For Western democracies, the U.S. presidential race is more than a source of spectacle—it's a preview of a key American export: campaign tactics. "Elections have become as similar as Starbucks," writes London Times editor James Harding, whose stinging new book, "Alpha Dogs," traces the international campaign playbook back to the Sawyer Miller Group, a U.S. firm launched in the 1970s that married Madison Avenue with Pennsylvania Avenue, selling candidates like consumer goods in an "electronic democracy." It was among the first political consultancies to wrap intellectual voter appeals in emotional clothes—and it was good at it, steering to victory four senators, six governors and overseas leaders including Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel and Israel's Shimon Peres before dissolving in the early 1990s. Today, Sawyer Miller has acolytes inside the campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain. And its techniques—nonstop polling, sloganeering, attack ads—have become worldwide staples.
Overseas, in fact, it's not uncommon for candidates to sing an American tune, word for word. Last year British Prime Minister Gordon Brown nipped a line from Al Gore's failed U.S. presidential run. "Sometimes people say I'm too serious," he joked, just as Gore did in 2000, before pledging to "[never] let you down." Similarly, Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America" became Silvio Berlusconi's 2001 "Contract With the Italian People." "The things that drive elections are the same in Nebraska as they are in Ghana," Sawyer Miller alum Mark McKinnon, architect of George W. Bush's ad campaigns in 2000 and 2004, tells Harding.
Harding is conflicted about this turn of events. Sound bites can oversimplify discourse—but that very simplicity helps engage voters, he notes, drawing political debate out of smoke-filled back rooms. "We now live in a tactical age, not an ideological one," he tells NEWSWEEK. As a result, "managers, speechwriters, pollsters and get-out-the-vote specialists have more power than we'd like to admit." "Alpha Dogs" often reads like an episode of "Mad Men": a tale of swaggering carpetbaggers fueled by idealism and undone by greed. Working out of a discreet Manhattan office—located next door to the Copacabana nightclub and downstairs from Sammy Davis Jr.'s apartment—Sawyer Miller brought millions of new voters to the polls. Its tactics, though, have disillusioned just as many.