Beating incumbents is never an easy task. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a local mayor, a regional leader, or a prime minister. Incumbents have far more name recognition than challengers and they can tap into additional resources for their campaigns.
It gets even trickier in certain countries where incumbents may have the ability to exert some degree of control over state-owned media.
It’s why the results of the December 2018 election in Andalusia, Spain's southernmost region, surprised many political analysts. Ahead of the vote, forecasts predicted the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PES) would remain at the head of the Andalusian government following the election, but the results surprised analysts. Juanma Moreno, the regional leader of the People’s Party (EPP) emerged as a leading actor by ending the 40-year rule of the socialists in the region.
Having worked on the campaign team of the People’s Party, there are some lessons to share from this victory. Here are some of the key steps we took that helped us define and win this regional election.
1. Be the first to campaign for change.
According to our own polling, “change” was the message that most united Andalusian voters. In other words, ousting Susana Díaz, the incumbent socialist leader, garnered support from voters across all parties, including 28% of socialist voters.
Our strategy was to turn this regional election into a referendum on the continuation of the socialist leader in the government. The question that would define the terms of the debate was put forward by our candidate before anyone else: should Susana Díaz continue holding her office?
2. Position your candidate as the one who can deliver change.
If the majority of voters want change, then the question is: which political figure truly guarantees it? To drive home the message of our campaign, we opted for a clear and simple slogan: “Juanma Moreno is the only guarantee of change.”
Other political players on the left made a strategic mistake in this campaign. They announced that, in the event of a hung parliament, they would lend their support to the incumbent. This neutralized their own ability to campaign as agents of change, thus pushing more voters to other parties that were closer to their ideologies and represented real change. Parties that had, in the recent past, supported the incumbent could not be perceived as real actors of change either. All of this positioned our candidate very strongly as the real candidate of change.
3. Exploit your candidate's strengths
It is important that the candidate representing change represents a clear contrast to the incumbent. This is why, throughout the campaign, we exploited our candidate’s main strength: he was a typical Andalusian. He is the son of emigrants. He was in a band in his youth. He eats with his family at well-known and affordable burger restaurants. We presented our candidate as he is: someone who is in touch with everyday voters and can understand their concerns.
In contrast, the reasons why voters reject an incumbent include their legacy, the idea that they are out of touch, and the party leadership. In the case of Andalusia, the incumbent’s leadership style was, mostly, what Andalusians wanted to change.
4. Innovate in the use of strategic and data-driven communications.
We produced tailored campaign materials for each communication channel. For example, the TV spots for publicly-owned media were targeted to a female and rural audience, whereas those aimed at social media were created to appeal to younger voters. We focused much effort on making these appeals distinct in both the aesthetic and the narrative.
We also divided Andalusian public opinion into nano-segments, depending on their predisposition towards change. To each nano-profile we marked a goal and a message. While other parties and media became obsessed with Twitter, where there are usually few undecided voters, we developed the bulk of our digital communications on Facebook.
We also tried to innovate in the way we communicated with younger audiences. For example, we launched a grassroots initiative on social media where enthusiastic volunteers could answer young voters’ questions about the candidate directly. We reached 280,000 young people of 18-23 years in Andalusia through different channels.
Every campaign, and indeed every incumbent, is different. But if your team is facing a similar situation, then take some lessons from these four steps. They can help frame the election and position your candidate on the winning side.
Aleix Sanmartin was an electoral strategist on Juanma Moreno’s campaign bid for the Presidency of the Junta de Andalucía.