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Teaching an old world new tricks

Discussion paper I wrote following the seminar “Campaigning for the Future and the Future of Campaigning” for the magazine Queries. It seeks to address some of the challenges facing European political practitioners. Drawing on the discussions held in the US, the paper argues that the focus for strategists should be on information, mobilisation, message and narrative. It urges Europeans not to learn the wrong lessons from US campaigns but to look to the potential of empowerment of citizens through the electoral process. The version below is the magazine edit. 

Amid the frenzy of media commentary on Barack Obama’s use of social media, one could be forgiven for thinking it is possible to tweet a path to elected office. FEPS Policy Advisor David Kitching looks at the US example and its relevance to Europe.

Sixty years after technology first stunned the US electorate, when a UNIVAC I mainframe correctly defied conventional wisdom by predicting a landslide victory for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Barack Obama was returned to the White Office on a wave of social media. More than just the IT itself, though, the role of the technology had completely changed. UNIVAC I had merely predicted that Johnson would become president; Obama’s vast IT arsenal actually helped him to win office. His success begs two questions: ‘how did he manage it?’ and ‘how could it be applied in Europe?’

The first point to be made, however, is that we are discussing two very different electoral scenarios. Unlike the US, the member states of the EU employ parliamentary systems for the most part. While party leaders and candidates for the premier positions in government (Chancellor, Prime Minister, Taoiseach etc) are very much to the forefront, aside from France and Cyprus, European political systems generally do not have an executive head of state. At European level, it is less clear again. To date, the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission have been selected through procedures more akin to the conclave to select the Catholic Pontiff than to the direct elections of America’s First Citizen, even with the mitigation of the Electoral College. As for the European Parliament, the 2014 elections will essentially be a series of national campaigns conducted beneath umbrella groups, such as the Party of European Socialists. To establish the rapport between Brussels and London or Paris that exists between Washington and US state politics is meanwhile problematic, as national parties jealously guard their campaign infrastructure and methodology.


The legacy of Al Gore’s campaign

Equally importantly, although Obama’s 2012 campaign was far larger in technical scale and breadth than that of 2008, there was already a solid base on which to build. The Democrats had begun developing this expensive technology – which allowed vast amounts of data to be analysed by campaign strategists – since Al Gore’s ill-fated election bid in 2000. Though the overall expense of such a system would be prohibitive under most EU electoral laws, there is a plethora of free software available online that can be utilised by creative campaigners and analysts. However, the IT budget was only part of the investment made by a campaign that famously raised 1 billion dollars. Significant sums were also devoted to purchasing voter lists, telephone numbers, information held by credit card companies, market research, and opinion polls, along with additional data on more transient/mobile groups such as students. By the careful analysis of these vast data sets using complex algorithms, Obama’s central campaign organisers were not only able to discern trends and drive the agenda at a national level – but were also able to support grassroots activists at a local level.


Donations, but not only

In terms of the ways in which information can be collected, Europe clearly has much stricter privacy and spending laws, and for very good reasons. However, in most states, they would not preclude considering the use at national level of one of the Obama campaign’s most valuable tools, the ‘Donate Now’ button on his official website. Registering in the first place yielded up valuable personal information for list-building purposes, from which further deductions could then be made about social class and professional/personal interests etc. Secondly, it was an obvious source of campaign funds. Thirdly, but less obviously, the campaign’s IT infrastructure could actually monitor the flow of donations in real time as Obama stood on the speakers’ rostrum. This yielded extremely useful information about which topics during the course of the speech led to spikes in donations – and what geographical locations or social/professional groups those donations came from. All of this data could then be fed back to activists in the city and/or state where Obama had spoken, allowing strategists to micro target the various messages of the campaign. In this way, the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the research being carried out complemented each other.

