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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.

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.