By Joe Armenta and Sophie Desvignes
Senior Editor and Staff Writer
The idea that all politics is local is something that has recently consumed my life. In September, I joined the Nathan Fletcher for Mayor campaign and spent the next three months tirelessly campaigning for a man that I thought would become the next leader of San Diego. Somewhere amid the 12-hour days, the countless phone calls, the negative hit pieces and agitated voters that slammed doors in my face; the electoral process seemed to become remarkably clear. Then I met Sophie Desvignes.
Sophie is a French international student at UCSD and fellow staff-writer here at Prospect Journal. Since joining the team, she and I have continuously discussed the wild and wacky nature of the American political system through the lens of San Diego’s special mayoral election. While these conversations often end in some combination of bewilderment and shame, they have also revealed much about the American voter and how political campaigns function. This joint article will replicate these conversations by highlighting the differences between the French and American political systems.
Joe: I heard that politicians in France don’t talk about their personal life. Is that true?
Sophie: I would not say their private life is completely concealed, but their campaign does not rest on it. When politicians do talk about their personal life, they tend to be immediately reproached with demagoguery. This was the case for Nicolas Sarkozy when he became president in 2008. He lost credibility when pictures and video of him running with Ray Ban sunglasses surrounded by his bodyguards emerged. The press immediately found him a nickname: the “bling-bling” president. Aware of the controversies it raised, Nicolas Sarkozy quickly changed his communication strategy to fit the expectations of French people when it comes to a politician’s private life by keeping his personal affairs out of the public spotlight. For most French politicians, the absence of communication about their private life is part of an accepted political norm.
Joe: That’s strange. In American politics, one of the first thing that a candidate does is to create a narrative about how he got to where he is by talking about his personal upbringing. One of the first things that we campaigned on was the fact that Nathan Fletcher was a Marine Corps veteran, father of two boys and a local businessman. Our literature that we handed out included pictures of him surrounded by his family at a park, and he would regularly post pictures of his kids on his Facebook page. We did this because Americans like to relate to the candidate on a personal level. Voters want to feel as if the personal they’re electing is similar to them. They are turned off by candidates that they feel are too bureaucratic or are deemed to be ‘career politicians.’
Sophie: It tends to be the same in France. People need to identify with the candidate that they are going to elect. However, the type of personal information you describe are rarely provided by the candidate themselves but by the media. The current municipal campaign illustrates that. For example, Nathalie Kosciusco Morizet, the right wing candidate running for mayor in Paris, tries to get closer to people by using public transportation and by addressing all events which affect the city. One of the things all candidates do is to go to farmers’ market to shake peoples’ hands and reach out to potential voters. The other main difference is that French do not directly vote for the mayor. They vote for a group of city councilors who are then going to elect one of themseleves as mayor. Therefore, municipal elections are not so much personalized. Affiliation to a political party is the most important criteria that help people to make a choice.
Joe: American politicians partake in similar tactics for a much different reason. We tend to call this shaking hands and kissing babies. The idea is to make an appearance at public gatherings and community service projects in hopes of gathering media attention. A photo of a candidate serving food to a group of senior citizens reinforces the image that the campaign has already established. But with that being said, a campaign would not waste a politician’s time unless they are certain that potential voters will be present at events. Campaigns in America run on statistics and data mining in order to identify potential supporters and turn them out to vote. This means that the candidate has a bigger incentive to knock on specific doors to talk with high propensity voters rather than appearing at public gatherings where it is uncertain how many supporters he can gather.
Sophie: All this requires a big staff and lot off money; how much is a municipal election campaign?
Joe: It varies depending on the scope of election, what powers are at play and how contentious the candidates are. In the recent special election for Mayor of San Diego, nearly $5 million was raised and spent in less than 90 days to support the top three candidates. Most of the money usually originates from powerful interest groups such as business associations and labor organizations; however, individuals can contribute up to $1,000 to a candidate of their choosing. One of the candidate’s main jobs during the campaign cycle is to attract these donors in hopes of funding such things as advertisements, staff and equipment for the campaign. It should be noted, though, that contrary to common belief, money itself does not decide elections. During the 2010 gubernatorial race in California, Republican candidate Meg Whitman raised $160 million and outspent her Democratic challenger, Jerry Brown, by $6 to $1. She lost by more than 1 million votes.
Sophie: How does all this actually play out in the real world?
Joe: American elections are a lot like wars–while there are several strategies that vary depending on a candidate’s strengths, there are some basic components that are commonplace across all campaigns. On one end, there is the wave of advertisements that air on television or signs that appear on derelict buildings. This is comparable to an aerial bombardment in that it indiscriminately spreads destruction throughout a specific area. In addition to this, there is often a field team that act as ground troops. This team finds and targets specific voters and ensures that they turn out to vote by visiting their homes or calling them throughout the days leading up to the election. Finally, there is a slew of negative campaigning that aim to weaken a candidate’s support. Negative campaigning can be indiscriminate (via T.V. ads) or extremely specific. Mail pieces are designed to target specific households that are deemed to be receptive to a particular message. All of these tactics are nasty and require lots of money to work correctly; and in the middle of all these tactics lay the average American voter trying to go about her life.
Photo by Dom Dada