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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.

All the best for 2017!

There is no such fascinating thing as an election campaign! My grandfather was sort of a sheriff, which was an elected position. In his office, he had a folder where he kept all the campaign materials. I remember that as a little boy, I spent hours looking at that folder. Somehow, I was fascinated. I went on to study political science, was politically active myself and now I run a political consulting business. But it’s still the same passion for campaigns, and in particular for winning campaigns. Enthusiasm is contagious! In that sense, I wish all the readers of this blog only the best for your campaigns in 2017!

Chat Bots, Fake News, Big Data

I was recently invited by the Austrian party NEOS to give a talk on the lessons learned from the U.S. presidential elections. At that occasion, we also spoke about how online campaigning has shaped the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. In past weeks, there has been a lot of buzz about chat bots, fake news and big data. I have long been skeptical particularly about the influence of social media. I noticed that it happened to be mostly the people who make their living with social media who were so adamant about its influence of election campaigns. However, the following can be said:

1) According to realclearpolitics, Trump won Florida and Pennsylvania each by 1.1%, Wisconsin by 0.8% and Michigan by 0.2%. Without the Comey letter and/or the hike of Obamacare premiums, I think Clinton could have won all of them. In such a scenario, the entire result and analysis would now look distinctively different.


2) Trump’s win was not a win on the basics. It was a chaotic campaign with an undisciplined messenger. However, Clinton’s loss was a loss on the basics of a campaign. An election campaign is a series of strategic decisions. Ignoring non-college educated white men was a fundamental misjudgment. Also, to let Trump own “change” so easily was distinctively wrong.


3) This being said, digitalization is changing our society. There obviously is something in the making. It might be rather difficult to apply it in other settings outside of the U.S., but we should watch what’s happening with fake news, chat bots, facebook shares and in particular with big data. As of now, we know little about the real extent of it and there is not much proof regarding its effectiveness. But microtargeting is particularly promising for a small party in a multi-party, proportional system, where it takes few votes to make a difference.

Authenticity Wins Elections

The 2016 U.S. presidential election has ended with a big upset. One of my key take-aways is that authenticity wins elections. I really believe that Donald Trump is more or less the same behind the cameras compared to what we see in front of the cameras. Probably there is a little bit of a difference, but not much. How does Hillary Clinton speak once the cameras and the microphones are turned off? No clue. And voters can feel it.

The same is also true with respect to the Philippine presidential election earlier this year, which led to the election of President Rodrigo Duterte. The key moment of that campaign was the televised presidential debate, respectively the one-hour live coverage before the debate. Following situation: One of the presidential candidates, then Vice President Jojo Binay, argued with the moderators about the rules of the debate. While this was going on, the other candidates were just waiting on the podium. For about an hour, the entire nation was therefore watching the presidential candidates simply waiting, which was in fact very revealing. Then Mayor Duterte came across as very relaxed, chilled and completely aware of who he is and what he wanted to offer the Philippine people. It was the key moment of the entire race. Realness wins elections.

The U.S. Presidential Campaign: Battle of the Candidate Messages

The most important thing a campaign should do is to formulate and communicate a coherent and appealing message. When I say message, politicians often think of an issue or a slogan. However, a good message is more than that. It's more than a slogan, but less than a party program. It's the narrative the campaign communicates to its target voters.  Strategic public opinion research can help make sure that the message matches the political demand. In that sense, the Trump message would probably go something like this:

Donald Trump is not one of the many career politicians and deficit spenders in Washington D.C. Instead, he has built a successful multi-billion dollar business. He doesn’t owe anything to the establishment or special interests. This makes him the right person to bring much needed change for the forgotten middle class. He will protect our boarders and negotiate new trade deals. Crooked Hillary has been in politics for 30 years. With her, it‘s all talk, controversies and no action. Donald Trump will make America rich, safe and great again.

