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Importing US Approaches into Australian Political Campaigning

We start the second day of CMPM2014 with Jennifer Rayner, whose interest is in the extent to which American campaigning innovations are being imported to Australia (and whether this makes sense). Some US approaches simply don't work elsewhere, due to different laws on advertising and funding, and the different electoral laws.

So in truth this is more of a process of hybridisation of campaigning, rather than a straight-out importing of US approaches. Any such approaches need to be adapted and filtered through local contexts, even if the Australian media appear to be obsessed with the "Americanisation" of Australian political campaigning.

Microtargetting of voters is one example of a US campaigning technique which has been brought into the Australian context, but has had to be adjusted here. Microtargetting analyses big data about voters in order to identify their interests, and target them more effectively in campaigning. Such data can then also be used to model the electorate and its response to specific issues or policies. In the US, this results in very detailed profiles about voters, with up to 1000 data points per person, and this played a huge role in the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns.

But microtargetting in Australia is limited by Australian commercial privacy rules and more limited voter files, and also fails to address the fact that Australia has compulsory voting. In the US, privacy laws largely just address what the federal government can do – commercial operators can gather and sell rich data about their customers with far fewer restrictions. In Australia, the Privacy Act restricts companies' data gathering, so political parties are forced to gather any data about their voters themselves rather than tapping into commercial sources. Aggregate, area-wide information can be gathered and sold, however.

The information which could be used for microtargetting in Australia is therefore more patchy and harder to come by than in the US, and this also goes for voter files: in the US, parties have direct information about who voted, and what party preference they have registered, while in Australia with its compulsory voting no comparable information exists.

Such compulsory voting also affects models for voter behaviour, of course. Compulsory voting still does not translate to a 100% voter turnout (the real figure is more around 94%, but there are significant variations across electorates). Parties can determine who did vote, and compare this to the full electoral roll to identify non-voters, but this is time-intensive; approaching non-voters is also problematic as what they are doing is against the rules. This makes it difficult to do what US parties do: target those voters from whom they stand to gain the most if they can convince them to vote for a change.

So different approaches, different kinds of data, and different kinds of statistics are necessary to translate US models to the Australian context. This isn't an Americanisation of Australian campaigns – its a hybridisation.