Ben LaBolt
Wednesday, 11 December 2019

With hindsight, we can do better

In the United States, in Australia, in Europe and Eurasia, in South America, and indeed, around the world, shock election keeps following shock election. An angry electorate is raging against the machine.

The global world order that has been in place since the aftermath of World War II is disintegrating. While globalization has lifted many out of poverty and automation has revolutionized how we live our lives, these trends have exacerbated income inequality and economic anxiety. The wealthy are talking about leveraging AI and pursuing Hyperloops and space tourism while the average family watches in horror as the core industry in their town becomes irrelevant.

For as many people that have seized opportunity for themselves in an evolving world, many if not more don’t see a role in a knowledge based, technology enabled economy. The opportunities presented aren’t what they were trained to do nor is there an obvious path for them to transform their skills.

This collective frustration has changed the political fabric around the world.  While we on the left debate the best methods to tackle climate change and counter China, many are waking up each day wondering what their job will be ten years from now or if their kids will attend university.  

Despite little foreshadowing and months of polls projecting the opposite, on November 9th 2016, we woke up to Donald Trump as President of the United States. Here in Australia, you got a similar surprise on May 19, 2019. With hindsight we can identify how these candidates won, and how Bolsonaro in Brazil and Orban in Hungary and others won in their respective countries. 

Those are the trends that have set the left on our heels.  But we are not simply victims of history, and with hindsight, the path back to victory has become more clear.  While we all face global headwinds that enabled these losses, by understanding how voters are experiencing these challenges, we can speak more clearly to their needs and win in order to lead again. 

Lessons from the U.S. Midterms

In the United States, Trump’s victory was a catalyst that wiped clean our assumptions about our party and the electorate and inspired changes that led to success in the 2018 midterm elections when we won back the House of Representatives.

How have we successfully fought back?

First, against our historic instincts as a party, we stopped assuming the leadership of the party knew all of the solutions and let a thousand flowers bloom.  The aftermath of the surprising results in the 2016 election gave rise to dozens of progressive organizations dedicated to holding Trump accountable and organizing to defeat him at the polls.  While party organizers coordinated with these organizations and helped to share targeting and messaging information, it was important to the supporters of these progressive organizations that they maintain their own branding and leadership.  

Simultaneously, a new crop of candidates emerged, particularly women, that were more representative of the country as a whole than the party’s current and historic leadership.  42,000 female candidates contacted the progressive women’s organization Emily’s List about running for office in 2018 – that’s an increase of over 42 times the demand in 2016, when they only heard from 920 female candidates.  The Democrats offered more candidates that looked like, spoke like, and were representative of the majority of Americans.

Political parties tend to be top down structures, and for many years, the Democratic Party was such a party.  However, in an era when there is a high distrust in government and fewer voters – especially younger voters – identify with a political party — a better vehicle for some people to come into the party is through outside, grassroots organizations that identify as progressive in their goals but aren’t directly affiliated with the party.  A command and control operation to force these groups to reflect the party’s way of doing things would not be successful – but allowing each of these organizations to flourish contributed to Democrats’ larger success and allowed us to win in some stretch goal districts that hadn’t been targeted by the party committees, which are right to remain focused on the most competitive districts.  

Democrats, no matter how progressive or conservative their district, ran on a unified message of protecting health care for all Americans when President Trump and Republicans were actively working to kick millions of patients off the rolls and scale back coverage for others.  We did not run on a laundry list of issues – the message was crisp and reflected voters’ top priorities.

Running a Modern, Integrated Campaign

During the Obama years, Democrats maintained a healthy digital advantage that allowed us to build the model for a modern, integrated campaign. In 2008, we leveraged Facebook to pilot relational organizing. By 2012, the communications and digital teams were working in a fully integrated fashion.  One example of how this works in practice was that we had a sophisticated in-house studio able to produce compelling video and motion graphic content quickly and around the clock. We were able to immediately amplify the candidate’s message when they were particularly strong on the stump as well as rebut attacks and activate an engaged network of supporters to carry our messages through their own voice.

But by 2016, Republicans began to catch up, aided by Donald Trump’s unprecedented ability to control the news cycle through Twitter declarations, outside investments in one to one targeting and digital paid media technology, and an understanding that Americans now primarily get their news and information through their mobile phones.  Trump’s content was simple and shareable and his message was constantly repeated.  

President Trump has signaled that he’s not going to back away from his digital first approach in the next election.  His campaign manager was the digital director of his 2016 presidential campaign. While Trump has had the luxury of spending early to try to define the terms of the general election, Democrats are making the necessary investments to fight back to parity, with leading candidates hiring digital strategists in senior roles on their campaigns, progressives in Silicon Valley providing seed funding for new technology companies to scale quickly, and Democratic firms harnessing institutional knowledge built election cycle after cycle to perfect how to persuade undecideds, motivative sporadic voters and deploy content rapidly while measuring its effectiveness in real time.

One of the advantages we have in the U.S. are the close relationships between political consulting firms like mine and the political campaign committees controlled by the party.  These allow us to harness institutional knowledge cycle after cycle – we never really go dark.  Finding a way to harness those same learnings on an ongoing basis so that you’re not rebuilding from scratch every few years is critical for Labor. 