On the other side, and looking back at the campaign, the Clinton message would sound like this:

No presidential candidate has ever been more qualified to serve as president than Hillary Clinton. She will make sure that the economic recovery will benefit not only those at the top, but everybody. Donald Trump doesn‘t have the temperament to hold our nuclear codes. The way he speaks about women is unacceptable. Instead of building walls, Hillary Clinton will knock down barriers. As the first woman President, she will fight for equal pay for equal work. She will take on global warming and provide affordable education. She knows that our diversity is not a weakness, but our biggest strength. Because in America, we are stronger together.

I’m aware of the fact that at the national level, it’s de facto a tie. Also, message development is not a one-way street. Each side is trying to define the other side as well. Finally, there are other factors than the message, such as for example the ground operation. This being said, the exit polls are the surveys that are taken among those who actually voted. They are being published on the website of CNN and help understand what may have tipped the balance in key battleground states. According to these exit polls, 39% of the respondents said that for them, the most important candidate quality was that he or she could bring change. Among that group, Trump got 83% of the vote while Clinton only got 14%. On the other hand, 21% of the respondents said that they were mostly looking for somebody with the right experience. 90% of those voters voted for Clinton, only 8% for Trump.

Here’s another key figure: 18% of the voters had an unfavorable opinion about both candidates. Among that group, Trump beat Clinton 49% to 29%. In a similar sense, 29% of the voters said that neither candidate is honest. They voted 45% for Trump and 40% for Clinton. 14% of the electorate thought that neither candidate is qualified to serve as president. They went 69% to 15% for Trump.

In other words: When asked to choose between the evil they knew and the evil that promised something new, enough voters in key battleground states went for change. That's the whole race summed up in one sentence.

Next Monday, November 14, I am running a seminar on the lessons learned from the U.S. presidential campaign. It will take place in Zurich and be conducted in German. You can find more information and/or sign up on my website: www.perroncampaigns.com/seminar

A Good Concession Speech

It is needless to say that it’s very painful for any candidate to lose an election. This being said, the playbook for a good concession speech is actually quite simple: The more the loser admits defeat and praises the winner, the more statesmanlike he or she comes across. It’s easy on paper, but emotionally difficult to pull off.

Election Night: A General Advice for Candidates

A general rule which I tell all my clients who run for election: don’t go on the record on Election Day/Night until the result is really clear! It’s a simple piece of advice, but too many politicians ignore it. Remember German Edmund Stoiber in 2002 giving a frenetic speech, only to admit defeat the other day? Or, in the year 2000, then Vice President Al Gore conceded the election and took back his concession a few hours later. No matter how many supporters and journalists pressure, don’t speak until the result is clear.

You can find my answers to the five most important questions regarding the U.S. election here (in German): www.handelszeitung.ch/USA

What to Look for on Election Night

On Tuesday, the American voters will finally choose the successor of Barack Obama in the White House. The race has definitely tightened and remains close. This being said, it looks like Hillary Clinton goes into Election Day with a slight advantage. What to look for on Election Night? I will closely watch Florida. There is practically no way to the needed 270 electoral votes for Donald Trump without Florida. On the East Coast, New Hampshire is definitely also one of the crucial states reporting early. Surveys show a close race there. Should Donald Trump win it, it could be an indicator that the Republican could have a good night. South Carolina is another swing state on the East Coast. If Hillary Clinton wins it, it would be a sign that she will be in good shape on the way to the White House.

On Monday after the election, November 14, I am running a seminar on the lessons learned from the U.S. presidential campaign. It will take place in Zurich and be conducted in German. You can find more information and/or sign up on my website: www.perroncampaigns.com/seminar

Clinton Email Investigation: Assessing the Political Damage

A journalist recently asked me if the video showing Trump making lewd comments about women could – somehow - even end up helping Trump. And, in a similar way, I was recently asked if the FBI reopening the case about Clinton’s emails could in some miraculous way be beneficial for Clinton (in defense of the two people asking these questions: I have witnessed within campaigns people spinning the worst news as possibly beneficial). While I do think that it is sometimes possible to come out of a crisis strengthened, I don’t think this would be the case in these two examples. I don’t see how the video could help Trump, nor how the FBI investigation could help Clinton. The question is more how big and how long-lasting the damage would be. For the case of the FBI reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails, we only start to see any effect in the polls. Some observers think that it might cost her a couple of points in the surveys. Some might say that that’s not a lot, but then also, most things we do in campaigns is about a couple of points. Timing could definitely not be much worse as early-voting is already ongoing in many states. The Clinton campaign would probably try to shift focus back on Trump as soon as possible. In that sense, I was not surprised to see new allegations about Trump's ties with Russia appearing in social media.

