Across the world, the environment around political campaigns is changing at an increasingly fast pace. As we embark on a new year, here are seven trends I’ve observed in modern political campaigns from my work across Europe:
1. Nations are Increasingly Polarized
Politics in many countries has become increasingly polarized. This should come as no surprise. Geographic area, gender, age and education are the main drivers of this polarization. The zeitgeist for many voters and politicians alike is to reinforce what they agree with, but not really to expose themselves to the other side’s arguments.
Look at the big and emotional debates of the moment: the refugee crisis in Europe or the #MeToo movement. Until recently, I have heard very few nuanced voices. This might be an opportunity for the right candidate or party. Sooner or later, there will again be a political demand for balance and cooperation. At some point, the cost of polarization becomes too high.
2. The ever increasing volatility of the electorate
The electorate is becoming increasingly volatile across Europe. 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. 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.
3. New challenges for public opinion research
Related to the development of an appealing and timely message is the importance of public opinion research. There has been much talk in recent months about the challenges faced by survey research professionals. The American pollsters Anna Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner have news in that respect: neither the election of Donald Trump nor the Brexit vote in the UK changed the basic laws of statistics.
However, the polling industry is facing new and old challenges. The new ones have a lot to do with the changing lifestyles of voters, the old ones with the hesitation to spend on solid research designs and the incompetence of many with respect to the interpretation of the data. Greenberg and Rosner argue very convincingly that now more than ever, good public opinion research has a lot to do with listening to voters. In that respect, focus group discussions remain one of the great tools political professionals have to really understand the concerns of voters.
4. Authenticity wins elections
Donald Trump brought reality television to politics. The president’s “shithole” remark is just the latest illustration of that. In the age of reality TV (or reality politics for that matter), voters are apparently 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 him: 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.
5. Digitalization is changing political campaigns
I have long been skeptical about the influence of social media on election campaigns. 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, which clearly demonstrate that digitalization is changing campaigns.
Nowadays, basically everybody is online, and an increasing number of people are more or less permanently online. This has important consequences regarding the speed of our communication and the diversity of the 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 firestorm, that then spills over into the mainstream media.
6. Experience is less important
The world is changing so fast that younger leaders may be better positioned to understand current challenges. Indeed, there are several leaders who fit the 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 experience has become unimportant for 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 or she 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 the campaign 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.
7. Negative campaigning
For a long time, negative campaigning was seen as the heart of U.S. election campaigns. Political consultant Dick Morris has recently argued, however, that negative ads are losing their impact in U.S. campaigns. Voters have seen so many of them, that they have become increasingly cynical and unreceptive to them. Even if this is the case in the U.S., my experience in Europe suggests that negative campaigning has never been more effective than today. Here, negative campaign is less straightforward, but as we have seen recently in Britain and Switzerland, political careers can end within a few weeks. In that sense, I am waiting for the trend to change and for the first politician to withstand a wave of negative press coverage.
Dr. Louis Perron is a political consultant based in Switzerland. He has helped more than two dozen candidates and parties in various countries win elections. His clients include two presidents, a vice president, as well as numerous governors, senators, and mayors. He blogs about the art & science of winning election campaigns on www.campaignanalysis.com