Once Again, Americans Doing Their Bit for Blair

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005

LONDON, May 4 -- They toil in relative obscurity, urged by their British minders to stay mostly out of sight and especially away from the voracious British press. Behind the scenes, though, American political consultants are involved in virtually every aspect of the campaign of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Labor Party, continuing a relationship that began with Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for president.

The Americans are taking polls, conducting focus groups and helping to shape and refine the Labor message. They have advised Labor officials on techniques for targeting and mobilizing voters, drawn from the intensive ground war in last year's presidential campaign. They have applied expertise gained from the presidential campaigns of Sen. John F. Kerry and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and from the activities of MoveOn.org, on how to turn the Internet into a potent weapon in political campaigns.

The Americans don't always agree with one another, and not all agreed with Blair and President Bush on the war in Iraq. But as campaign experts, they have come to where the action is this spring, drawn by Blair's quest for a record third term for the Labor Party and the chance to learn as well as advise.

On the eve of Britain's general election, the Americans were attending to the last details of Labor's operation and nervously waiting for the polls to open in the morning.

A year ago at this time, Zack Exley was burrowing into the Kerry campaign as the newly recruited director of online organizing and operations. On Wednesday, he was at Labor's online headquarters pushing out massive numbers of e-mails urging Labor voters, many of them unexcited about Blair, to get out and vote on Thursday.

Karen Hicks spent the day in Rochdale, near Manchester, mobilizing a get-out-the-vote operation in a district where a Labor member of Parliament faces a stiff challenge. Last fall, she directed the ground war operation at the Democratic National Committee after assembling Dean's highly praised but ultimately unsuccessful grass-roots operation in New Hampshire.

Pollster Stan Greenberg spent the morning analyzing the last public and private polls, continuing a relationship with Blair and Labor that began with Clinton's 1992 campaign, which became a template for Blair's victory in 1997, down to the creation of a war room patterned after the one Clinton had in Little Rock.

Mark Penn, who helped guide Clinton to reelection in 1996, was up all night digesting the results of his last poll and offering last-day recommendations to Blair and his team about their closing message. Penn is a relative newcomer to British politics, but he came with impressive recommendations. He was recruited in September as an adviser to Blair on the advice of Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum is also here. Although he retired from political consulting after last year's election, picking up and moving north for a teaching position at New York University, he has come to Britain this spring to act as a personal adviser to his longtime friend Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, the top economic post in Britain.

The Americans have in no way supplanted Blair's core team of British advisers, who have been with him for years and remain a loyal and tightknit group. Labor Party officials have been skittish about making too much of the presence of the Americans, despite long-standing ties. An e-mail to one of Blair's most senior advisers, inquiring about the Americans, came back with a reply that encouraged no follow-up questions. "Sorry. We never talk about advisors. Sorry not to be of more help."

British and American political parties long have traded information on techniques, message, technology and strategy. During the 1980s, advisers to the Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, worked closely with Republican Party operatives used by President Ronald Reagan. During the 1992 campaign, Bush's father's team used links to Prime Minister John Major, also a Conservative, for help in gathering negative research on Clinton. That cooperation helped cool relations between Major and Clinton once Clinton was elected.

This year, Britain's Conservative Party has imported the GOP's technology for targeting voters through the use of marketing research, but it has turned to a group of Australians to run the campaign itself. Top Bush advisers said in a series of e-mails that Conservative Party officials had traveled to the United States for consultations. But most said they had little direct contact with Tory leaders, and certainly there is no GOP equivalent to the kind of high-profile Democratic strategists working inside the Blair campaign.

The war in Iraq has caused some strains in old relations between Blair and the Democrats, with some of those on the American team having worked with groups opposed to the war. Ironically, Blair's team has used its ties to the Bush White House to gain insight into the Republican Party's targeted get-out-the-vote operation that was so successful in 2004, although a Bush adviser said no proprietary information was ever discussed, nor was there any effort to offer advice to Blair's team. When it was suggested in jest that Blair's team had drawn as much from the Republicans as from the Democrats, one Blair adviser laughed. "Well, they won," he said.

The Americans and British are respectful of each other's techniques. Laborites say the Americans are far ahead on targeting and mobilizing voters, but Hicks said she has been impressed by what she has seen in the Labor Party. "I'm intrigued with the permanent nature of the infrastructure," she said.

Although Blair and his team have two successful campaigns behind them, they approached this campaign with a fresh sense of curiosity -- driven apparently by Blair himself -- about how to reinvigorate their operations. Blair reached out to Penn for strategic advice and also sought help from Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who as Dean's campaign manager proved how effective the Internet can be for organizing and fundraising.

Trippi made several trips to London for meetings with Blair and said he spent more time talking about the Internet as a tool in governing than he did about the campaign. Blair "was more interested in whether I thought it was possible for a sitting prime minister to use the Net to get citizens engaged to help do things," Trippi said.

Greenberg said one big difference between this and earlier Blair campaigns is the confidence among the British about their own judgments and strategies. In the 1990s, they looked to the Clinton model for inspiration. Now, he said, "there is much more self-confidence about how they do things here. They turn to the U.S. for much more defined things: getting the new technology; how to use the Internet; how to target individual voters. It's much more instrumental, much less inspirational."

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