Last week, Blue State Digital held a discussion at its London office about takeaways from the the U.S. election, the EU referendum, and the year in campaigning.
Moderated by the fantastic Kate Bevan, a writer and speaker on technology for a wide range of publishers including Financial Times, Sky News, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, the panel of speakers included:
Joe Rospars – Founder and CEO of Blue State Digital, and former Chief Digital Strategist for both of President Obama’s campaigns.
Greg Nugent – Co-founder of Inc., former CMO London 2012, and advisor on the Scottish Referendum, Stronger In, and a wide range of global brand advocacy campaigns.
Leah Kreitzman – Mayoral Director for External and International Affairs, former Senior Adviser to Sadiq Khan’s campaign to be Mayor of London, and former Director of Public Affairs for UNICEF UK.
Here are the top five takeaways from the discussion:
The fundamentals of campaigning still apply
While it’s easy to say the election and referendum are exposing the souls of their nations, in reality both featured close results that could have been swung either way with a bit of effort. Leah noted that “in one way it is formulaic and straightforward and what has happened at every other election.”
And as we have learned in Brexit and the U.S., polls have a margin of error and campaigns have a margin of execution. Joe commented “every election outcome is a combination of things you can control and things that you can’t control. And what we know about the election in the U.S. was that it was very, very close. The candidate I would have preferred got quite many more votes — around two million more votes — than the other person. This was not a 49-state wipeout; this was within our grasp. So that just means there is work to do. Any one particular aspect of the campaign — the candidate, the strategy, any one of those things — could have cost the election, but that also means that the right answer to any of them could have maybe won the election. So that can be infuriating, but it should also feel empowering as we go forward and think about what to do next.”
Yes, they preyed on fear, but it’s about emotion more broadly
Both the leave campaign in the U.K. and Trump’s campaign in the U.S. have been accused of stoking fear—and while that is true, they also tapped into emotion. We’ve seen Obama successfully do this in 2008 and 2012, and in 2016 we saw “outsider” candidates who appeal to people because they are speaking about politics in an emotional way.
When traditional or established politicians talk about fixing the system, or helping the population, they are often doing so in a somewhat bland manner that feels like more of the same—even if their words and plans promise real change. So when characters pop up who feel fresh and start saying that the traditional candidate is saying the same old thing, they are filling an emotional void.
Leah spoke about how Sadiq Khan won the Mayoral election in London by tapping into emotion, and kept that going later with the London is Open campaign. His mayoral campaign talked about “the bus driver’s son fixing the transport systems, the council estate boy fixing the housing crisis, and the Muslim taking on extremists. These were the messages we brought right to the heart of who Sadiq is as a person.” The campaign found an outlet for people to “channel a lot of emotion that then gave them something to share, do, and talk about. They felt like they were part of a movement.”
Greg believes a generational element is at play, as the established generation of politicians are failing to connect. Greg said “that the established character with experience didn’t work out as the final currency in the U.S. electoral college. That generation of politicians has run out of trust. With Sadiq Khan, he generally said ‘I will run it how I will run it, and talk about things I will talk about.’ ” There’s an authenticity there that is based more on emotion than the status quo.
People aren’t raging, but they are rebelling against cookie-cutter messages
When Kate challenged our speakers and audiences to think more about where we go from here, she asked if we need to be harnessing the “howl of rage” that people are feeling. After some consideration, however, our speakers felt that we have to be careful about overstating this.
As Leah noted, “Hillary won the popular vote, and by a big margin. Leave didn’t win by a big margin, despite how it might feel like. There are still lots of people who weren’t feeling rage, and we also need to harness those people and what they are feeling and build that coalition and build it bigger.”
Greg went on to say, “I don’t want to massively dumb this down, but I don’t think you can get around the economics. I don’t think that everyone who voted for Trump was desperately angry, but it was a reaction to something. I don’t really think this country wanted to leave Europe, but it is a reaction to something. People are feeling that things have gotten a bit too hard and the economy isn’t working for a lot of them.” So when candidates tap into that by saying the same old things won’t work to fix their problems, people are responding to them.
