Two nations divided by a common language. So goes the quip about the differences between the two sides of the Atlantic. So too, when it comes to elections, are there striking similarities and differences in the US and in Great Britain. Former New York Mayor Mario Cuomo once said that ‘you campaign in poetry and govern in prose’, and, equally, British political operatives tended to divide the art of campaigning from the science of governing. But US political campaigning has undergone an almost-Copernican revolution of exacting campaigning to the scientific method. The dark arts have been opened to peer review and campaigns are reaching new levels of sophistication. Those who don’t keep up with the changes will certainly fall behind. British campaigners not plugged in to the changes in the US might well become the equivalent of doctors treating patients with leeches and offering snake oil, rather than those who can truly claim to be operating in the best interests of those who depend on them. While statistics can’t replace compelling messages (although they can test them) or a convincing candidate (although they can test whether they are convincing anyone), they can and do yield insights into who your voters are, how to narrow the universe of which ones to target, and yield insight into the type of messages that might persuade them to vote, or change their partisan choice, or both. In May, after the inevitable drubbing of the General Election, the Lib Dems will need to borrow liberally from the lessons easily discernible from the US, if liberalism has any hope of a brighter future than a slow and steady extinction.
The history of how this came to pass is perhaps most stirringly told in ‘The Victory Lab’, a popular non-fiction rendering of the political science of vote-getting and its use in the Obama campaign. Meeting campaign managers and consultants from both sides of the aisle, it has become clear that having read the book- or at least doing a decent bluff at having done so- is now an imperative to land senior campaigning jobs in the United States. Data scientists and stats-heads now take pride of place alongside the grizzled veterans of campaigns past who used to operate on gut and ‘it’s what we’ve always done’. Indeed, with the proliferation of electoral consulting shops based on insights from the academy, Professors like Donald Green and Alan Gerber have become political rock stars in the small world of those who make their living from electoral politics.
The world of Big Data has allowed modern US campaigns to know more about their voters than ever before. Some data companies working in the US can boast of more than 4,000 data points on each individual voter: where they live, how often they vote, what they buy, how many pets, how much they owe credit card companies, race, age, religion and so on. And they can model how likely they are to show up at the polls, and who they are likely to vote for if they get there. Some companies now boast that they can offer personality profiles and can say which issues each voter cares most about. Field experiments, political psychology, ethnic mobilization, channel comparison, and many other avenues of academic inquiry, are now being harnessed to gain any advantage they can muster.
I made an argument, based on what transpired in the midterms, about how the Democrats needed to change their messaging over at Hippo Reads. But looking at the sorry state of the Liberal Democrats would either make for a much, much longer article, or I need to cover much ground more quickly. You’ll forgive me for having chosen the latter option.
The Liberal mantra of ‘stick it on a leaflet and stick it through the mailbox’ helped revive the party’s fortunes. But like a flash car that used to attract all kinds of attention twenty years ago, it might not have the same effect as it once did. Research tells us that great campaigns need to maximize a combination of ‘quality’ interactions based on a message with a ‘quantity’ of exposure to that message.
What is more likely to persuade people? A quality conversation with the candidate? Or a small-font, densely written leaflet that only communicates one way? While direct mail pieces have been shown to raise turnout when messaged in ways that aim to raise the social unacceptability of not voting, direct mail has a poor record in persuasion. ‘Where we work, we win’ only works when the sheer quantity of messaging from direct mail outweighs the inherent lack of quality of the medium. I still remember the overburdened letterboxes of Brent East during the by-election. But each constituency can’t deliver thirty pieces of literature to every voter every month.
Instead research shows that campaigns need to build up a year-round ground game that has quality conversations with voters. Whenever a Lib Dem mentions writing a new focus leaflet and going door to door delivering them, someone should remind that person that direct mail has a much, much smaller effect then in-person canvassing. But that in-person canvass has to be personal and intimate to be effective. And it has to be about what voters care about. Effective communications normally recount personal emotive reasons for supporting a particular person or policy to someone who had not emotionally engaged with the issue before, not a dry recitation of calculating land rent, why pot holes are less frequent these days (unless a pot hole killed someone you know?), or a seminar on constitutional niceties. If your canvass team isn’t trained properly on narrative-based persuasion, interactions will be almost as useless as that old, dry Focus leaflet.
