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Looking on the bright side.

There have always been people whose job it was to put the most positive light on political statements and to minimize the damage following a screw-up. But, in politics today the talents of spin-doctors have been raised to new levels. They have developed techniques for grooming politicians--hairstyles, clothing , etc.--to enhance voter appeal.

It isn't surprising that political consultants say election campaigns are won and lost in the research phase. After all, it's their job to do the research and advise candidates. And, it makes sense that gathering lots of information about voters will help parties establish winning platforms. (Never mind what they believe in, it's getting those votes that counts.)

In the summer of 1999, Campaigns & Elections, the monthly bible of American electioneering, held its first conference in Canada. Called "Winning Elections With New Global Techniques and Technologies," the meeting was organized to discuss political campaigning as both an art and a science. The whole process involves applying market-research techniques to politics: studying the population characteristics of ridings; finding out where the two-income households are for example, what percentage have kids in private schools, the median income for seniors, majority religious faiths, voters' concerns, desires, beliefs, and values. This is the stuff upon which policy positions are made and campaign strategies built.

Politicians now take intensive training in voice, hand gestures, and other body language. Advertising techniques are studied minutely for use in election campaigns. Photo ops, message tracks, sounds bites, and other persuasion tools have become very important in the political process. Heavily rehearsed candidates work hard to project an authentic image. Unscripted moments can create havoc in election campaigns and handlers take every possible precaution to avoid them.

But, even following the script has its pitfalls; it was a spin-doctor who thought it might be a good idea to have former Alliance leader Stockwell Day turn up for a press conference in September 2000 aboard a jet-ski, dressed in a wetsuit. It was all designed to project an image of youthful virility and physical fitness to contrast against an aging Prime Minister Jean Chretien. One of Mr. Day's supporters even compared his performance to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s; letters to the editor heaped scorn on his antics, saying any comparison to Mr. Trudeau, a brilliant visionary and thinker, and a very fit outdoorsman, was ludicrous.

On top of all this, cottagers across the country have long been at war with noisy, polluting jet-skis. It never occurred to Mr. Day's handlers that a lot of voters are concerned about environmental issues. Some called the carefully staged watercraft show Daywatch. Then-NDP Leader Alexa McDonough referred to Mr. Day as Stock the Jock, and Liberal MPs announced, "There's a new Stockwell Day action figure coming out. Policies not included." Even in his home province of Alberta, critics suggested he was strong only from the neck down. Political cartoonists had a field day because the whole stunt was a monumental blunder.

Of course, everyone expects politicians to highlight their finer moments and gloss over their less than stellar performance. It's when accentuating the positive becomes lying that feathers are ruffled, For instance, when Ontario's Conservative Premier Ernie Eves called an election in 2003, the government ran TV ads that boasted about its achievements in education and in health care. The reality was that years of funding cuts in both areas had created angry teachers, textbook and program-starved students, overworked, disgruntled nurses and doctors, and lines of untreated patients. The caring government depicted in the ads added insult to injury by using taxpayers' money to pay for them. The voters expressed their outrage when they handily replaced Mr. Eves with Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty as premier.

Some of the spinners have come a real cropper on the international scene. Today, it's clear that U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were being economical with the truth about their reasons for their attack on Iraq in 2003. Mr. Blair's credibility took a severe blow when the public saw that he distorted what the intelligence services actually said about the threat from Iraq in order to manufacture a case for following the United States into war. Some outraged Americans have started questioning their leader as well.

Sometimes, the spin works. The spin-doctors have erected a wall between voters and politicians so image becomes more important than policy. However, an increasingly skeptical public has learned to take very little at face value. Perhaps, this distancing of the leaders from the led is one reason why the people are becoming more disengaged from government.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES:

1. In an article in The Globe and Mail in October 2003, Brian Tobin, a former federal minister of industry, and former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, wrote that "American-style, negative attack" political campaigns don't work in Canada because the tactic offends Canadians. "We like our politics to be like our hockey," he wrote. "A little rough-and-tumble in the corners is fine, but we demand that those who play dirty hockey be thrown off the ice." Discuss Mr. Tobin's remarks, and what it is that makes Canadians respond differently to negative campaigning.

