Today’s edition of the Australian contains a brilliant analysis by the paper’s main political correspondents, Dennis Shanahan and Sid Maher, on how the campaigning strategy used by the Liberal party won Australia’s federal election for (now Prime Minister) Tony Abbott. It has all the marks of authoritative inside briefing.
That Abbott’s campaign was brilliant is not disputed by either Labour or the media. There’s a reasonable argument that the implosion of Labour’s campaign helped Abbott to a larger victory than he might otherwise have gained. But it is common currency that by the time the election was announced, Abbott was on course to win a substantial victory (almost) whatever happened.
That’s a big change from most of the past four years after Abbott became leader of his party by one vote. He was then regarded by his Labour opponents, by the country’s cultural establishment, and by most of the media as a primitive, radical, extreme, and unelectable right-winger. These forces kept up a steady drumbeat of hostile criticism along these same lines. Labour certainly believed its own propaganda; so did the media; and some of Abbott’s own party were at the very least spooked by it. Ruthlessly and unremittingly negative, it might have been inspired by the Tammany bon mot: “Say what you like about negative campaigning, at least it’s more honest than positive campaigning.” Most political consultants here and in Oz also think it’s more effective than positive campaigning.
That was not the view of the four people who are the subjects of the Shanahan-Maher article — namely, Tony Abbott himself, the party leader; his chief of staff, Peta Credlin; the party’s federal campaign director, Brian Loughnane (coincidentally, Credlin’s husband); and their pollster, Mark Textor. (Full disclosure: Loughnane is a friend of several years’ standing.) On the morrow of the 2010 election, when Abbott held Labour to a near-draw, Textor gave Loughnane a memo entitled “A Campaign by Grown-Ups for Grown-Ups.” Its argument was that for the coming three years, through last week’s election, the Liberal party campaign should be relentlessly positive.
It should ignore the Labour charges that Abbott was extreme, unpopular, and unelectable and focus instead on the fact that, as the polls showed, he was respected. He was authentic, courageous, and competent. Above all, he was a known quantity. Abbott had been in national politics for almost 20 years. He had held several senior ministerial jobs, in which he had performed well. And though he held some opinions that were unpopular or “controversial,” he neither frightened people with them nor backed nervously away from them. His formula for dealing with such matters (I paraphrase) went like this: “Am I worried about divorce and family breakdown? Yes. Will I try to outlaw them? No.” Voters approved of his authenticity and reasonableness even whey they disagreed with him.
The four strategists concluded that Labour and the media would be unable to make their charges of extremism stick unless Abbott gave them the ammunition. The watchword of the Liberal campaign should therefore be “steady.” Abbott should present a strong reasoned case for his main policies and mount a reasoned but not angry critique of Labour’s failures. He could go negative on Labour policies — polls showed that his attacks on Labour’s carbon tax were popular — but not against Labour personalities. Above all, he should largely ignore the attacks leveled against him by the government and the media. Since these attacks reflected Labour’s defective analysis of who Abbott was and what he stood for, the voters would be less and less influenced by them. They knew Abbott — an opposition leader gets about — and he simply didn’t fit the caricature. Some of the more sneeringly snobbish attacks would probably drive traditional Labour voters into Abbott’s waiting arms.
That analysis was followed and it worked. Even when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was replaced by Kevin Rudd in a last-minute coup less than three months before the election, the Liberal campaign kept a cool head and maintained the strategy. It relied on Rudd’s gradually losing his cool, making wild charges, descending into purely negative campaigning, and ceasing to enjoy the prestige that comes of simply being prime minister. That is what happened. And while Rudd was exploding and imploding, Abbott kept steady. The voters rewarded him with a victory just this side of a landslide.
Most conservative parties and leaders face something like the same negative cultural stereotyping as Abbott did. This undoubtedly puts them at a disadvantage and gives their opponents a leg-up in an election. The answer to it is neither to rage wildly against it nor to surrender nervously to it — a response that Australians call the “cultural cringe.” The first reaction makes voters nervous that the potential prime minister is too irresponsible or prejudiced to be trusted with the highest office; the second reaction makes even those being appeased contemptuous and dismissive. Even if such appeasement is rewarded electorally, it usually ensures that the incoming government will be too compromised by its concessions to achieve much in the way of conservative reform.
Abbott demonstrated, however, that conservatives can overcome such cultural opposition by presenting a positive, reasoned case for their policies in a grown-up way. Sure, they face the disadvantage of a liberal establishment and a cultural atmosphere hostile to their values and policies, but they have the incomparable advantage that those values are the values of most voters across the spectrum. If they present their case calmly and steadily, the voters will see through the negative caricatures. If they start out lacking the respect of the voters, they will gradually earn it by the manner of their campaigning. And respect will turn into votes when the time comes.
Republican presidential hopefuls might therefore think of signing up for Abbott’s correspondence course. Fortunately for David Cameron, he won’t need to fork out his $19.99. Mark Textor is the partner (in the international consulting company Crosby-Textor) of Lynton Crosby, whom the British prime minister recently hired as his new principal political strategist.
Very courageous of you, if I may say so, Prime Minister.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.