The Electoral Map in the U.S. Presidential Election

When it’s all said and done, a U.S. presidential election is not really a nationwide, but a state-by-state election. Each state has a number of so-called electoral votes according to its population size. Presidential candidates collect these electoral votes with a winner-takes-it-all system. This means that a candidate who wins the plurality of the votes in a state, will get all electoral votes from that state. The candidate who collects a minimum of 270 electoral votes moves to the White House.

If there will be a nationwide wave (as it looks like at the moment), the swing states won’t really matter. The winner would then pretty much run the table. If the race will get closer again, however, it might matter. In that respect, let’s not forget also that there are polls such as the IBD/TIPP, LA Times/USC tracking as well as the Rasmussen Reports, which stubbornly show a much closer race than the other polls. In a scenario of a close popular vote, the electoral map favors Clinton as she has many more ways to the needed 270 electoral votes than Trump. In 2012, Barack Obama won his re-election with 332 electoral votes, while Mitt Romney got 206. Out of the so-called Obama states, Ohio looks the most promising for Trump right now. But even if he were to win Ohio’s 18 electoral votes, he would still be far away from the needed 270. And just for the sake of argument: According to realclearpolitics average, Clinton is now leading in Florida by 3.8%. If Trump were to turn things around there and win the state's 29 electoral votes, that would still leave him 17 votes short of the needed 270 (in other words: Clinton can win the White House without Florida and Ohio). The Trump campaign had high hopes to pull states such as Michigan or Pennsylvania away from the Democratic column. These states havn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since the 1980is and it doesn’t seem to happen this time: Clinton now leads Trump according to the realclearpolitics average by 10% in Michigan and by 6.2% in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, it seems that reliably Republican states such as Arizona and Georgia (and some say even Texas or Utah) are now within reach for Clinton. If that were to happen, it would really mean a landslide victory for Clinton. This is also where the Clinton campaign can flex its muscles and use its financial advantage over Trump. With the well-oiled campaign machine that Clinton has, they can throw in a couple of millions in tv advertising in these states and see if the numbers are moving. Even if they don’t move enough for a win there, it would force the Trump campaign to spend time and money in traditionally Republican states that they should not have to worry about at this point in time. Texas and Utah probably are long shots for Clinton, so more realistically, it is noteworthy that Clinton is in a pretty good position in Nevada (4.2% lead according to realclearpolitics), North Carolina (2.5% lead according to realclearpolitics), and Virginia (8% lead according to realclearpolitics). Virginia is particularly interesting since it wasn’t really a swing state in presidential politics until Barack Obama won it back in 2008 (and then again in 2012). As a general rule of thumb, a reasonably popular Vice Presidential candidate can give his running mate a boost of about 2% in the Vice’s home state. With this in mind, the choice of Tim Kaine from Virginia was a particularly smart move by Hillary Clinton.

On Monday after the election, November 14, I am running a seminar on the lessons learned from the U.S. presidential campaign. It will take place in Zurich and be conducted in German. You can find more information and/or sign up on my website: www.perroncampaigns.com/seminar

Early Voting Is Changing the Timing of Election Campaigns

Early and absentee voting has started in several states - and it changes the timinig of the campaigns. By Election Day, November 8, about a third of the electorate will have already voted. As a result, so-called GOTV efforts (get out the vote) will become the main focus of the campaigns soon after tonight's debate (and already are for the case of Clinton). The purpose is to identify, mobilize, and turn out the supporters of each candidate (by the way, this would be a great tool for smaller parties in European multi-party systems). Ever since George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, Democrats have held the advantage with respect to turning out the base. Clinton, never sure as to what other Wikileaks revelations might surface out there, is trying to secure and bring home as much of her current lead as possible.

