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Why do we watch the US?

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 30 August 2012

When Australians think of the first Tuesday in November, the image that springs to mind is horses, champagne and the bets we claim we nearly made.

This year the Melbourne Cup will be sharing its day with another big race that is becoming a fixture on the Australian calendar: the US presidential elections.

As much out of habit as choice, large numbers of Australians will first watch the Melbourne Cup and then within the next 24 hours, tune in to find out who has won the US elections.


Australians regularly follow the US elections partly because they are potentially very important, in other words because of US power.

It's also partly because they are often so spectacular that people can't help but be drawn in by the soap opera nature of the contests.

Over the years intense coverage has made many Australians very familiar with the structure of the contest - primaries, conventions, debates, and November election day - and this familiarity then leads to more interest and deeper coverage.

This story is very similar in a number of other countries.

Given that an audience is guaranteed, it seems to me that the job of the Australian media and commentators is to provide context to questions such as: Why do American political conventions resemble toddlers' birthday parties (with an excess of balloons, fun hats and people behaving like they have drunk too much red cordial? Does who you choose as your running mate really matter?

And are the promises made in presidential debates important?


Giving context to such questions helps us appreciate that this often odd and over-the-top election process matters profoundly to a large number of Americans who every four years believe wholeheartedly that the future of their country is literally at stake.

The short answers to these three questions are: finding excitable partisans in a country of 310 million people isn't that hard (and some of them will even laugh at Dick Cheney's jokes); your choice of running mate does matter but in unpredictable ways; and what is said in the debates creates an important record for journalists to judge future presidents by.

Analysis can easily be lost under mountains of attack ads and endless false controversies. Almost exactly four years ago one of these false controversies was: ''Is Obama really like Paris Hilton?''

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 29 August, 2012.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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