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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.

Austrian Elections: Center-Right and Populist Right Grow Simultaneously

The Austrian people has spoken pretty clearly last Sunday. Two parties, the center-right OEVP and the populist right FPOE, who both campaigned on the issue of immigration, have won the elections. It is noteworthy that the two parties grew at the same time. The OEVP won a stunning additional 7.6% while the FPOE added 5.5%. to its previous score. In the past, it would usually be either the OEVP or the FPOE that would win voters. As a general rule, it is also dangerous for a center-right party to campaign on the issues of the far right. As French Jean-Marie Le Pen famously said, French voters vote for the original. In the case of Sebastian Kurz, however, campaigning on the traditional issue of the FPOE didn’t backfire. One of the reasons for this is that as a foreign minister who was instrumental in closing the so-called Balkan route, Kurz had his very own and personal credibility as a messenger on the issue.

What Could Martin Schulz Have Done Differently?

After my last post, some readers asked me what Schulz could have done differently. Well, there is no obvious answer. To begin with, elections are usually decided by one big, defining issue. In the last German election, that one issue was obviously the refugee crisis. The problem is that on that particular issue, neither Schulz nor the SPD can show an appealing, credible difference to Angela Merkel and the CDU.

Another problem was timing. Schulz became the top candidate at the end of January. He certainly had a lifelong experience as a politician in Brussels, but with respect to campaign skills, he entered the race mostly unprepared. It’s close to impossible to launch an effective campaign within eight months. As a consultant, I have been in similar situations where I had to turn down lucrative projects a few weeks before the election simply because it was too late.

Finally, the candidate Schulz and the party really didn't match. As a general rule, it’s best to campaign as a free man. I assume that’s why the SPD chose Schulz. But as the Spiegel report shows, the party then apparently didn’t give the candidate the freedom he would have needed to run such a campaign. The SPD is the prisoner of the grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU and during the campaign, it made Schulz part of that prison.

Insider Report about Martin Schulz’s Challenger Campaign

I just read an interesting insider report published by the German magazine Der Spiegel about the campaign of the SPD and its top candidate, Martin Schulz. Apparently, Schulz wanted to go on the offense against incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel, but was advised not to so by the party operatives. Apparently, the party had research showing that attacking Merkel would turn off voters. I am flabbergasted, because I really don’t know any political consultant who would advise not to go on the offense in such a situation. As I wrote in my book on challenger campaigns (How to Overcome the Power of Incumbency in Election Campaigns), a challenger basically has to make two points:

A)    He has to make the case for change and that the incumbent needs to be replaced

B)    He has to make the case that he or she is better than the incumbent

It’s beyond me how one could make either argument without going on the offense. Yes, Schulz was a man running against a woman so he needs to be careful. But nevertheless, the question for me is how to go on the offense, not whether or not to do so. And as the election result shows, there was deep dissatisfaction with Merkel below the surface (which qualitative public opinion research would and should have shown).

Going back to the research the SPD did, I had similar conversations within campaign teams myself. I often use public opinion research in order to find out what voters know, think, feel and want, and to guide the campaign accordingly. Heck, as all politicos, I’m an addict of public opinion research. But we should never ask voters expert questions. Voters will always say that they don’t like negative campaigns, but that doesn’t mean that negative campaigns are not effective - if done properly and in the right tone. After all, an election campaign is about showing differences.