Political campaigns in 2018 are going to be fought in much the same way as they always have been. Political campaign software is going to be hugely important of course but a few things stand out as being interesting based on the conversations we are having with campaign teams.
Offensive versus Defensive Campaigns
The past few years have seen huge swings in the way the electorate perceive candidates and parties based on things like the popularity of the President associated with them, press coverage, or simply the way in which the culture has moved. Being aware of these contexts in which campaigns are fought do help to develop strategies that are effective.
Just like a football team campaigns need to have an offensive and/or defensive strategy based on what’s in front of them, in any campaign you may be the candidate with the wind behind their back or you may be facing an uphill battle with the electorate. An offensive strategy is designed to drive home an advantage and a defensive strategy designed to change the tone of the campaign and to pick holes in the competitor's armor.
If you are fighting a defensive campaign you may want to highlight your competitor’s flaws or mistakes rather than focusing on what you have achieved. You might need to do voter targeting that shores up your core support areas rather than concentrating on swing areas. You may wish to make a radical change in the dominant narrative of the campaign, moving it from, say, healthcare to jobs, in order to get voters to see you in a different way.
Equally, for offensive campaigns, that are benefiting from some external context, the focus might be on voter areas that have traditionally ‘off-limits’, or it might be about harnessing the goodwill towards you to maximize donations or grassroots activists to your cause.
Campaign teams this year understand that the context in which a campaign is fought will determine many decisions for them and being aware of this can help to ensure a successful outcome.
Grassroots versus Campaign HQ
Last year’s UK general election was a great example of poor coordination between campaign HQ and the wider grassroots organization. The Conservative Party ran a very centralized campaign with defined messaging and strategy that did not empower local decision making. This resulted in a disenchanted grassroots organization and an electorate that felt disconnected from the party message. In 2018, as in 2017, we are seeing campaigns begin to acknowledge and empower grassroots infrastructure to make better decisions for the campaign as a whole.
There a number of components to a successful marriage between campaign HQ and the grassroots team. Firstly, there is a need for coordination. This is easier said than done and it demands area ‘captains’ that have a clear chain of command to HQ through regional organizers or a campaign team at the HQ. This strong link allows information to be passed down the chain and back up again in response to local conditions.
Secondly, a division of decision-making capabilities that empowers local grassroots. Allowing local people adapt their campaign strategy to what they are hearing on the ground, while also following the broad guidelines of the larger campaign are really critical. This requires trust on the part of HQ that the people they have locally are well-trained and will not diverge from the party line too much.
Thirdly, and very practically, is the need for unified systems to work on, whether this is standard operating protocols that everyone adheres to, or whether it is a singular software system that everyone receives their tasks from and inputs voter information into.
Finally, is the need for a healthy grassroots membership. Growth hacking grassroots membership is actually very simple to do by having systems in place for all supporters to be invited to become a part of the team rather than being simply passive voters. This change of mindset is often cited by campaign teams as the difference between a successful outcome in elections and should be a top priority in 2018.
The writer Alice Walker has a great quote, “The most common way people give up power is by thinking that they don’t have any”, something which is still relevant in 2018. It could be argued though that the people (and specifically voters) have never been so keenly aware of the power they hold based on the type of election outcomes we have seen in recent times. The term populism has taken on a negative connotation since Brexit, Trump and some of the high profile electoral battles in Europe, but in essence, populism is a reflection of voters believing that they have power when they visit the ballot box. If the opposite of populism is a conservative voting population that does not rock the boat and continues to vote in establishment figures, then there is certainly a strong case to be made for populism.
Political campaign professionals are understandably cautious about the turbulent nature of voting patterns and the difficulty in predicting the way campaigns can change based on the wider forces like I described above. Voter empowerment initiatives like the #resistance movement in the US mean that campaigns have to respond to the prevailing climate like never before. Many of the industry people we speak to are taking steps to ensure they understand what voters are thinking well in advance of election day, and are continuing this voter contact to keep on top of trending issues.
There is a multitude of ways in which voters are exercising their power at the moment. Community and issue groups are coalescing at a local level to raise awareness. Social media is playing a huge role with the power of the hashtag more obvious than ever, take for example #bluewave2018 or even #metoo. The one word that comes up repeatedly with campaign professionals though is trust. They are seeking to build trust with a core segment of voters from early in the election process and then expand on that as the campaign plays out. The question remains as to whether this voter empowerment stage is just temporary turbulence or if it is a structural change in the way political life operates and is here to stay.
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