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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.

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