I like Ike and media events of the first magnitude: US elections in the Conservative Party Archive

1956 presidential election ephemera from the Boy Scouts of America (CCO 60/1/2)

With the US Presidential elections looming (2 weeks, voters, 2 weeks!), we thought we’d take a look at US election material in the Conservative Party Archive. There’s more than you might think; the Conservative Party sent observers over to a number of US elections. Though their reports touch on practical similarities and differences, they are particularly interesting for the cultural backgrounds they reflect.

We’ll start in 1956, when Conservative Party Organisation co-Vice-Chairman Donald Kaberry travelled to Washington just before the US presidential election (Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson). Kaberry visited with the intention of reporting back on the organisation of the United States’ two main political parties. His notes (CCO 60/1/1) explore the differences between the US and the UK – no paid Party membership, for example, though he notes that this is counteracted in part by people being ‘previously established as being in support of one or other of the Parties due to their system of claiming and registration of votes’. Kaberry talks of a general feeling of trust in Eisenhower (‘there really was a feeling by everyone met that the Mr. President would keep the country out of war’) and notes the Democrats’ shoe ‘gimmick’.

Kaberry notes that the general feeling is that everyone does, in fact, like Ike (CCO 60/1/2)

He goes on to explore party organisation in incredible detail, from the layout of election offices to the legibility of canvassing books to the use of a ‘voting machine’ (‘an elaborate contraption which, when understood, is really effective’), and on to media, finance and more. Kaberry returned with folders and folders of ephemera (CCO 60/1/2-4), including ‘I like Ike’ material and this ‘Candidate’s Primer on … how to utilize radio and television effectively’.

The Republican National Committee’s guide to using radio and television, 1956 (CCO 60/1/2)

In early 1958, Kaberry’s co-Vice-Chairman Barbara Brookes also visited the US, though this time as a guest of the American Council on Education and the State Department rather than to observe elections. In her report (CCO 60/29/4), she writes of her impressions of the foreign subway in New York City, being snowed up for four days on a farm in Pennsylvania, the famous American welcomes, skyscrapers, New Orleans lemon cake, central heating, the telephone service, and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s ‘lifelike models of cows, which turn their heads from side to side and wink at you in passing’. She concludes:

‘It was a splendid tonic and I have come away wishing that many more of my fellow countrymen could have the opportunities that had been mine of meeting real Americans in their homes and at their work. Americans so unlike the distorted pictures we see on the films over here but potential friends and supporters of Great Britain.’

Taken 10 February, 1958: (L to R) Katie Louchheim (Vice Chairman of the Democratic National Committee), Barbara Brooke (Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party), Iris Blitch (Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Georgia), Gracie Pfost (Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Idaho), Marth Griffiths (Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Michigan), Edna Kelley (Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from New York), Edith Green (Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Oregon), Leonor Sullivan (Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Missouri)

Though Conservative representatives certainly visited the States during the 1960s and 1970s, two reports from the 1980 US election stand out. Harvey Thomas, the Party’s Director of Presentation and the man responsible for many of Thatcher’s press successes, was dispatched to California in the spring of 1980 to survey campaign techniques and to establish a relationship with major parties and the media. He spent days on each of the presidential candidates’ campaign trail, interviewing campaign and policy directors and making notes. Thomas’s report (CRD BOX 2211) includes evaluations of each candidate’s policy and their campaign tactics. He predicted a close election, although Reagan went on to win a landslide victory.

Thomas wrote of campaigns overall: ‘Perhaps the most significant difference is that the Americans tend to hide the issues and project personalities, whereas the English people promote issues and rarely succeed in developing personalities to win response from the public. The Americans therefore, have developed more excitement and involvement in their elections than we have normally done.’

He made notes on each of the major campaigns:
On the Carter/Mondale campaign: ‘My main session, with the Deputy National Field Director, was disturbing. The ruthless and impersonal approach to the campaign and the block-vote getting was chilling … My impression was that this team had a complete lack of care … and a determination to win regardless of what is required. The press pools generally agreed that the Carter/Mondale electioneering is run much better than their Government.’

On the Reagan campaign: ‘His speeches were “vintage 1979 Thatcher”. He is an individualist … with high ideals.’

On the Kennedy campaign: ‘Unexpectedly, Senator Kennedy, whom I met briefly, and his team contrasted favourably with President Carter’s … His political record is consistent and his “caring” presentation is convincing.’

On the John Anderson campaign: ‘I spent a half day and an evening with Campaign Team members and was not impressed.’

The Conservatives weren’t done with the 1980 election, however, and the International Office’s Scott Hamilton attended the Republication and Democratic National Conventions in the summer of 1980 (CRD Box 2111).

Hamilton noted the differences between the conventions, commenting, ‘The Republicans were much better organised … the convention ran in clock-work fashion as a “coronation” for Ronald Regan … the leadership and the band worked hand in hand to ensure just the right amount of euphoria was worked up amongst the delegates when prime-time television demanded it; a galaxy of stars sang beautifully and the balloons fell at the right times.’

The Democrats, on the other hand ‘never looked organised. The balloons not only didn’t fall in time, they couldn’t even be properly freed from the net … The delegates themselves were evidently of a different nature to those [at the RNC]; there were more women, more blacks, more gays and more minorities of every kind.’ He notes, however, tears and appreciation for Senator Edward Kennedy.

While Harvey Thomas was known for his dramatic press orchestrations and emphasis on personality, Hamilton writes: ‘The spectacle of an American Convention defies accurate description … Whatever a convention might have meant in earlier political times, in 1980 it was a media event of the first magnitude.’ He concludes, however, that the British have little to learn from the Conventions, which may ‘positively bring the democratic process into disrepute, by spreading greater apathy’.

Apathy has spread in the UK; voter turnout has been declining overall since 1950 (almost 10% since 1980). The UK system is starting, belatedly, to mirror the US in some ways; in 2010, for instance, the first major televised debate between party leaders took place as a precursor to the general election. The Party Conferences have certainly become more glamourous, with ‘Olympo-tastic’ rallies and special guests. We can only imagine that UK leaders and Conservative staff will continue to monitor elections in the US and, indeed, other nations, adapting and altering their techniques to suit changing electorates.

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