From February 23rd to 25th IRI hosted the International Democratic Union’s (IDU) Campaign Managers Meeting at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The meeting brought together over forty campaign managers from some two dozen conservative and center-right parties across the globe to exchange campaign knowledge and hear from experts on the latest developments in campaign strategies and technology.
The past year has witnessed stunning electoral upsets that have upended many traditional campaigning conventions, while at the same time digital technology has continued to revolutionize the way election campaigns are conducted all over the world. With this in mind, and with several pivotal elections coming up later this year around the world, there was much to discuss at this IDU’s Campaign Managers Meeting.
The US Presidential election was perhaps unsurprisingly high on the agenda, as this saw an unconventional campaign with a result that stunned pundits and pollsters. Several American polling experts and campaign insiders made presentations at the meeting and attempted to explain how this extraordinary election occurred and why so few were able to predict its outcome. The pollsters argued that many eventual Trump voters were motivated by a desire for change more than anything else and were ultimately willing to overlook perceived shortcomings of the candidate in order to ‘shake up’ the establishment. These voters did not fit neatly into preconceived political categories and were generally under-sampled and their likelihood to vote was underestimated. Sean Cairncross, formerly at the RNC and current advisor to Reince Priebus, meanwhile pointed to his organization’s substantial efforts on behalf of the Trump campaign that he argued was often underestimated by outsiders before election day. He particularly highlighted the massive data operation conducted by the RNC that greatly surpassed any previous Republican operation.
Similarities between Trump’s election and the other major upset of 2016, Brexit, were noted by another presenter, British pollster Lord Michael Ashcroft: “One of the first things to strike us when we began our US research was a sense of déjà vu. Having spent months listening to British voters deliberate over the EU referendum, we found something eerily familiar in the way Americans talked about their own decision.” He found that on both sides of the Atlantic a substantial amount of voters felt their countries were headed in the wrong direction and had been harmed by globalization. He theorized that a perceived arrogant and dismissive attitude by political and media elite reinforced these voters’ animosity towards the establishment, as well as their desire to register this sentiment on election day. This may serve as warning and lesson to those competing in elections in the current climate, especially since as Lord Ashcroft points out these attitudes are not limited to a single country.
Another noteworthy topic of discussion was the continuing effect of digital technology in election campaigns. Several experts showed how technology has had an impact on almost every facet of political campaign work including communication, interaction, fundraising, and mobilization. Communications have particularly been transformed due to increased utilization of social media, with platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp having gone from being sideshows or afterthoughts to central elements of campaign strategies. This is even true even in developing countries where digital technology has not yet penetrated the population to the extent of other countries. Highlighting the importance of social media, Katie Harbarth from the Facebook corporation was one of the featured presenters at the meeting and spoke on the potential of the platform for election efforts. Despite the drive by many campaigns to focus on new media strategies, at least one speaker cautioned against completely abandoning traditional media such as television advertising, as it still has a significant role in reaching voters, especially if properly targeted with data.
The meeting concluded with a round of updates from recent and upcoming election campaigns in IDU member states including Norway, Jamaica, and Germany. Dr. Klaus Schüler, federal director of Germany’s CDU and Chairman of the IDU’s Campaign Managers Committee gave a fascinating preview of the CDU’s election strategy for Germany’s federal election this fall. Given Angela Merkel and Germany’s substantial influence in Europe and the international community at the moment, this election is being watched with particular interest abroad. Chancellor Merkel’s CDU is currently locked in a tight race with its social-democratic rivals, while the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) remains a potential wildcard. Schüler showed that the CDU is very aware of the challenges it faces in this election and is preparing to wage a modern and effective campaign.
It was apparent from the various speakers and participants at the Campaign Managers Meeting that comparable trends in elections are taking place across the globe. Current anti-establishment attitudes are not limited by borders and technology is radically altering the way political campaigns are being conducted everywhere. It is therefore in the best interest of centrist and democratic parties around the world to continue to share knowledge and expertise through forums like the IDU so that they can remain competitive in a rapidly evolving political and technological environment.