What, for you, stands out about the US elections process – if anything at all? What makes it different – or are all government leadership races around the world basically about the same things, in your experience?

Dr Jason Johnson: The biggest difference is the amount of money and sophistication employed in US elections versus most of the rest of the world. Here’s a quick example: Internet penetration in the United States is about 78 percent. … In Mexico, it’s about 24 percent and in South Africa it’s about 12 percent. Something as simple as Internet access has a huge impact on how these campaigns are run. American campaigns can email people, tailor advertisements for certain groups, create Facebook pages, MySpace pages; and a whole series of analytical programmes are employed that collect data from the Internet.

That is simply not possible in most other parts of the world. If you are campaigning in South Africa or Mexico, there are huge swathes of the country with limited access to phones, radio, television and of course the Internet. Which means you either have to go out and directly contact those voters, or, as is often the case in Mexico, huge groups of people are just ignored during the election since they are harder to access during the campaign. 

AH: Your recent research and book have focused on how campaign consultants form messages and policies. Mitt Romney, in recent days, has moved firmly towards the centre from the space he occupied during the race for the Republican primaries, where he described himself as “severely conservative”. Now, in swing states like New Hampshire, he is talking about how he has shown the ability to be bipartisan and work with Democrats to achieve compromise solutions during his time as governor of Massachusetts, for example.

So which one is the “real” Romney? And, if they’re both real, which one is likely to be president, should he be elected? What will that be dictated by?

JJ: They are both the “real” Mitt Romney, which is why the Obama campaign has attacked him so often for being a flip-flopper and not having core values. Mitt Romney is a manager: he loves to collect information and find solutions to problems, but (and this is similar to Obama) he may be more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.

[Romney] may be a moderate Republican in his heart, but he will not stand up to the more extreme elements of his own party.

– Dr Jason Johnson

That poses serious concerns for many Americans. If Mitt Romney is willing to so radically change his core stances on issues like abortion, healthcare and foreign policy depending on the audience he’s speaking to, it is difficult to gauge how a man like that will govern. Part of the issue is also the fact that Romney is not particularly popular with the conservative core of his own party, which means that he will likely be pushed even further to the right if he is elected president.

One thing that is key about Romney, however: he may be a moderate Republican in his heart, but he will not stand up to the more extreme elements of his own party. Does Mitt Romney really want to end abortion and overturn Roe vs Wade [the US Supreme Court case that essentially legalised abortion in 1973]?

Unlikely. But would he put up a fight if Republicans in Congress try to eliminate abortion? Absolutely not. If he were to take over the presidency, it would appear that much of his administration would be old [George W] Bush people. He is already taking advice from [former US ambassador to the UN] John Bolton, so much of the rest of the world should be prepared for a return to more aggressive foreign policy should Romney get elected. This is not to suggest that Obama hasn’t continued much of Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Romney the president has at least suggested an even more aggressive stance. 

AH: Do you think that campaign consultants have an appropriate level of influence over candidates? At the end of the day, are candidates for the US presidency still able to maintain executive control, as it were, over their messaging and political stances?

JJ: Campaign consultants have a great deal of influence on candidates, but that is not nearly as problematic as many in the press would like to think. A campaign manager ultimately works at the behest of a candidate. If they suggest something the candidate doesn’t like, it will not hit the airwaves, or the radiowaves or the mouths of campaign surrogates.

The larger problem now is that with [the] Citizens United [ruling by the US Supreme Court], you can have campaign managers that are actively working on behalf of one candidate, with millions of dollars in their coffers, who are beholden to no one. So now if Mitt Romney wants to disavow a campaign that attacks Obama for supposedly being born in Kenya, he can simply have an outside group of campaigners do his dirty work for him.

The other issue, which I write about extensively in my book, is that campaign managers increasingly move from the campaign trail into the halls of government. Communications directors become speechwriters, GOTV [get out the vote] specialists become policy analysts in the legislature, and basically the campaigns never actually end because the staffs move seamlessly from the field to the government.

Follow Dr Jason Johnson on Twitter: @drjasonjohnson

Source : Al Jazeera

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