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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 U.S. Midterm Elections: It's a Tie

The votes in the U.S. are in and it’s basically a tie. This reflects a deeply divided and polarized country. In that sense, the battlegrounds for the House of Representatives and the Senate took place in two different countries.

As widely expected and predicted, the Democrats won the majority in the House. It looks like they won the popular, generic vote by about 7%, which is quite an accomplishment. Female voters in the suburbs played a key role in this. Democrats effectively targeted them with issues such as healthcare. By doing so, they were mostly able to win back seats of retiring Republican incumbents. This being said, let’s not forget that Democratic candidates have raised more than a billion dollars and significantly outspent Republicans. In view of this, the result is probably less than what Democrats had secretly hoped for.

In the Senate, Republicans are actually able to add seats to their majority. Several incumbent Democrats had to defend their seats in states that Trump carried in 2016 – some of them by double digits. It was definitely a difficult map for Democrats to begin with. It is therefore of little surprise that Heidi Heitkamp lost in North Dakota, but the scores of Joe Donnelly in Indiana (43.8%) and Claire McCaskill in Missouri (45.5%) are clearly disappointing. There will likely be a recount in Florida, so we will have to wait for that one. 48% for the Democratic Senate candidates in Texas and Arizona are really good results, but not enough to win. It’s encouraging for Democrats that they won back the governorship in Pennsylvania, but they came in short in the two other crucial swing states Florida and Ohio.

A majority of Americans sees the economy as performing well. That was definitely wind in the back of Republicans. Donald Trump has campaigned very actively. This goes to show that a president can help his party mates during a midterm election, mostly with fundraising and by turning out the base. Trump’s voters liked the tax cuts and Supreme Court appointments, but Trump understood that few voters turn out to say thank you. Emotions such as fear and anger are much better drivers of public opinion. That’s at least part of how he was able to turn out his supporters. And that’s also the reason why there was no blue wave. A wave means that most results break one way and that didn’t happen because both sides were really fired up.  

It is clear that Trump should not be underestimated in terms of campaign skills. It is therefore also no surprise that he has already raised more than a hundered million USD for his own reelection campaign.

After Bill Clinton lost the majority in congress in 1994, he repositioned and reinvented himself. By and large, the strategy was to let Republicans pass quite a number of things they were elected to do. Not much is pointing towards such a scenario at this point in time. Even though I think that sooner or later, there will again be a demand for getting things done in Washington D.C., I expect more polarization at the moment. It seems to be the Zeitgeist at the moment for politicians and voters alike that they want to express themselves, like and forward what they agree with, but not really to understand the other side.

Democrats can use their majority in the House to block the Republican legislative agenda and to investigate the President. This being said, I think that after two more or less painful election cycles, they should take note that the biggest voting bloc (roughly one third of the voters) are white non-college educated voters. I find that so many experts, journalists and politicians both in the U.S. and other countries have a total blind spot regarding this so-called education gap. Being against Trump is creating energy among voters on the coasts. It helps to raise money and to get media coverage. But it’s a disconnect with the political demand in the heartland. If Democrats want to break the tie in 2020, they have to come up with a message that has a broader appeal. I always tell my clients that any attempt to connect with voters should start with a serious effort of listening to what they are saying - and accepting it.

Brett Kavanaugh Appointed to Supreme Court

So Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the United States Supreme Court. It’s a victory for the Republicans, but I think that on both sides of the isle, it should worry people what an angrily divided nation the U.S. now is. In that respect, I find it surprising how few commentators mention that it is just a bit more than a year ago since Republicans in the Senate decided to “go nuclear” and changed the voting rules for Supreme Court nominees. For a long time, it used to be the rule that a Supreme Court nominee needs to get 60 votes to make it to the Supreme Court. I actually think that this was a good rule because it made the nomination process for this lifelong and extremely important position somewhat bipartisan. Kavanaugh would probably have had no chance to reach that majority. I think that it rarely pays off politically in the long run if major pieces of legislation or important appointments are pushed through the institutions without a real consensus around it.