Technology cannot supplant a strong message or candidate, just like making a clever TV ad buy or a well-connected staffer will not overcome them either.  Analytics, targeting and measurement cannot replace the art of campaigns – the science and the art are complementary. Technology and analytics are tools to help candidates win competitive races.  And the experience and background of the humans operating the tools matters just as much as developing the next buzzy tool.  

By the same token, digital is not just social media.  That is an antiquated vision for how to run a modern campaign.  Digital is how most people consume their television today – through streaming.  Digital is YouTube and Hulu. It’s mobile advertising that follows voters throughout their day.  It is native advertising tucked right next to news stories. It is retargeting the earned media we place to put it in front of voters where they consume information.  We live in an era of information overload – and we need to meet voters where they are.

Navigating Challenges

We should be clear eyed about the challenges that we face.  Despite strong results in the mid-term elections, victory in 2020 will be hard fought and we face a number of headwinds.

Democrats are currently at a fundraising deficit against Donald Trump and it’s quite possible our candidate and outside efforts to support the campaign will be outspent next year.  We have a president that is undermining the credibility of the media as an institution and trust in the media is reaching historic lows. The media is more fractured than ever, viewership is declining, and the industry is still trying to find a successful financial model.  The right wing has built a number of privately financed conservative media outlets that promote their agenda and attack our candidates as if it’s straight news – a challenge you’re quite familiar with in Australia. And real questions remain about how to update polling and turnout models to better predict the makeup of the electorate in 2020.

Democrats might face the dual challenge of a spending gap and a trust deficit going into next year’s election, where voters interpret the information they receive through a partisan lens.  That makes building out our own communications infrastructure even more important over the next year with efficient resourcing targeted to the voters most likely to decide the election. And given that we are competing against a president that has undermined the truth and would say anything to get reelected, we must fight on two fronts.  

First, we’ve got to prosecute the case against President Trump while offering an alternative vision that addresses the root cause of the reasons he got elected – persistent anxiety about the future direction of the American economy in a globalized and automated world.

Second, we’ve got to be prepared to combat the misinformation Trump and his allies will continue to propagate.

Path to Victory 

In 2016, Democrats ran on a consistent message – Stronger Together – that was a contrast to Donald Trump’s political approach.  That was coupled with detailed policy positions that checked the box across issue areas but didn’t allow one theme to break through.

We can’t make that same mistake in 2020.  Bill Clinton famously said that winning campaigns are about the future.  We must couple contrast with a forward looking vision.

We should expose Trump’s populism as a lie.  His only signature legislative accomplishment was a corporate tax cut that actually raised taxes on many individuals.  The farmers and manufacturers that decisively flipped the scales to him in the industrial Midwest have now been hammered by his trade war with China.  And he has surrounded himself with advisors that are much closer to Wall Street than Main Street.

At the same time, we need a clear and consistent message of how we will help families thrive, not just in the cities but in the suburbs and small towns, not just on the coasts but throughout the country.  We need to not just make higher education affordable but make clear what types of training are most likely to help students succeed once they graduate. When the core industry of a region is on its way out, we should help secure a new one rather than repeating the same wishful thinking about it coming back.  We should make sure that all children have access to learning and support at younger ages, even if their parents can’t afford it. Workers should be enabled to continue to pursue their education in search of higher skills and income.  

We know what’s required to succeed in today’s economy.  Americans are asking us for better access and a clearer steer on how to get there.

Finally, we should not expect this to be a fair fight.  Donald Trump plays dirty. He doesn’t tell the truth. He might politicize the Justice Department and use its full force to try to defeat us.  There have already been attempts by the Russians and Iranians to interfere in the election. 

Not only do we have to defeat our clear opponent, but we need to bat down misinformation that voters might believe is true.  That requires a whole new approach to rapid response. We won’t just be responding to our opponents’ attacks in the daily news cycle with statements and tweets.  We will need to use social listening tools to catch misinformation quickly and use our communications and legal muster to get it taken down. We’ll need to produce, viral, shareable content that flags misinformation as false.  We’ll ask our supporters to flag misinformation when they see it. And we’ll need to hire staff with sophisticated understandings of the leading social media platforms prepared to respond to the content warfare that will be coming at us.

Despite polls showing Trump’s approval rating has never approached 50 percent, this election is going to be incredibly close and hard fought.  We’ve now had three years to study our adversary – we don’t take for granted his strengths but have exposed some armorless flanks.  

I’m encouraged that there are others with shared values around the world like those of you in this room fighting back against the nativist and isolationist tide that we’ve seen take hold on the right in too many countries around the world.  This is a tipping point moment for social democracy.  We know what’s at stake in the battle we’re both taking on:  the preservation of our climate, durable, broad based prosperity, and security ties that protect democracy from the very real authoritarian challenge at our doorstep.  

We can fight back with great policy ideas, but we have the best chance to stop this march to the right by also running the smartest and most innovative political campaigns.  I can only hope that we are successful next year in the United States, and that we can once again share those lessons to help with your success in the next election.