Why are we all so interested in American Presidential elections?

The 2008 American Presidential election has captured the attention and enthusiasm of millions of Europeans. Perhaps my little patch of north London is an unusual area, but one sees the occasional ‘Obama 08’ poster displayed in house windows. I am not sure we will see any more posters, for anyone, in the European Parliament elections in June 2009. The British political classes were following the Presidential race avidly, and by all accounts there was a similar picture in other EU states. Why is this, given that we seem so unenthusiastic about our own politics, let alone what is going on in our partner states and at European level? Two answers come immediately to mind. US Presidential campaigns are entertaining, and US Presidential politics matters. But before that, I shall consider another couple of aspects of American politics which are worthy of interest. American politics is a testing environment for political techniques and technology. With a major set of elections every two years, and vast amounts of money, there is a very rapid cycle of development and strong techniques should quickly evolve while the weak die out (although the Democratic Party has had a touching faith in failed techniques and unsuccessful campaign consultants). The conservative movement from the 1970s until recently has been innovative with its use of direct mail, sophisticated demographic analysis, ability to organise people to talk about politics with other members of their communities, and understanding of the subtle links between lifestyle and politics (realising in 2004 for instance that most men who watch television channels about fishing vote Republican). However, in the last five years, kick-started by Howard Dean’s campaign in 2003-04 and channelled through blogs, particularly www.dailykos.com, progressive Democrats have been fighting back. The Democratic ‘netroots’ is a powerful force – it probably gave the party control over the Senate in 2006 thanks to its support in close contests in Virginia and Montana. It has marshalled an enormous number of small donors in 2008, not only for Obama but for Congressional elections in key states and districts. There is a sense of freshness, optimism, fun and serious purpose to be found in the netroots, a combination that is largely absent from European politics of any stripe. The army of donors co-ordinated by the blogs lacks any real counterpart either. To work out how to replicate the netroots in Europe would be a huge achievement – in terms of giving a political movement new energy and also redistributing power away from the party elites. One of the exciting things about US politics is that sometimes, within a political party, it just takes some determined individuals (including for instance Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, or long before...

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