Crisis Communication: Lesson 5

Last week end, The Washington Post published a video where Donald Trump made lewd remarks about women. His apology and performance during the second debate have probably helped him stop the Republican defections. As a result, he will stay in the race. This being said, the incident is a good opportunity to continue our series on crisis communication. As a general rule, once a crisis breaks (point of no return) the goal is to get over it as soon as possible. Most of the time (and with respect to communication, not legally speaking) it is best to admit mistakes and accept responsibility. The faster you do this, and the more full-heartedly, the more people are willing to forgive. It’s wrong to blame others. One has to promise concrete action in order to put the crisis to a rest. Once the crisis is dealt with and over, it is possible to come out of it stronger, but things will never be the same like before the crisis.

U.S. Presidential Election Campaign: The Second Televised Debate

The Trump campaign hinted that their candidate would attack Hillary Clinton more aggressively in the second debate, which is scheduled this coming Sunday evening. However, debates are usually NOT good venues to openly attack one of the other candidates. There’s a simple reason for this: the other candidate can immediately respond and if he is more or less well-prepared, he will have a good rebuttal ready for the most likely attacks. This being said, Trump is now behind in most surveys. He has to do something in order to shake up the dynamics of the race and therefore might take the risk.

The Vice Presidential Debate

Tonight, the televised debate among the vice presidential candidates will take place. An expected 50 million people will watch the showdown between Mike Pence (R) and Tim Kaine (D). This being said, I can’t remember a vice presidential debate that had a lasting and substantial impact on the presidential race. People vote for the top guy. Therefore, the candidates tonight should attack the top candidate of the other ticket and defend their own running mate.

The New York Times Reports Tax Bombshell about Donald Trump

Unlike most other presidential candidates in recent history, Trump refused to publish his tax returns. During the debates, Hillary Clinton speculated about the reason for this. We might know more now. The New York Times reports that Trump could possibly have avoided paying federal income taxes for 18 years. A big loss back in 1995 might make it possible.

Trump didn’t confirm nor deny the allegation. Either way, it was a bad week for candidate Trump. During the debates, he looked like a spoiled little boy, during the days after debates like an angry and unreasonable old man. The New York Times story further puts him on the defense. Remember this general rule about the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign: Whoever is the main focus of the public debate will lose the election.

Will the story move the needle? We will see. In fairness to Trump, the New York Times is not accusing him of any illegal behavior. Also, it’s not in contradiction to what he said himself during the campaign, namely that he pays the strict minimum in taxes. This being said, the story helps Clinton paint a picture of a crude businessman who doesn’t care much about working people. In a close race like this, a few percentage points can make a big difference.

The First Presidential Debate: Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump

A general rule about debates is this: a candidate should know the issues, should know where he stands on the issues, and should know where his opponent stands (and stood) on the issues. Hillary Clinton met exactly that challenge on Monday night and Donald Trump didn’t.

During the past couple of weeks, Clinton dropped considerably in the surveys. The debate probably helped her put an end to this. This being said, in a presidential campaign, many voters take repeated looks at the candidates. In the past, several candidates such as Barack Obama in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2004 have performed poorly in the first debate, but were able to come back and do better in the succeeding debates. It is possible that Donald Trump will do the same. However, he has to make a more appealing case for change and expand his electoral coalition. And most of all, he needs to make voters comfortable with the kind of change that he is offering, namely convince them that he has the temperament and know-how to be president.

More on the first U.S. presidential debate in my interview on the news show "10vor10" on Swiss television (in Swiss German):

video
 

The debates I

On Monday night, the first presidential debate will take place. The situation couldn’t be more exciting as surveys basically show Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump running even. Voters generally like debates because it’s the only opportunity for them to compare the candidates directly and next to each other. People watch debates, the media covers them and people watch the media coverage about them. This being said, it is much easier to lose a debate than to win it. At the beginning of the debate preparation, it is important to decide as a campaign team what you want to strategically achieve with the debate. Indeed, if you don’t know what your goal is, how can you assess afterwards if you won the debate? For Hillary Clinton, the goal is to change the dynamics of the race. If the election were held today, she would probably still win, but her lead has narrowed considerably within a short amount of time. She needs to put an end to this. As for Donald Trump, he needs to convince the American people that he has the temper and the knowledge to be president of the United States. There are voters who want to vote for change, but they need to be reassured that Trump can do the job. With all of this, how a candidate says something is as important as what he actually says. Therefore, it is important that a candidate looks like he wants to be there. In that sense, a generic advice for probably each and every candidate participating in a debate is this: stay cool, smile.