Bob Woodward's Bombshell Book on President Trump Published

Bob Woodward’s new bombshell book on President Donald Trump is published. What’s the difference of Woodward’s book compared to previous books about the Trump White House? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference with respect to the content. Basically, Woodward seems to portray (with lots of detail) a White House in chaos and a President that is not up to the job. The difference then becomes mostly the sender. Woodward is one of the most respected journalists and authors of the country. He has written books about eight presidents and has discovered what was arguably one of the biggest and most impactful scandals in American politics. It will be difficult to just discredit the book as fiction and the author as someone who is trying to sell books. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out, but it's definitely not wind in the back of Republicans with respect to the coming mid-term elections.

Watch Florida this Fall, THE Swing State

Florida, THE swing state is at the center of the attention again. Its election for Senate will probably be the most expensive Senate campaign of the cycle. Former Republican Governor Rick Scott is challenging the incumbent, Democrat Bill Nelson. The realclearpolitics average of polls has Scott leading by 1.5% as of this writing. If Democrats lose that seat, it’s kinda hard to imagine any path to a Senate majority for them come November.

In addition to that, there will also be a fascinating showdown for Governor in the state of Florida. The Mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum, scored a major upset during this week’s primary. He campaigned on a clearly leftist platform and was backed by Bernie Sanders. Among others, he wants to legalize marijuana, increase the minimum wage to 15 USD and impeach Donald Trump. On the side of the GOP, Ron DeSantis, who was strongly endorsed by Donald Trump, won the nomination. This makes the race for Governor sort of a proxy war between President Trump and Bernie Sanders. Affaire à suivre…...

John McCain, Senator and 2008 Presidential Candidate, Dead

Last Saturday, John McCain, longtime senator from the state of Arizona, former presidential candidate and war hero, died. When he ran for president against Barack Obama in 2008, there were apparently discussions: If Republicans would play the race card against Barack Obama, they could tip enough swing states and win the electoral college, but would clearly lose the popular vote. John McCain apparently outright rejected the idea. The episode tells you a lot about McCain and seems so far away compared to today’s politics.

Manafort/Cohen: Guilty

Of course, it’s not good news for President Trump that on the same day, both his former campaign manager and former personal lawyer were found guilty, respectively pleaded guilty. The most concrete consequence of this is that the Mueller probe will definitely continue. It’s next to impossible to describe it as a useless witch-hunt at this point in time. This being said, to think that because of this, Trump will be impeached anytime soon involves a lot of wishful thinking. One key element in that respect is whether or not Democrats will win the majority in the House of Representatives this November when the mid-term election will take place. It’s possible, but far from sure. Even if they do, an impeachment would need a majority of two-thirds in the Senate. This being said, it’s remarkable that Trump’s job approval ratings have been quite stable since mid-June. We will see in a few days how these two latest developments will play out in the polls. But let’s not forget: the Manafort trial was about the money Manafort earned during his work in Ukraine, Cohen pleaded guilty that he broke campaign finance laws. Some voters might wonder: Where are Trump and the alleged collusion with Russia in all of this? But then again, this might dramatically change if the Mueller investigation takes new turns.

Summer Press Conference By German Chanellor Merkel

So I’m reading that Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her last press conference before the summer break. I think she has reached a stage in her career that other presidents and head of government have reached: Voters don’t listen to her anymore. Germans have been seeing Merkel basically for almost two decades every evening in the news. She’s known commodity and people have made up their minds – positive or negative. Of course, a chancellor has always guaranteed (media) attention, but I think that voters listen to confirm what they think about her already, not with an open-mind to change their opinions. Her last opportunity to re-invent herself while in office was probably right after the last election and the building of the new government. From there on, her approval ratings might go up or down a bit, depending on the state of the economy and developments regarding the asylum issue. But right now, I don’t see what she could say or do herself that would substantially move then needle. I think it would take a clear break and plenty of time to change the dynamics.

Every Serious Election Campaign Should Start with a Baseline Survey

Every serious election campaign should start with a baseline survey. Period. I always tell my clients: "If you don’t know where you started, how do you know you’re making progress? Or making enough progress?" Yet, some want to “go around” first and spread campaign communication before taking a baseline survey. It’s like a pilot saying: “I don’t need the navigation system to start. I’ll turn it on once I’m in the sky and no longer know where I am.” Good luck with that!