2. Many of the 275 attendees at the conference Winning Elections With New Global Techniques and Technologies were not interested in capturing votes but in influencing policy makers to pay attention to their cause: be it environmentalism, poverty, or animal rights. They paid the $535 conference fee to find out how polling, television advertising, and media relations can help move public opinion and influence policy makers. Choose a lobby group, analyze its strategy for getting its message across to politicians, and decide whether or not it has been successful. 3. It's been suggested that an election campaign is no place for public candor, that tough questions are not meant to be answered, and unpleasant truths cannot be acknowledged by politicians. Given that people generally know that much of politics is posturing, and that politicians rarely speak their minds, discuss whether or not you think a candidate who was honest would ever be elected. Are politicians forced to lie in order to secure votes?

Websites

The Making of a Political Animal (CBC Disclosure)--http://www.cbc.ca/disclosure/archives/031111_political /main.html

Politics Canada-http://www.canadawebpages.com/default.asp

Politics Watch--http://www.politicswatch.com/index2.html

Questions You Can Ask about Political Language--http://www.govst.edu/users/ghrank/Political /Elections%20/questions_pol.htm

FACT FILE

The results of the world's first public opinion poll were published in Fortune magazine in July 1935.

SPIN DOCTORS

As British Prime Minister Tony Blair's top election strategist, Peter Mandelson has been described by British tabloids as "the prince of darkness," and "Darth Vader." Some say he's destroyed careers, but he dismisses such accusations as rumours. He revamped the Labour Party's image as its director of communications and helped sweep Mr. Blair to power in 1997.

On this side of the pond, enter Toronto-born Marcel Wieder, a political campaign advisor who has worked for federal, provincial, and municipal candidates: when accused of using underhanded tactics to promote candidates he responded: "I don't consider it underhanded. I bring issues to the attention of the voters. I let the voters ultimately judge." What some observers call political tricks, Mr. Wieder says is marketing strategy. Critics say he has been responsible for unexplained happenings in the political arena but he denies it: "I'm sure people want to attribute everything they can to me ... urban myths develop very quickly in this business."

Mike Murphy, considered a master of negative political advertising in the U.S., has been described as a "merchant of mud" or "guerrilla consultant." Mr. Murphy brought his political consulting skills to Toronto in 1999 to work at Ontario's Conservative headquarters for former Premier Mike Harris. He worked on an advertising campaign that created an image of Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty as not up to the job of premier, portraying Mike Harris as a strong leader. (Mr. Harris won that election.) According to one newspaper report, he described his philosophy as follows: "Make the charge and let the other guy spend a million dollars to explain it." Another campaign consultant described him as brilliant, creative, tough, and ruthless, but a person who "never makes things up. He may distort stuff but it is basically true."

TERM PAPER ENHANCEMENTS

From American Newspeak (inspired by the language of Newspeak from George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Newspeak was the official language of the fictional totalitarian state Oceania.)

Among American Newspeak's 2003 winners of The Orwell Awards for "pre-emptive strikes" on logic and the English language by politicians, CEOs, and the media, was the following: "The British government was forced to admit that large sections of their 'up-to-date' report on Iraq's deception had been lifted, word for word, from an article by a postgraduate student in California named Ibrahim al Mirashi. The plagiarism was so blatant that even spelling and punctuation errors from the original article had been repeated, (but some 'improvements' were also made). Where the student described the Iraqi intelligence agency as 'monitoring foreign embassies in Iraq,' the British upgraded that to 'spying on foreign embassies in Iraq.' Much better. And where Marashi referred to Iraq 'aiding opposition groups in hostile regimes,' British Intelligence improved this to 'supporting terrorist organizations in hostile regimes.' Same evidence, just more 'up-to-date' conclusions, which is undoubtedly why (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell relied on it in his UN speech."

FACT FILE

According to one political consultant, most elections are won by targeting and winning over the roughly 20 percent of "low information persuadable swing voters," who typically don't read campaign literature: they respond to symbols, messages, and appeals to which they closely identity, leaving campaign strategists the job of finding out which issues will capture their interest.
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Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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