Joe believes that the candidates are playing the key role here, as not only are candidates on the far right “speaking and believing it when they are speaking the truth, they are believing it when they are lying as well. That is the thing that I think is really, really challenging to be up against. I think that is why it’s important on the progressive side to be be even more vigilant about the candidates we are putting forward. Because too often we have wound up with candidates over the last couple of decades that look like they don’t even believe it when they are telling the truth. For me, I want know who is going to do this like they have nothing to lose. Who is going to do this in a way that feels like it is from the outside? Who is not going to make the same compromises?”
Part of this is getting people to believe, which means the candidates need to not only believe, but to connect, as Greg mentioned. Messages are being too tightly controlled, whereas Leah explained that the Mayor of London has crowdsourced messages and content for the London is Open campaign, in keeping with the ethos of that campaign—being open and not using the same messages from the past.
The social media bubble that everyone is talking about
There was plenty of talk about fake news. Social media platforms such as Facebook have been complicit in not addressing fake news, but also for enabling people to only reinforce their views through their filtered views of the world—their “bubble” controlled by an algorithm.
Our panel felt that social media is only part of a more complex equation. Leah pointed out that “Trump, for example, was covered by entertainment news and channels that Hillary and other traditional candidates were not being covered by. He was a totally different type of candidate in that sense.”
And when it comes to social media and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, people’s content feeds are going to be curated, but Joe feels that the “impenetrability of the conservative bubble was something that took a lot of people by surprise, especially afterwards looking at the data such as shares. When it is an iron bubble, that is a really difficult challenge. There is temptation to think that you can go over the top of social media, but I actually think it is the offline actions and going underneath it into the real world where you can have trust‑based relationships and organising, and digital is about actually organising your organisers.” So for Joe, it’s about a return to facilitated conversations with the people in your community, rather than getting lost in thinking the Internet is a giant blocker to overcome.
It’s time to roll up our sleeves and focus on what’s next
Both our speakers and our audience were in the mood to look forward, to think about what we can all take away from this year and turn into action. Leah feels that it is advisable to have a determined outlook but not to ignore the emotions: “Sometimes our side thinks clinically and we talk about facts and numbers but we don’t tap into emotions or acknowledge and recognise them. That is something London is Open was trying to do—we had a message to send to the world post‑Brexit to protect our financial institutions and everything else, and something to say to each other as citizens in London that everyone is still welcome here and our city hadn’t changed. We’ll only do more of this.”
Greg encouraged everyone to think big and outside of the traditional party system. “There is a danger that all these good ideas are too small and there is a real need to make something big and for us all to follow something. I believe more than ever that that thing will organically reveal itself, and it won’t come from a room in Westminster.”
Joe talked about how organisers and campaigners have to keep fighting the good fight. “There may be more things to oppose on more fronts. Organisations like Hope not Hate that we work with here on confronting actual Nazis is unfortunately one that needs more attention. There was a conference in D.C., a few blocks from the White House, of white nationalists just this weekend. We have to have a different opposition to that and make them uncomfortable. The loyal opposition is not necessarily the strategy anymore. So I think there is an imperative on those of us who do the organising both in a political sense, but also in the charity sector, to be at the frontlines of mitigating the harm that comes from election outcomes such as this that can have some harmful circumstances. As I said earlier, that just means there is work to do. The U.S. election was a close one, and let’s be empowered by that—all hope is not lost.”
And with that, we ended the discussion on a positive note, some people making their way out into the London night, some sticking around for more drinks and lively chat, and all of us determined to keep the dialogue going in our own ways, with a view to an active year ahead.
If you’d like to discuss anything related or see how Blue State Digital can help you with marketing, campaigning, and all things digital, please get in touch.