New Trends in Political Campaigns: Digitalization is Changing Politics

As some readers of this blog know, I have long been skeptical about the influence of social media on election campaigns - especially outside of the USA. I noticed that somehow those who are so adamant about its effectiveness are the ones who make their living off social media. This being said, I have recently conducted an entire series of focus groups with millennials and confirmed that yes, digitalization is and will be changing campaigns. Nowadays, basically everybody is online, and an increasing number of people are more or less permanently online. This has important consequences on the speed of our communication and the diversity of channels and tools we use. Social media allows citizens to call their leaders out immediately, and to share quotes and footage. This can rapidly create a thunderstorm, that will spill over into the mainstream media. Social media is also a great tool to mobilize and activate the base, but we also have to realize that very few people change their opinion on social media (related to this is another trend I recently worte about: increasing polarization).

Inoculation Strategy against Rumors and Allegations

If voters believe rumors and allegations, it means that as a campaign or organization, you haven’t spread enough good news. This is why new candidates, who are not well-defined in the public eye, are oftentimes most vulnerable to scandals. The best inoculation strategy against a possible crisis therefore is to spread more good news. If you don't blow your own horn, there's no music.

New Trends in Political Campaigns: Experience Losing Importance

Experience – as a criterion for voters – is losing importance. Nowadays, the world is changing so fast that a younger and less experienced leader might be more able to understand current challenges. Indeed, there are several leaders who fit that category of the so-called slim fit politicians: French President Emmanuel Macron (40), Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (46), Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz (31), and former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (43). This doesn’t mean that experience has become entirely immaterial to voters, but rather that we are no longer in a situation where more experience is always better. I look at it like a threshold, meaning that a candidate needs to convince voters that he is able to do the job. Once a candidate can make that case, and can pass that threshold, other criteria become more important, and a comparatively young age can even be an advantage. One might ask if and how Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz passed such a threshold at the age of 31? The defining issue of last year’s campaign in Austria was the refugee crisis, and on that particular issue, he very much had both, a signature accomplishment and a political offer that was appealing to many voters.

Negative Campaigning: in Europe Top, in the U.S. Passé

Negative campaigning has long been seen as the very heart of U.S. election campaigns. In recent times, however, it seems that it has lost a lot of its effectiveness. Just look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign that has invested so much into attack ads against Donald Trump. American voters have seen so many negative ads that they have become increasingly cynical and unreceptive to them. Ironically, it’s the exact opposite in Europe. Here, negative campaigning has never been more effective than before. If you look at what has happened recently in France, Britain or Switzerland, careers have crashed and sometimes ended within a couple of weeks. Of course, negative campaigning in Europe is not done through tv ads where one candidate hits another. It’s normally carried out via the media, but no less effective.

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.

New Trends in Political Campaigns: Realness and Authenticity Wins Elections

Donald Trump brought reality television to politics. The president’s “shithole” remark a few weeks ago is just the latest illustration for that. In the age of reality tv (or reality politics for that matter), voters are willing to forgive a lot. They forgive their leaders character flaws and they are willing to forgive policy disagreements if they feel that they are being given the real deal. That’s one thing Donald Trump has going for himself: Everybody feels that in front of the camera he acts and speaks more or less the same as behind the camera. As different as they may be in other aspects, I think the same is true for Jeremy Corbyn in Britain or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. In fact, during the 2016 presidential election in the Philippines, there was an important televised debate. What made the event very special was that one of the candidates was quarreling with the moderator behind the stage. Since the tv station was already broadcasting live, as a result, the viewers would just see the other candidates standing on the podium. For one hour, the entire country watched the presidential candidates just stand there and wait. It's almost like a social experiment. Think about it: If we were to see our politicians just stand there for one hour not doing anything and not playing any role, we would all learn a whole lot about them. I think this was the first time when the hour before a debate decided the outcome of the election.

New Trends in Political Campaigns: Volatility

Another trend I currently observe about political campaigns is that the electorate is becoming increasingly volatile. I have long been experiencing this during my work in developing countries, but now we even see it in the Western world. Last year in Germany, the two big parties (the CDU and SPD) together lost a stunning 13.7 percent of their vote share. In France, the established parties basically collapsed. What are the consequences of this for campaigns? A campaign can no longer as reliably count on the support of loyal, regular voters. A party therefore has to continually re-invent itself, innovate and win the support of voters every day anew. Therefore, we should use every (local) election to try out new things. It also makes the development of a coherent and timely message even more important: A campaign has to give its target voters a reason why, this time, they should vote for their candidate or their party (and not one of the competing ones). This is also a challenge for new parties, which sometimes are very successful at the outset, but then find it challenging to sustain that success. Read more about this in an article I recently wrote for Campaigns & Elections Magazine Europe.

