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Africans Assess US Campaigning Techniques - 2004-09-17

Focus Groups, swing voters, talk radio ?they?re just a few of the terms you?ll hear during a discussion of the American elections. They?re also being heard more often in Africa ? where there?s been a wave of elections since the end of the Cold War over 10 years ago.

In some sub-Saharan countries, like South Africa, politicians turn to political consultants to help focus their campaigns. South Africa had its first all-race elections in 1994. It was the first electoral run-off between the then ruling National Party ? known for 40 years of racial separation, or apartheid ? and the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela.

Tom Lodge is a political scientist at the University of Witswaterand in Johannesburg. He says the African National Congress hired American pollster and political consultant Stan Greenberg in 1994 to help craft its message:

"The most important influence of Greenberg on the ANC campaign was that he insisted that the electorate did not want to hear stories about the past. They did not want an election campaign that harped on historic conflicts ? but one that projected a view about the future and they wanted to hear hopeful messages. They wanted the ANC to concentrate on basic issues that people needed. It was the South African version of the ?It?s the Economy, Stupid? that Greenberg was pushing one year earlier [in President Bill Clinton?s election campaign in 1992]. It [meant that] we had the main party of the historically disadvantaged [black] community [the ANC] coming out with an all?embracing 'We are All South Africans' up-beat type of line?and that line has continued (today)."

The ANC won that election ? and every one since. Many African politicians hope for the same success.

Ugandan parliamentarian Norbert Mao is making contacts with the American Association of Political Consultants in an effort to advance his career:

"I think the techniques of people like Stan Greenberg have got to be adapted to local conditions, but the principles of scientific political management are applicable anywhere. I think sound scientific techniques can be adapted in the same way a waterfall in American can produce electricity, and the same principles can be used in Africa to generate electricity."

Generating publicity for its candidate is one of the first goals of a modern campaign. So is getting your own supporters out to vote?and finding new ones.

Professor Tom Lodge says in South Africa, focus groups are used to help identify issues that resonate with the public. Polling has also helped identify so-called swing voters. In the United States, these are voters will no strong affiliation to either of the two main political parties. They are often residents of the middle-class suburbs and are concerned with family-oriented issues, such as the quality and affordability of schooling for their children.

Tony Leon is a South African parliamentarian and leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance. He says polling has replaced intuition in helping to identify voters and issues in what he calls the political marketplace. And, he says in his country, swing voters are often determined by ethnicity:

"In South Africa, you would have whites for my party, blacks for the ANC, and some swing voters in Indians and so-called ?coloureds? (mixed race), who are a majority in the Western Cape [province]. They a re more politically fluid, not attached to one party --- so issues of polling, wedge issues, and base mobilization tend to be more significant among swing voters."

African politicians ? like their American counterparts ? are considering a number of ways to reach voters.

For example, analysts say there are several American techniques that have not yet been extensively tried in South Africa ? but that might be useful. They include improvements in reaching potential voters through door-to-door canvassing, the recruitment of volunteers, and mail and telephone queries.

Many candidates depend on the media. In Africa, radio and newspapers are the most widely available ? and least expensive ? communication tools. In most countries, government control over broadcasting means there are limited opportunities for the opposition to air advertisements. But in some countries, the state has allowed small community stations or religious ones to operate.

Mr. Leon says this has provided an important opening to opposition parties.

"Radio advertising is hugely impactful. The concept of chrystalizing your message into a 30 second radio spot is something where US expertise was helpful?Also, the concept of sending out different messages -- you can segment the market: you can address the Christian radio stations one way, and then you have 11 different language radio stations (in South Africa), and then have multiple messages around the same [issue]. There is a lot we learned from America and a lot of expertise we could use locally."

In some countries, talk radio shows ? in which telephone callers and the host discuss politics -- are a way to sample public opinion and to advertise a political message. In the United States, much of talk radio is conservative. Professor Tom Lodge says the format tends to highlight the extremes of political discourse.

"There is something about talk radio which appeals to people who hold extreme points of view. Here, the general thrust of talk radio ? and most of our stations are talk radio - you hear much more white criticism of the government than in newspapers. Quite often you have socially conservative views of black people ? or a much harder view of whites than any politician would express. I?m not sure what value talk radio does add to public life ? perhaps it provides an outlet for things that could be more mischievous."

Opposition groups in Africa have made great strides with greater access to the mass media.

The editor-in-chief of Malawi?s opposition Chronicle newspaper, Rob Jamieson, says opposition groups relied heavily on independent radio stations to reach the public during last year?s presidential and parliamentary elections. The signals of the private stations do not much reach beyond their base in the cities. Nevertheless, Mr. Jamieson says the country?s opposition parties won 60 percent of the vote. He says that?s impressive ? and would have meant a win for the opposition ? had it been united around one single candidate. Instead, opposition support was divided among several competitors, and the ruling party?s candidate came in first.