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It is a natural law of politics that after US presidential elections, the battle over the significance and interpretation of the effects for the future standards of campaign management will break out in Europe.
This ranges from those who brush off any significance of any kind with the dismissal “what works in the US doesn’t work here anyway – we are different,” to those who are almost hyperventilating, promising the end of the world if we don’t immediately incorporate all the supposed trends into our own work.
Politics loves black-and-white thinking. It’s an emotional business; an emotional rollercoaster with many actors at the controls. External circumstances can change your own prospects, and with them your own future, from one moment to the next. Especially in times where established political movements are increasingly concerned about their long-term existence and are almost desperately seeking ways out to save themselves, simple solutions and answers are very appealing.
Trump’s victory holds out some of these simple answers for us. There is a strong anti-establishment trend. Traditional grassroots campaigning seems to be overrated. Twitter rocks. And last but not least: If you don’t draw up psychological voter profiles of social media users, you’re not part of the game.
But what’s behind the simple answers? Or rather: What’s behind the hype? Apart from features, tools and trends, here are five thoughts about what we can learn from Trump’s victory, and what we can’t.
1. “Winner takes all” won’t get us anywhere.
Causality is the relationship between cause and effect. The most prevalent example of this: an election victory means the campaign was excellent; an election loss means the campaign messed up.
This analogy contains two fatal fallacies. First: a campaign is the sum of many parts. If politics is really bad at one thing, it’s the measurability of the effect of individual parts on electoral success. While any average technology retail chain can measure and asses the effect of its promotional activities through ongoing “hard” sales figures, the “politics shop” is only open on a single day, which ultimately decides the actual success or failure of the sum of all activities.
The second fallacy is grounded in the political electoral system of the US: if we assessed the campaign victory by European standards, we would actually have to look at Hillary Clinton’s side. She won the popular vote, which is what counts in European democracies.
2. It’s much more about politics than about campaigns.
One factor that we consultants and experts don’t like to talk about much is the limits of our possibilities: the best campaign can’t compensate for a lack of political value proposition. The answer to the question “why should I vote for you?” is a mixture of benefit from, as well as trust in the candidate. If one or even both of these are missing, state-of-the-art campaigning won’t help. Or as David Ogilvy, put it: “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.”
We live in times in which many people have concerns and fears. If a candidate is unable to generate trust in him or herself as a person on the one hand and offer credible political value proposition on the other, he or she will not be elected. Incidentally, to rebel against the system also counts as a valid political value proposition, even if the benefit only provides very temporary satisfaction.
Sometimes, out of distress, we as voters reach for a painkiller, even if we know that it will only stop the pain temporarily and not get to the root of the problem. At the end of the day, politics should be about creating value for others. Consequently, the only way out of this dilemma for incumbents and challengers is to increase their own value proposition instead of pinning one’s hope on “the next big thing” in campaigning,
3. Be perfect, or don’t. But be real.
The 24/7 social media environment is the greatest opportunity for today’s politicians. It’s also a potential curse. This environment undermines what people who have been in politics for a long time seek above all else: control.
Not long ago, the reins of power were also associated with a high degree of control; nowadays, thanks to citizen journalists, WikiLeaks and the like, everything is public, everything is transparent, everything is accessible. Disguise, deceit and secrets are a thing of the past. The moral demands on politicians are higher now than ever. The motto is: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Everyone else: brace yourselves!
Throughout her entire campaign, Hillary Clinton could not get rid of the stigma of secrecy. Not that Trump should be accorded moral superiority here. The fact that the way Trump communicated over the course of the campaign allowed him to show himself as someone who translates his imperfection into policy, ultimately reduced the gap between what he projected himself to be and what people actually thought of him. This gap, or the absence thereof, is what we call authenticity.
4. Positioning is like cement.
Rule number 1: Position yourself or you will be positioned. Rule number 2: Position your opponent before he positions himself. What is considered a fixed component of the 101 in political campaigning had a catch in the U.S. election: Yes, Donald Trump was considered an outsider. Yes, he was considered a newcomer. No, he was not a blank page.
The opposite was true. We are talking about one of the best-known personal brands in the U.S. He had an identity that was shaped through various reality TV formats, and one that helped him project an image of success; the qualities of a man of action.
This was a brand that already had an identity at the start of the campaign. And to “reframe” it takes major effort. That was made all the more challenging given that Trump's opppnent was fighting to make her own brand resonate with voters.
#5 Traditional Media are not dead. They have become accessories.
Donald Trump and his Twitter account. How much has already been written about it? Which brings us to the central insight: through his untamed Twitter activities, Trump above all managed to take traditional media hostage. Marketing expert David Meerman Scott has given this phenomenon a name: “newsjacking” – hijacking the news. This is exactly what Trump did. He gave them what they wanted: something to get worked up about. And they provided him with what he needed: the commotion that gave his anti-establishment battle the necessary turbocharge. The media became accessories by offering the candidate not only space, but above all a launching pad. In some way they did the campaign's job.
A simple conclusion: It’s not that simple.
Without a doubt this recent presidential election campaign contains much that we who are responsible for campaigns, elections or politics can learn from. Even if we wish to find the hidden key that reveals easy answers for future electoral victories, reality is more likely to remind us of the difficulties and challenges that we face in campaigns today. If politics doesn't apply itself to these changes, the next buzzword won’t save it.
Philipp Maderthaner is founder and CEO of Campaigning Bureau, a Vienna-based campaign and technology company that serves clients in politics, the non-profit and corporate world. He is also the initiator of the leading campaigning conference in Europe, the Campaigning Summit, with an annual flagship event in Vienna and co-events all over Europe.