To subscribe to the monthly C&E Europe email newsletter and event announcements click here.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italy’s former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi made the same mistake: they personalized the respective referendum campaigns they presided over, and as a result they lost.
It’s worth noting that Cameron and Renzi had the same advisor: Jim Messina, President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager.
A core lesson from both campaigns: electoral campaigns and referendum campaigns are not the same. When running a referendum there are three rules to follow: 1) Referendum campaigns are about issues, not individuals 2) They are won when you can appeal to everyday issues, and 3) Get to the point and simplify.
The Italian referendum was about complex constitutional reform, but it became a referendum on Renzi. Some political analysts argued the election in Italy was another battleground in determining the future of the European Union, but that’s not the way I saw it. While it’s true that trust in the EU is low in Italy, this was not what drove the referendum campaign. The coalition that said “no” to reform was only partially a result of the populist and anti-euro front. The real driving factor was the surging anti establishment sentiment and the lack of trust voters have in the political parties in Italy – less than 10 percent trust the country’s political parties in recent surveys.
Renzi tried to embody part of this anti-establishment sentiment by criticizing the austerity doctrine, but it had no positive impact on his approval ratings. At one point he appeared on television without the EU flag, making a point of having only the Italian flag in the camera shot, but this backfired as well. As a result, he angered many of the pro-Europe voters who were on his side, and the move was interpreted as nothing more than a ploy to appeal to a constituency he was struggling with.
Opinion polls ahead of the voting clearly indicated that most Italians saw the country as headed “in the wrong direction” and were not positive about Italy’s economic future. The country’s economic situation was more of a driving issue than just the merits of the proposed reform.
One key indicator from the vote itself: in the 100 cities with the highest rates of unemployment, "no" won with 65.8% of the vote; in the 100 cities with the lowest rates of unemployment, "yes" won with 59%. Unemployment among young Italians remains close to 40%. And when young people do find employment, it’s often not stable. It’s a stark economic reality that Millennials are poorer than previous generations and their income is 15% lower than the average Italian. The Renzi government began with a promise of economic reform, but the economic reality for young voters simply didn’t improve.
About half of “no” voters (those who voted against the Constitutional reforms) said they were voting mainly against Renzi.
Renzi failed to communicate the need for a constitutional reform and tried to use populist arguments that didn’t resonate with the electorate. Two years ago, Renzi was the hope for a radical turnaround of political leadership.
A referendum that was supposed to be about making radical changes to the Italian constitution, reforming the parliamentary system and regional government powers, became about Renzi, who gambled his political future on the vote. Following the defeat of the referendum and Renzi’s resignation, the country’s foreign affairs minister, Paolo Gentiloni, stepped in to lead the government.
As for Renzi’s future: he remains secretary of the Democratic Party, and he may end up a candidate again in next year’s elections. But the political challenge will be enormous. Since 1994, no candidate representing the governing party has won an election. And the party’s main competitor will be the Five Star Movement, which has some elements of populism at its core. The five stars in the movement’s name represent the five issues it cares most about: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to internet access and environmentalism.
The group has attacked corruption in mainstream politics and denounced politicians while demanding tax cuts for small businesses. Now they are running cities like Rome and Torino and starting to demonstrate that they are ready to govern.
The next campaign has already started, and the lessons learned from the referendum are simple: “it’s the economy, stupid.”
Marco M. Cacciotto is the founder and president of Public strategie per il consenso, a network of firms specializing in political and public affairs strategies, communication and research.