Elections so similar, and yet so different

GRANT ROBERTSON
Last updated 07:42 05/11/2012

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OPINION: In some ways elections can look the same. There are the billboards and hoardings (though they call them yard signs in the United States), the flyers and pamphlets, the door knocking, the rallies, the advertising on TV and the weary and wary voters. But appearances can be deceiving and scale is everything.

In New Zealand all parties are allocated a share of a TV advertising budget of $3.2 million. In Ohio alone the two presidential campaigns have spent $181 million on TV ads.

The ads themselves are dominated by sharply negative politics, promoting fear, grand on rhetoric and light on facts. They are the subject of intense debate. Mitt Romney's claim that Chrysler was shifting production to China via sale to Italy was described by Joe Biden as the most dishonest ad he had seen in a lifetime in politics. Chrysler itself took out an ad to rebut the claims.

The hordes of volunteers certainly have the same "get out the vote" job. But their diversity and their number are amplified.

Both Democrats and Republicans are using sophisticated voter identification and targeting software, searching for those who on paper should lean to them. Paper is not the word though as this information now gets sent to iPhones and iPads for door knockers and phone callers to use, and then report back on. It's a long way from wet bits of paper on old wooden clipboards in Karori.

Then there is the scale of the electoral process. Despite the obvious focus on the presidency, there are literally thousands of elected positions up for grabs on Wednesday (NZ time). In Austin, Texas, a bewildering array of signs announce candidates for, among other things, tax inspector, education boards and yes, the sheriff. Perhaps most jarringly for a New Zealander are the TV ads covering the candidates for judges. Their promises to "uphold the law, not make the law" might sound assuring but it still does not feel quite right.

And then there are the issues, and here it is familiar territory. The economy - or more rightly its tangible expression in jobs and the cost of living - matters. The voter in Virginia whose family had directly benefited from President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms was wavering in voting for him because "I can't help feeling he's somehow responsible for the price of gasoline".

The defining schism between the parties is familiar too. Ultimately it's about the scale and role of government. Intervention and stimulus versus laissez faire and austerity.

The arrival of superstorm Sandy and the vital role of government services has given that debate added fire, especially given earlier comments from Mitt Romney about possibly privatising some emergency management services.

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But jobs or lack thereof pervade every part of the campaign. Despite unemployment staying near to 8 per cent, ironically it's the bailout of the auto industry and the boost to jobs in states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan that look like they might get Obama over the line. He is polling well in those states, even while he is either slightly behind or neck and neck in the nationwide poll.

And therein lies the biggest difference of all: The Electoral College system that means the winner of the popular vote may well not win the election.

Grant Robertson is the MP for Wellington Central and deputy leader of the Labour Party.

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