The Race for the White House Has Gotten Closer

It has not been a great couple of weeks for Hillary Clinton. Her comment about the “deplorables”, insulting Trump voters as well as questions about her health have obviously hurt her campaign. It is not clear how the latest New York and New Jersey attacks will affect the campaign. If Trump were a generic Republican candidate, it would probably help him. But he has demonstrated time and again that he is all but a generic Republican candidate. However, it looks like Trump’s new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was able to instill some discipline to the campaign, which is a key factor. I always tell my clients that discipline wins elections. As a result of all this, the race has gotten closer. Some surveys (both nationwide and in crucial swing states) now show Trump ahead, some still see Hillary in the lead (but definitely with a smaller lead than during the month of August). This being said, it probably still is Hillary who has the edge. Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, recently put out a memo arguing that Clinton has a much wider path to the needed 270 electoral votes. Indeed, traditional swing states such as Ohio and Florida are “must-wins” for Trump. On the other hand, if Trump can’t break away one of the states that is leaning Democratic, Clinton basically just has to win Florida, Ohio OR North Carolina in order to move to the White House. Also, the fact that the race got closer is not entirely bad news for Clinton as it gives her campaign and her (rather uninspired) base a purpose, namely to stop Trump. But she needs to use the debates in order to change the dynamics of the campaign and win back the momentum, which seemed to have slipped away from her to Trump. This is dangerous as I often tell my clients: Which campaign would you rather be? Run two points ahead, but lose the momentum, or run two points behind and have the momentum on your side? A few days before the election it’s better to be the first one while a few months before the election it’s better to be the second one. And with barely seven weeks to go? Tough call.

Crisis Communication: Lesson 4

Politicians often think that the media is out to get them. They ignore that the competition for news is as competitive as the competition for votes. Journalists report what they think consumers are interested to read or watch. In the old days, the news cycle was 24 hours. Nowadays, the news cycle is almost non-stop. Pictures make news. The incident of Hillary Clinton leaving the 9/11 memorial early is yet another good example for that. Within a short period of time, the video went viral and it put Clinton’s health at the center of the media coverage.

More about the current state of the U.S. presidential election campaign (in German) on:

Crisis Communication: Lesson 3

Prior to a crisis, there are often warning signs (which normally go unnoticed). Once a crisis breaks (point of no return), common reactions include shock, denial, anger or bargaining for time. Once you have overcome these, you can start making smart, strategic decisions on how to deal with the crisis.

The Race for the White House and the Electoral Map as of Today

Good point made by former Bush advisor, Matthew Dowd, in the Wall Street Journal the other day: after two conventions, countless ads, and numerous rallies, the race for the White House is back to where it was right after the primary season. Hillary Clinton leads by 3% - 4% in the nationwide polls.

In the end, however, a U.S. presidential election is actually a state-by-state election. A candidate needs to win a plurality of votes in individual states in order to get the electoral votes of that state (winner takes it all). The candidate who wins 270 electoral votes, moves into the White House. This being said, the electoral map looks rather difficult for Donald Trump at the present time. Clinton leads in traditional swing-states such as Ohio and Florida, even though these two states are set to elect Republican senators this very November. She leads by about 8% both in Michigan and Pennsylvania, states which the Trump campaign originally had high hopes for (even if they had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988). Super PACS that support Clinton have just announced that they stop airing ads in Virginia, which goes to show how confident they feel about a state that was actually rather reliably Republican until a few election cycles ago.

Making a long story short, Trump needs a nationwide swing in order to change the dynamics of the election. The next opportunity to make that happen? Probably (only) the debates.