State of the Union: Democratic Response

In my last post, I wrote about President Donald Trump and his State of the Union address. This time, I write about the Democratic response to it. In short, Democrats should not feel too comfortable in their position either.

The government shutdown was not good for Democrats. To begin with, I think it was wrong to provoke a government shutdown over immigration. It’s one of the issues where Donald Trump actually has appeal way beyond his base of strong supporters. And yes, probably a majority of Americans agree with Democrats that the Dreamers should not be deported, but instead being offered some sort of pathway to citizenship. But still, it’s not a government shutdown topic. How about provoking a government shutdown over the affordability of health care for the middle class?

Second, to provoke a government shutdown, and then retreat without any major concession just doesn’t look very good either.

During the State of the Union address, Democrats looked awfully political. Admittedly, Donald Trump probably has very little to do with black unemployment being at the lowest in history. But it nevertheless does happen under his watch. A little bit of applause coming from Democrats would not have hurt in my mind. After all, it is a big deal!

General rule: If your political opponent does something right, it’s the wisest strategy to applaud and hug him for it. Actually, the more you hug him, the less the achievement belongs to him. Celebrate his victory, and then rapidly move on to a topic that’s favorable to you!

The big news in D.C. now is of course the memo, which the Republicans in the House intelligence committee wrote and President Trump made public. I carefully listened to all the Sunday talk shows yesterday and I think the issue is just too complicated for most voters and that there is not enough of a smoking gun. As of today, I think it will galvanize the base, but I doubt it will have much impact for either side beyond that.

Let’s not forget that yes, President Trump is seen unfavorably by a majority of Americans. Looking back in history, few State of the Union speeches moved the needle in a substantial and sustainable way and I doubt what we have seen last week is an exception to the rule. At the same time, the electoral map for the mid-term elections is very unfavorable – in both houses - for the Democrats.

Donald Trump Delivers State of the Union Address

Last night, Donald Trump delivered the State of the Union Address. In the American system, the executive and the legislative branch of government are independent from each other. But the constitution says that the president shall inform congress about the state of the union. This is the historic origin of the yearly speech. Nowadays it is of course a great opportunity for any president to deliver a message to the American people watching at home.

The tax breaks, which congress passed late last year, were a central theme in Trump’s speech. Even though I think that the long-term consequences of this will be disastrous for the deficit, it must have come across well for many American voters. The speech also contained some conciliatory words and a call for bipartisanship, but they are just that, words. A lot of the accomplishments Trump touted were in fact undoing accomplishments by the Obama administration (rolling back regulation, single-payer mandate). By the mere tone and vocabulary he is using, it is always very obvious when Trump reads a speech from a teleprompter such as last night, and when he speaks in his own words. It's not that the firing of the FBI Director, the Russia probe, the government shutdown, the changing of the voting rules to appoint Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the twitter battles didn't happen last year. They did happen. The USA are today more polarized than they have been in probably fifty years. One of the consequences of this is also that opinions about the president are quite defined already with a majority of voters disapproving of the job he is doing. In that sense, I would assume that he will gain a few points in the surveys over the next couple of days and weeks, but I doubt the speech marks a new chapter in Trump’s presidency.

New Trends in Political Campaigns: Polarization

These are exciting times in politics! Things change and they change at an increasingly fast pace. For the beginning of this new year, I will start a new series and formulate seven trends I observed and experienced about modern political campaigns. Today we start with polarization.

Politics in many countries is getting increasingly polarized. Geographic area, gender, age and education are the main drivers behind that polarization. And, many voters seem quite happy with this situation at the moment. The zeitgeist for many voters and politicians alike is to express themselves and to like what they agree with, but not really to expose themselves to the other side’s arguments. Look at the big and emotional debates such as the refugee crisis or the #MeToo movement: Until recently, I have heard very few nuancing voices. This might be an opportunity for the right candidate or party. Sooner or later, there will again be a political demand for balancing out various opinions, cooperation, and getting things done. This is not a self-starter, but could be successful if worked out properly and once the cost of the polarization becomes too high.