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This blog offers an international look at the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Indeed, campaigners worldwide are fascinated with American election campaigns. We observe relentless paid television advertising, straight-forward attack spots, sophisticated targeting and record-breaking fundraising. One cannot – and should not – simply copy paste American campaign techniques. However, campaigners out there in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia can get a lot of inspiration and specific takeaways from the most professional campaign in the world. This is the purpose of this blog.

Big Data vs. Good Old Polling in Election Campaigns

The use of big data can definitely be very powerful in election campaigns. But the controversy around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica has also shown us the value of good old public opinion research. Yes, algorithms and statistics are important, but another key to understanding public opinion is the art & science of listening to voters. Qualitative opinion research, so-called focus group discussions, are very important in that respect. It's a great tool to understand what voters know, think and feel. Simply put, focus groups explain the why behind the survey numbers. Clients who are not used to the tool often ask me how we get respondents to participate. Actually, it’s not that difficult. I always remind them that voters don’t like to take exams and be questioned about their knowledge. But, when made comfortable, many voters are actually very keen on telling their opinions.

Impact of the Comey Book on President Trump's Approval Ratings

Just had a journalist from Swiss television network on the phone regarding the impact of the Comey book on President Trump's approval ratings and the mid-term elections. In my opinion, the impact will be very limited. We have to realize that by now, the opinions about Donald Trump are pretty defined in public opinion: Depending on the survey, there are about 40% of U.S. voters who approve of Donald Trump and there are about 55% who disapprove. On both sides, voters have factored in a lot of information and assumptions about Trump. Therefore, it would take substantial new information about him to move the numbers. By substantial information, I mean clear evidence that undermines his own message (what he says about himself). That doesn’t really seem to be in the book. In the absence of substantial new information, the one thing that seems to move the needle is the state of the economy and the economy is doing well. Hence why his numbers have actually gone slightly up over the past weeks.

My Take on Big Data, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

During the past week and a half, there was a real media hype around Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the use of big data in election campaigns. In this blog post, I would like to make a few points that I feel have been neglected or mixed together in the current debate:
  • Political consulting has long been an international business. And that’s mostly a good thing. That a British company works in an African country is in itself nothing new and nothing shocking. In fact, I wrote an academic essay about this together with my PhD father Hanspeter Kriesi years ago. American political consultants work all over the world, Brazilian and Argentinian consultants work in other Latin American and some African countries. And these are just two examples. Such cooperation can be very fruitful and present a real benefit for the client as one learns by copying or can at least get some inspiration by looking at what works in campaigns abroad. I myself have helped about a dozen candidates and parties in various countries win elections. This being said, one should never blindly copy paste. Campaign tools have to be adapted to the local setting. It goes without saying that it takes a certain cultural sensitivity and intellectual humility to make international political consulting successful. Also, a foreign consultant should never run the campaign or make key decisions. His role is to be a secret joker in the cards of the client.
  • Facebook is collecting and monetizing the data we are willingly giving it. We have been knowing that all along. We are users of Facebook, not clients. The good news is that nobody has to use Facebook, nor is it a basic right to use it (for free). But very obviously, the company is not worth several hundred billion dollars because it’s doing everything for free.
  • A Facebook ad, as targeted as it may be, still has a limited impact. There’s quite some self-marketing involved on the part of Cambridge Analytica (and other companies doing a similar thing). With respect to the last U.S. presidential election, 70’000 people in a few swing states ultimately decided the outcome of the election. It’s possible that micro-targeting in social media played a crucial role there. But then also, let’s put it into perspective. If a campaign burns half a billion dollar and has the full weight of the White House behind itself, such as the Clinton campaign did, why maneuver yourself into a situation where 70’000 voters (out of more than 120 million actual voters) are decisive?
  • To use smear tactics and traps in campaigns is nothing new. The new technologies, however, can give it a lot more leverage than before. News (and also fake news) can be spread very rapidly. Apart from it being morally wrong, however, I also think that it’s bad politics. We have also seen that in the last campaign in Austria when fake Facebook profiles made the headlines. A campaign definitely is all about showing differences with your opponent(s). But: The more honest and accurate one is in drawing these lines of distinction, the more effective it will be.
  • As my former boss Mark Mellman pointed out in a recent article for The Hill: With the current debate about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, we are actually fighting the last war. There’s a lot more to come. For example, new tools make it possible, after a few minutes of recording, to produce audio material that sounds like the real voice of the person recorded. Similar tools for video footage are in the making. As Mellman puts it: “In the next war, what our ears hear and our eyes see can be complete fiction.” While processing the last war, we also better get ready for the next one.