Social media: a tool, not a panacea

If one section of the Obama campaign system was for ‘internal’ use, in terms of pooling, processing and analysing ‘Big Data’, the other was the ‘external’ part – that used social media and email to reach the American voter. The key point here, which holds true for both the United States and Europe, is that social media should not be used for their own sake, but as a tool to be put at the service of the overall campaign. That said, the use of “targeted sharing” on Facebook and the creative use of Twitter, can significantly bolster the potential for exposure and capacity for mobilisation among certain demographics and cohorts.

At the heart of the Facebook campaign was a belief that it should not be wholly ‘top-down’ in terms of communication, but opened up to the grassroots. Clearly, the central apparatus was able to cascade down messages to activists and supporters, who would then be encouraged to use their own Facebook ‘friends’ to spread those messages through the ‘share’ button. In this case, the multiplier effect of social media was certainly put to maximum use. However, the more viral the messages went, the further they travelled from the controlling centre. As part of this process, innumerable “For Obama” Facebook groups were either created or expanded to address particular sections of the electorate with targeted campaign messages – e.g. Students For Obama, Teachers For Obama, Latinos For Obama and Women For Obama, which alone has more than 1.3 million ‘Likes’. It clearly helped the president’s re-election that both activists and ordinary American people took ownership of his campaign and were allowed to take their own initiative, although this would not be the norm in Europe.


Reaching out to the Twitterati

Twitter provided another useful resource for the campaign team who, again unlike their European counterparts, did not use it mainly to pointlessly tweet press releases. Unlike Facebook, which is a more passive media – though twice its size with some 1.1 billion users, Twitter is a particularly pro-active platform. Obama campaigners participated fully in Twitter threads – intervening in response to issues or statements that were trending – and encouraging the multiplier effect of re-tweeting particular messages. This is, after all, the point of social media; it’s about engaging with other people, rather than merely taking a 140-character bite out of the party’s official website.

Obama’s biggest strength was that his campaign did not get caught up in broad, philosophical and ideological arguments, but tied his broader electoral discourse to a series of value narratives. Through these, Obama was able to present himself as the representative of what the electorate felt their values to be – and to also contrast that with the lack of solidarity that might emerge in a Mitt Romney presidency. Social media, and the way that they can address different audiences, proved extremely useful in disseminating these messages – but, as we discussed earlier, the message was still the most important element.

Despite the inevitable media spotlight on Facebook and Twitter, Obama’s campaign strategists found that email – unglamorous and solidly utilitarian though it may be – remains a very effective tool. The key to its successful use, however, is to resist the temptation to send every press release to the entire mailing list – a notable failing of many political parties in Europe – but to carefully target the audience by subject, such as education, healthcare or the environment. Again, this is where a more intimate knowledge of local and national electorates, courtesy of data analytics, pays real dividends.


The need in Europe to prioritise resources

While people point to the paucity of resources at the disposal of European strategists when compared to our American counterparts, the emphasis should be on adequately prioritising resources. The electoral process in both places is still based on a competition for the attention and the votes of the electorate. There is therefore no difference in the necessity to find the most effective route to acquiring someone’s vote. Likewise, it helps to find out where are we most likely to achieve the most votes. Effective quantitative research can determine where the candidate spends most of his/her time while nuanced qualitative analysis can cater the message to the individuals and groups in question. This can also be taken into account by the proposed Commission President candidate.

Mobilisation is about talking to the right people and talking to plenty of them. For an electoral campaign to be successful, it must include a huge volume of direct conversations with the electorate, either through the candidates in person or through the field campaign teams. In order to be operable, the party apparatus must build a comprehensible strategy and adequately educate the campaign team on how this will work. Indeed, arguably the important lesson of the Obama campaign for Europeans is not just the value and application of technology, but of bringing campaigners back as a core part of our strategies. European parties are often old, unwieldy in structure and reluctant to engage with activists. The day of the party guru has definitely gone; it’s now about having a platform that expresses the values of the people you want to vote for you. Of course, in Europe we also face the problem of running 28 separate electoral campaigns. However, a clear, common message among progressives can unify and mobilise people around a single European message.


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