Clinton Emails: The FBI apparently found 15’000 new emails

In a presidential election campaign, voters usually take repeated looks at the main candidates. The FBI has apparently found about 15’000 emails sent by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her private server. How will this affect the election? Of course, it depends a great deal on the content of those emails. Generally speaking, I think that swing voters don’t care that much about what server Clinton used back at the time when she served as Secretary of State. Also, if there is nothing outrageously scandalous in these new emails, timing might work in her favor. I have seen this happening in many campaigns myself: the closer to the election new information becomes public, the more voters see and evaluate it through the prism of the election campaign. “Why only now? If there were something to it, it would have become public earlier”, respondents typically say in such situations in focus groups.

Crisis Communication: Lesson 2

Many crises happen to smart and successful people. In many cases, the accused person gets into defense mode and instinctively denies the accusation. While this is a natural reaction, it often makes things worse.

The Current Dynamics of the U.S. Presidential Campaign: Referendum on Donald Trump

Do you want to know why Hillary Clinton has gained ground in the surveys during the past weeks? Because the dynamics of the public debate have turned into a referendum on Donald Trump. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have record-high negative ratings. As a result of this, whoever is the main focus of the debate will lose. If this will become a referendum on whether or not Donald Trump should be president of the USA, Hillary Clinton will win. Hence why she’s now ahead in the surveys. This could change, however, when a new Clinton scandal breaks or if her past controversies will become the focus of the campaign again.

Read more about this point here (in German): www.schweizamsonntag.ch/USWahlkampf

Crisis Communication: Lesson 1

Lesson one in crisis communication: get the facts straight. It’s like walking in a labyrinth. If you take a wrong turn at the beginning, everything that follows will be wrong as well. As a consultant, if you don’t have all the facts, you can’t help a client.

New York Post Publishes Nude Pictures of Melania Trump: Impact on the Campaign

Donald Trump’s wife Melania Trump recently was in the headlines again. There were news reports that she might have worked in the U.S. illegally back in the 1990is. Then, The New York Post has published nude pictures of Melania Trump: http://nypost.com/Trump

I highly doubt the Republican base and in particular the evangelical right, which Trump wanted to please with the nomination of Mike Pence, will like this. No matter what happens, they will never vote for Hillary Clinton, but they might just stay at home instead. Remember in 2000, when a few days before the election, the media reported that George W. Bush had been arrested by the police for driving under alcohol. As a result of the incident, many Christian conservatives probably stayed home on Election Day and Al Gore went on winning the popular vote.

It’s not that Melania Trump would have been a big help for the campaign to begin with. Yes, she used to be less unpopular than her husband. But her favorability ratings were just about even, meaning to say that about half of the country saw her favorably while the other half saw her as unfavorable.

White men as a problem for Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump is most popular among white men, in particular among white men with no college degree and lower income. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is far from giving up on them. Hence why an important part of her nomination speech was dedicated to workers’ rights, minimum wage, support for small businesses and other so-called pocket book issues. She can also strategically use Bill Clinton as a secret joker communicating to them, as he reminds the American middle class of the good 1990is. Also, she doesn’t need to win a majority of white voters. It’s nothing new that white voters are leaning Republican. According to the Gallup surveys, the last Democratic Presidential candidate who won a majority of white voters was LBJ in 1964. She can win without a majority of white voters. In fact, I remember one of the pundits say in 2012 that the U.S. is no longer a country of white married people. Meaning to say that it’s no longer the favorite candidate of white married people that automatically wins the election. But she shouldn’t fall too low among white voters either. As a rule of thumb, she should carry at least 38% of them in order to be in good shape on Election Day. More on this in my interview on Swiss national television (in German language): www.srf.ch/sendungen/10vor10/Clinton

The Democratic National Convention

This week was the democrats’ turn to have their convention. The strategic goal the party wanted to achieve on the first night was clearly to demonstrate party unity. I think that this is pretty much accomplished. Bernie Sander’s fiery speech on Monday, but also the statement by Sanders’ wife that she will campaign for Hillary were both very important in that respect. Yes, there might be some hurt feelings among volunteers and delegates, but I can't imagine Sanders voters voting for someone like Trump.

