World

Connecting with voters: Does being a 'normal bloke' work?

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott before downing a pint of beer in Sydney - April 18, 2015 Image copyright Australian Women's Weekly
Image caption Tony appeared to have done this before

Footage of Tony Abbott downing a beer in short order at the weekend to the cheers of young sportsmen in a Sydney pub has polarised opinion in Australia, with some commending the prime minister for showing he is a "regular bloke" and others shaking their heads at what they regard as overly macho, unstatesmanlike behaviour.

The grainy nature of the footage, which subsequently went viral, suggests this was a spontaneous, off-the-cuff moment captured on a mobile phone - but Mr Abbott's relaxed demeanour and willingness to take on the "manly" challenge set by a group of younger men is likely to have left his image managers smiling.

Appearing down to earth and at ease with the voters they encounter seems to be regarded as the elixir of modern, (still) male-dominated politics in many countries. The process began in the television age and has now been sharpened by an internet age in which videos and photos are posted, shared and re-shared at warp speed.

Appearing out of touch, on the other hand, is regarded as political Kryptonite.

Strip club visit

Mr Abbott is not the first Australian politician whose timed beer-drinking exploits have become part of his public image.

Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke went so far as to describe his downing of two-and-a-half pints (1.4 litres) of ale in 11 seconds while a student at Oxford University as something that "was to endear me to some of my fellow Australians more than anything else I ever achieved".

Image copyright AP
Image caption George W Bush's reputation for verbal gaffes did not stop him winning two US presidential elections

For David Briggs, of Australian polling and research organisation Galaxy International, there is an upside to politicians like Tony Abbott being seen as a "normal bloke".

"It certainly beats being written off as an arrogant tosser," he says frankly.

But this effect is hard to read when examining opinion polls, Mr Briggs says, as perceptions of parliamentary leaders do not change dramatically in the short term.

However, polling evidence suggests that the revelation in 2007 that then Australian opposition leader Kevin Rudd had visited a strip club during a visit to the US actually worked in his favour.

"Some suggested this confirmed he suffered poor judgement and was not a suitable prime minister," says Mr Briggs. "However, our poll conducted at the time confirmed that to the overwhelming majority of Australian voters, this incident simply demonstrated that he was a normal bloke.

"This view was shared by both men and women... with his reputation as a normal bloke enhanced, he went on to win a federal election a few months later."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Having lunch has become a hazardous occupation for UK politicians

But then this can also work the other way. To the despair of their image-makers, some politicians' attempts to forge a bond with ordinary folk often come to grief.

Former UK opposition leader William Hague's claim to have drunk 14 pints of beer a day in his younger days was mocked at the time, as was then Prime Minister Tony Blair's apparent adoption of "estuary English" while appearing on a popular TV chat show.

More recently in the UK, footage of Labour leader Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich was seen as reinforcing his slightly geeky image, while Prime Minister David Cameron's attempts to avoid this pitfall by eating a hotdog with a knife and fork provoked further criticism of his alleged aloofness.

By contrast, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage's fondness for a pint of beer and a cigarette - a key part of this former stockbroker's image package - has become his trademark.

In the US, then Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's attempt in 2012 to reach out to the people of Detroit - the city at the heart of the US car industry - by telling an audience there that his wife owned a "couple of Cadillacs" hardly burnished his man-of-the people credentials.

But then neither did Barack Obama's attempt to reach out to regular voters by taking up ten-pin bowling during his first successful campaign to become president in 2008.

'Authenticity is all'

Still in the US, many political observers cite George W Bush as a good example of a politician successfully connecting with crucial undecided voters.

He won the 2000 and 2004 presidential polls partly because - the argument goes - he was better able to convince the average American that he was quite like them and would be more fun to have a night out with than the stiffer, more intellectual Al Gore and John Kerry.

This was despite Mr Bush's impeccable establishment credentials as the scion of an oil-wealthy Texas family, whose father had been head of the CIA before becoming vice-president and then president.

Indeed, the younger Bush once joked to a wealthy audience at a (pre-financial crisis) charity dinner: "This is an impressive crowd. The haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base."

Image copyright Keystone/Getty Images
Image caption Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, (left) was known for his casual dress sense

A counterpoint can be found in the political scene in Israel, where for decades the "uniform" of Israeli male politicians was casual dress - usually the short-sleeved, open-necked shirt paired with shorts or casual trousers favoured by Israel's founding father and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

It is unclear whether this reflected the straight-talking informality of a new state founded in war, a practical response to the local climate - or an attempt by the politicians to sell themselves as leadership material by appearing ordinary yet dynamic.

In her novel Love and Betrayal, author Pamela Schieber refers to most Israeli politicians of the 1960s and 70s as looking "like they had just jumped off the kibbutz tractor".

But this trend has been largely abandoned in the following decades, with many Israeli politicians - including the most successful one of the modern era, Benjamin Netanyahu - now favouring the bankers' uniform of sharp suits and bright ties for public appearances.

For Nick Wood, chief executive of the public relations firm Media Intelligence Partners and a former adviser to UK Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith, authenticity is all.

"People don't expect their prime ministers to be just like them, they are not so naive as to believe that - and nor do they want that. What they want is empathy, a feeling for what life is like for ordinary people.

"As long as politicians are doing something that fits with who they are, is part of their persona, it works. Faked stunts just don't work."

More on this story