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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.

Innovation in Political Campaigns

Kiki Bakker of the Dutch VVD party recently spoke at the CampaignTech Europe conference in Berlin about innovation for campaigns. According to her, it takes three things for political campaigners to innovate:
  • Raise more money
  • Use every (local) election to try out new things
  • Hire people that are smarter than you
I totally agree with her. In my experience, very few parties in Europe do all three of them.

French versus U.S. Presidential Elections: Polls and Mandate

U.S. pollsters got a lot of heat last year for having failed to predict Trump's win. To begin with, polls are never a prediction. Second, as we now know, the nationwide polls have actually been quite accurate. In the surveys right before the election, Clinton was leading by 3%-4%. On Election Day, she won the popular vote by 2%. The problem is that a U.S. presidential election is not a nationwide election. It’s a state-by-state election and therefore it doesn’t only matter how many votes a candidate gets, but where he gets them!

Harry Enten from fivethirtyeight made a good point in that respect the other day: The recent French presidential election will hardly be remembered as a failure for the polling industry, when in fact, pre-election polls were quite off. The average poll conducted after the first round saw Macron ahead by 22%. On Election Day, he won by 32% over Le Pen. That’s a gap of 10% between the surveys and the actual result, and the biggest one in recent French polling history.

Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister, made a similar point in the New York Times recently. There was much talk after the French elections that Macron only won because voters voted against Le Pen and not for him, and that therefore, he would have little of a mandate. Trump’s win, on the other hand, was often reported as a fundamental change in politics. Well, as Verhofstadt argues, there is another way to look at it which is actually based on numbers: Trump won with 46.4% of the vote and a voter turnout of 55%. Macron won with 66% of the vote and a turnout of 74%.

Political Consulting Abroad

I have done work in several countries in Eastern Europe and South-East Asia. Last year alone, I have helped win more than a dozen difficult election campaigns. Some consultant colleagues of mine sometimes ask me how I get business in these countries. The answer is actually very simple: The more time I spend in a country, the more business I get there.

The Assembly Democracy System ‘Landsgemeinde’: The Best Form of Direct Democracy?

Guest article by Johanna Burger, trainee at Perron Campaigns

Being a federal political system, Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons (similar to states) where each canton has some power of decision. Each of them has the ability to make decisions in several political matters on its own. Usually, these decisions – elections and votes – are made by the voters of this very canton with a ballot-box vote. Nowadays, there are just two cantons that know another voting system for cantonal matters: the assembly democracy. Last Sunday, voters in Appenzell Inner Rhodes gathered together to fulfill their civic duty (however voting is not compulsory there).  Next Sunday, voters in Glarus will assemble to do the same. This form of voting has often been called a utopia concerning theory of democracy: In principle, every voter can take the floor and express his or her opinion. In addition, voting once a year together at the same place and at the same time is a deeply rooted tradition that is being appreciated and celebrated by the residents of Glarus and Appenzell Inner Rhodes.

However, one could find some aspects in this political process that do not represent a perfect democracy. For instance, lack of secrecy of the ballot is an often-given argument by the critics. Furthermore, an assembly system requires the voters to actually and physically be at one place at a specific time. This is not feasible for several people as the elderly, people who have to work, people who are on vacation on this particular Sunday, etc. Moreover, the fact that the majority of votes is being estimated by members of the cantonal government is an aspect of the Landsgemeinde that is often criticized.

In the (recent) past, more cantons knew this assembly voting system. However, a lot of them switched to the ballot-box voting system. Although there are just the two cantons Appenzell Inner Rhodes and Glarus that still work with it nowadays, even these two systems differ: Voters in Glarus can vote and elect some people for cantonal concerns at the assembly. Other matters are being decided in a ballot-box vote. Another difference between the two Swiss Landsgemeinde systems is the possibility to suggest amendments of a law. In Appenzell Inner Rhodes, voters can just reject or accept laws. In Glarus however, every voter has the possibility to suggest modifications of a law’s wording. The electorate can reject or accept these modifications immediately. This way, it is possible that voters in Glarus end up with a new law that has never been discussed by the government with this particular wording before. An example for this would be the drastic merger of the 27 previously existing communes into just three of them in 2006. (Initially, the government suggested 10 new communes. Then, one citizen came up with the idea of just three of them.)

Despite all the criticism, a lot of voters in Glarus und Appenzell Inner Rhodes want to keep their political tradition. The three political scientists Marlène Gerber, Hans-Peter Schaub and Sean Müller from the university of Berne conducted a survey about this in Glarus in 2016. They conclude that most of the questioned voters want to keep their political tradition.

Strengths and Weaknesses in an Election Campaign

What should you do in an election campaign: emphasize your own strengths or neutralize your weaknesses? In most cases, it’s a smart combination of the two. An important factor in this respect is time because it takes time to neutralize weaknesses. The less time you have, the more you should just harp on your strengths. In the long run, wise politicians and candidates work on neutralizing their weaknesses. In the campaign jargon, we call this "inoculation" strategies.