Bill Clinton’s speech was good, but not as outstanding as the one he gave four years ago (I must admit that I have watched that one at least twenty times on youtube). Still, he’s an important messenger reminding especially the middle class of the prosperous 1990is.

When it comes to campaign skills, Barack Obama is probably one of the best skilled politicians alive. In fact, he has built his entire career around speeches. He has a strong delivery, uses simple words, but makes an important point. He was very successful in drawing contrast between the vision Republicans offered for the USA, and the one that the Democrats are putting forward. He was obviously touched and made it clear how personal defeating Donald Trump has become for him.

Hillary Clinton’s speech was strategic and well delivered. She drew clear contrast between herself and Trump. In a presidential campaign, a candidate has to pass a certain threshold. Voters have to be convinced that they see a candidate as president and in particular as commander in chief. She passed that threshold. She also presented quite a specific policy agenda which will probably appeal to swing voters. Finally, the speech was also a tremendous opportunity to communicate with millions of voters without a filter. Cleary, she used it to show a more human and personal side of herself. If this won’t help improve her notoriously low favorability ratings, then probably nothing she can do during the rest of the campaign will.

Democratic National Convention: Tim Kaine is Hillary’s pick for VP

After the Republicans it’s now the Democrats’ turn to hold their convention. An important goal for the party to accomplish is to show unity. Bernie Sander’s fiery speech on Monday night was an important piece in that puzzle.

The convention is also the opportunity to further introduce Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s pick for Vice President. Especially with respect to the electoral map, it’s an interesting choice. Kaine is former governor and now senator from the state of Virginia, a swing-state that plays a crucial role. It’s difficult for a Republican candidate to get to the needed 270 electoral votes without winning Virginia. Based on recent surveys, Clinton is running slightly ahead of Trump there. Political scientists have long tried to measure the impact of a vice presidential candidate on the ticket in the VP’s home state. As a rule of thumb, consensus is that a popular running mate can boost the ticket by about 2% in his state. If this turns out to be true this time, these 2% in Virginia could prove critical for Hillary.

The 2016 Republican National Convention: Donald Trump’s acceptance speech

That’s it: Donald Trump is now officially the Republican nominee for the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On Thursday night, he delivered his acceptance speech. Some people wonder why the media around the world makes such a big deal out of a speech. Well, in an American presidential election, the acceptance speech is an important rendez-vous between the candidate, the media and the voters. A candidate has considerable attention and can use it to his benefit. I remember George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988. When he walked up to the podium, he was down in the survey by double digits. His comeback and ultimate win started with an extraordinary acceptance speech (apparently written by Peggy Noonan).

The media and some observers often assess such a speech in ridiculous ways: how many minutes of applause? How many standing ovations? How many laughs? Or, what were the harshest lines of attacks against the opponent? For me as a political strategist, these things are of minor importance. When I prepare an important speech with a client of mine, I first always set out the strategic goals we want to achieve with it. Indeed, if you don’t know what you want to achieve with the speech, how can you later assess whether or not it was a success?

In the case of Donald Trump, he indeed had a lot to achieve with the speech:
  • Unify the Republican party
  • Convince the Republican base that he has true conservative values (which he actually probably doesn’t have)
  • Reach out to new voters (which he is well-positioned to do as a businessman and reality show celebrity)
  • Show contrast between himself and his opponent
In my view, he was moderately successful in achieving these goals. Trump is foremost a businessman – at identical distance to both parties. What he pulled off during the primaries is a semi-hostile takeover of the Republican party and it still showed during the convention week. Also, his pitch to Bernie Sanders voters is a long shot. Most of them will never vote for someone like Trump just because of a few lines that are critical of free-trade agreements. In terms of issues, Trump should focus on the economy. This is his biggest claim to fame and the democrats’ weakness. However, the speech was rather short regarding specific proposals on creating jobs.

This being said, he delivered quite a damaging critique of Clinton’s record as Secretary of State. There were also some lines about the future of the country that probably had appeal to less political voters. The part about keeping people from the LGBT community safe was personal and thoughtful – not the most important, but probably one of the best moments of the speech. Finally, the part about being an outsider that can fix the system had appeal for independent voters.