Data allows campaigns to identify persuadable voters, know what issues they care about, and then follow them on the journey to the ballot box from identification, to persuasion, to turnout. Whereas old campaigns contacted everyone, persuadable or not, on issues that the campaign cared about, rather than the constituent, now campaigns should be able to microtarget to communicate values to voters on issues that matter to them. Constituency surveys are all well and good, but they suffer from selection bias of who fills them in and doesn’t tell you if any one voter agrees with the majority of their neighbours. What about going beyond voting? Data can help identify firm supporters. Firm supporters can become members who can become activists who can become the candidates of tomorrow. If your local party operates in a data vacuum, without voting propensity scores, and just old canvassing data, then having good enough data to move large voting intentions will be prohibitively tough. I know the party finally made the move from EARS to VAN, but there is always much more a British party can do to be at the cutting edge of Big Data and political modeling.
But a great, persuasive and persistent ground game can be undermined by the persistent messages we hear over TV, radio, the internet, and in our newspapers. Local parties can buck the trend with enough quantity and quality contact, but the tide flows from Westminster and national political brands. Ed Milliband is finding out that the rather vindictive treatment he received upon eating a bacon sandwich is worth far more than any number of energy freeze policy rollouts to excited Fabians. Most London voters would struggle to tell you about anything Boris Johnson has done as mayor, but he seems likable and jovial enough when they see him on the television. And people hate Nick Clegg. Sorry, let me not sugarcoat it. They really hate Nick Clegg.
The Lib Dems suffer from a similar problem that I outlined in my Hippo Reads piece. The average household in Britain today is suffering through economic pain. And they’ve been confused by the rapid changing of their neighborhoods. And the NHS and our schools have been ‘reformed’ in ways that has seen, shall we say, some growing pains. Do some focus groups in your area. Ask people to speak in confidence about the main issues of the day. The mood is one of anger and fear. And what has been the Lib Dem messaging to tap into that feeling? Largely it’s been to tell people that it could be a lot worse. Or they’ve never had it so good. Which unsurprisingly pisses people off all the more. And, if it doesn’t, they’ll probably credit the Tories anyway.
A winning strategy at the next election has to be that your figurehead understands that frustration, that he can emotionally connect with those feelings, and that he has a vision to relieve that frustration and make for a better tomorrow. When people are pissed off, more of the same is not a good message. Change, even radical change, is. Have any of the three party leaders managed to paint a convincing idea of a better tomorrow? Do any of the three leaders of the main parties convince the median voter than they really do, actually, understand what regular people are going through? Do three, posh metropolitan liberals (full disclosure: the author grew up in Hampstead and went to Eton, so I am aware of the irony…) have the emotional intelligence to convince the underemployed plumber from Ebbsfleet, the call centre worker from North Tyneside, or the school teacher from Bolton, that they understand what life is like for them at this moment of history? And that they can make it better? No wonder UKIP seems an attractive option to vent against the political class. When Westminster has never been more unpopular, have we ever had three leaders (or parties!) more obviously composed of denizens of our ruling class? I have written in the past about how liberalism needs to wrest itself from collusion with the powerful and speak instead to those who lack it. When more and more wealth flows upwards, away from those who sell their labour for a living, to those who rely on capital allowed to roam globally and taxed at rates that seem vanishingly small, it is wise not to seem to have more in common with the 1% than with the majority of workers losing out from a game rigged against them.
In a world crying out for a radically different economic vision that strikes a populist and egalitarian note, rallying those who are left behind towards a new economic compact based on more than call centers, Subway sandwich artists, and lawless bankers too powerful to be tamed, we have a void. Instead of a vision centred on returning power to those who now feel helpless in the wake of global forces that seem beyond their control, Nick Clegg has taken the baffling decision to pin his colours to clammy centrism and po-faced moralism about taking our economic pain.
The ship is heading for the iceberg, and there probably is not enough time to turn it around (especially as the party missed the opportunity to throw the captain overboard), but the Lib Dems will have to pick up the pieces in May. Data, methods, message and messenger all need to be radically reformed if the Lib Dems do not want to go the way of the Whigs. We have entered a ‘new normal’ of economic pain, so the challenge will remain largely the same. Could a Vince Cable convince the public that he can muster an economic turnaround? Perhaps the everyman charm of a Martin Horwood is what we need? But a new leader will not be enough: the party needs to regain a radical economic vision, a populist touch, and a more ruthless and efficient campaigning machine. Can liberalism survive the Clegg era? In the end it will be an empirical question.