New Zealand elections win in every way

STEPHEN MILLS
Last updated 05:00 12/11/2012

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OPINION: There are many contrasts in the processes New Zealand and the United States follow in electing governments.

Most of these we should keep.

The most obvious is that the power of money is given much fuller rein in the US.

Research group Centre for Responsive Policies has estimated more than US$6 billion (NZ$7.4b) will be spent on the 2012 American election with about US$2.6b of that going on the presidential election.

In the 2011 New Zealand elections a total of NZ$7.8 million was spent. That included an unexpected NZ$1.9m by the Conservative Party. While not an absolutely apples v apples comparison, on a per head basis that is about US$19 per head in the States and NZ$1.70 in New Zealand.

That amount of money requires much more focus in the US on fundraising. The Atlantic in October reported that by late July, President Barack Obama had held 194 fundraisers in his third and fourth years in office which was more than his four predecessors combined. It also means relentless hits on smaller donors.

From September 22 to the November 6 election, close to 100 emails were sent to Obama supporters. A few of these were about voter registration and requests for canvassers but 90 per cent were requests for even US$5 or US$10 donations.

Most of the money in the presidential election was directed at only nine battleground states (10 if Mitt Romney's futile late tilt at Pennsylvania is included) and even then only at key media markets in those states. A clear contrast with New Zealand is that under MMP (mixed member proportional voting) every party vote does count and parties are consequently incentivised to go after any vote available. In this US election 40 states were never in play, including California, Texas and New York.

The amount of political activity in the swing states verged on the insane. The Wesleyan Media Project estimates there were close to 1.5 million political ads played in this campaign - most in the swing states. Then there were the robocalls and phone canvassing, personal visits, direct mail and social media appeals. The New York Times on October 16 reported Las Vegas was the most saturated political media market, with 10,000 advertisements coming per week.

Local news programmes were "shaving minutes" off their news programmes to fit the ads in.

In New Zealand, it seems quaint an Electoral Commission allocation determines the maximum each party can spend on TV and radio advertising, and provides that funding. It is a fair bet Nevada voters would swap with us right now. In New Zealand, restrictions were placed on outside groups spending in election campaigns after the input of the Exclusive Brethren in 2005. Outside groups have to register if they spend more than NZ$12,000 in the three-month campaign period and are restricted to a maximum of NZ$300,000.

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The US has gone in the opposite direction. The Supreme Court in the landmark 2010 "Citizens United" ruling knocked out limits on corporate political donations and unleashed the Super PACs (political action committees).

These organisations, almost entirely funded by business and the mega-wealthy, reportedly pumped more than US$700 million into the 2012 election.

The PACs are barely accountable and can run brutally negative advertising that reduces the risk for candidates they support - if they work the candidate can bank that but if the outcry is too great he can distance himself.

The flood of money also means the US is far ahead in the application of cutting-edge political technologies on all fronts.

Increasingly sophisticated data analysis, micro-targeting and internet tracking means the campaigns know more and more about persuadable swing state voters.

Even if affordable and legal in New Zealand, it is likely there would be an outcry on privacy grounds. Hamish McKenzie, a New Zealand journalist writing in the tech blog Pandodaily, also observes US politics are much slicker with "all political events carefully calibrated and orchestrated for maximum visual impact".

New Zealand is not yet subject to the ridiculously biased news fare served up by the different US television networks. The political temperature in New Zealand generally remains lower.

It is unlikely a New Zealand political leader would have to endure Obama's fate of being accused of being both a socialist and a Nazi. It is also highly unlikely political interference in official Department of Statistics figures would be alleged in a New Zealand campaign.

And finally, New Zealand political leaders do not have to plan early and marry a spouse who can shine in political prime time.

US spouses are now expected to make a speech watched by tens of millions at party conventions.

They are important players in the campaign. Ann Romney did this well enough but Michelle Obama is a rock star. Obama is only half joking in his routine self-deprecatory banter that the world is keener to see his wife than him.

- Stephen Mills is director of UMR Research. He has been in the United States following the presidential elections.

- The Dominion Post

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