We will have to wait and see the effect of the speech and the convention all together. Candidates usually get a bounce in the surveys after their respective convention, but a lot of that bounce also evaporates after a couple of weeks.

U.S. Election Campaign: Selection of a Vice Presidential Candidate

We now approach the season where both U.S. presidential candidates have to pick their vice presidential nominees. As a candidate, this is the most important decision to reach. Once elected, a candidate can distance himself from all promises and policy proposals. The vice president will stick with you for four years, however. You cannot change him or her once in office.

When choosing a running mate, a candidate has to decide what he wants to strategically accomplish with his selection. Conventional wisdom has it that a VP should add something to the ticket. It should help bring a critical state into play, it should cater to a specific socio-economic or political target that the top candidate cannot easily reach himself. This may be sound advice for the case of Donald Trump. Nobody doubts that he wants to shake things up. The question is whether he would be able to implement the promised changes and/or whether he may be offering too much change. A calm, trustworthy person, who knows the political process in Washington D.C., might therefore be a good choice.

But that’s not always the best strategy. Most voters vote for the top of the ticket anyway. When it’s all said and done, the vice presidential candidate is not as important for the election campaign as people might think. For Hillary Clinton it might therefore be courageous to choose someone who re-emphasizes the main message – another woman for example.

How to run against a populist candidate

Whether we look at Austria, France, Britain or the U.S., populist politicians are on the rise. I recently chatted with a political consultant colleague from the U.S. on how to run against a populist, right-wing candidate. At first, I think that it takes a lot of research – especially qualitative research – on how to show contrast with the populist candidate. Establishment politicians often come across as lecturing voters why they are stupid to vote for the populist candidate. Most voters are actually not extreme by nature. They sometimes vote for extreme candidates because the latter are able to express best the pain and anger voters feel. The last thing voters want is to be talked down and told that they only imagine those fears. This being said, every candidate has weaknesses but one should carefully test how to best expose these vulnerabilities.

Other than that, I’m afraid there is no secret campaign weapon on how to run against a populist candidate. This is particularly true if one is already in the middle of the campaign and already put on the defense. It takes better leaders and better policies to run against populist, right-wing candidates. Especially as an incumbent President or Prime Minister, it is possible to turn the chessboard around – but it takes some time. I think that one should start at least a year before the election with the implementation of a coherent plan neutralizing the populist, right-wing candidate.

Why people run for public office

I think it was Dr. Ron Faucheux, my professor and mentor at the Graduate School of Political Management GSPM in Washington D.C., who famously said that there are basically three reasons why people run for office: ego, power or money. I have now worked in various countries on three continents and must say that it's true. Oftentimes, it’s of course a combination of the three. In my experience, those politicians who do it primarily for the power are the best.

Negative Campaigning in the U.S. and in Europe

The upcoming U.S. presidential election campaign promises to be the most confrontational and negative one in recent history. The reason for this is simple: the two main candidates, Donald Trump (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) both have record high unfavorability ratings. In a recent Gallup poll, 31% of respondents had a favorable opinion on Donald Trump while 64% viewed him negatively. According to the same poll, 41% of voters have a favorable view of Hillary Clinton while 54% see her negatively. The public perception about both candidates is already quite established. As a result, it is more difficult to influence the positive numbers compared to the negative ones. For many voters, this will become a race about voting for the lesser evil.

This being said, negative campaigning is as old as campaigning itself. It has long been a very efficient weapon for candidates who have high unfavorable ratings themselves. The rationale goes like this: no matter how much you dislike me, no matter how much you disagree with me on select policies, everything will get worse if the other candidate wins.

In the U.S., there is a two-party system and a culture that is rather confrontational. As a result, negative campaigning is very straight-forward and explicit. In Europe, for example, negative campaigning is more implicit. Attacks are often coming from a third player such as for example the media. In either setting, negative campaigns work best if they present a coherent narrative why someone should not be elected. In that sense, effective negative campaigns hit the same point over and over again.