I’m a political nerd, I genuinely enjoy knocking on doors and talking to people about the issues that matter to them. For me campaigning abroad is a chance to support a cause I care about, learn new things and visit new places. In 2008, campaigning for Obama in Florida I was inspired by his incredible ability to make politics speak to people using stories, and impressed by the grass roots organisation that crowdfunded millions in micro-donations. I’m here to pick up campaigning tips and try to prevent the rise of Donald Trump. Because their election budgets are bigger, the Americans can invest in developing new tools and tactics, which can be applicable at home, and also for corporate communications campaigns. Here’s what I have learned:
- Grievance politics is here to stay. There are strong echoes to the Brexit vote, with an elite metropolitan establishment shocked and distraught at the divide that has apparently emerged between them and an overwhelmingly white, marginalised, angry, rural working class. We await further breakdown of the polls in the next few days but to me it feels eerily familiar. Trump has risen a tide of frustration with the elites and people’s feeling that they are being left behind by globalisation.
- Regretfully negative campaigning works. This has been the most vitriolic political campaign that I have ever worked on. People on the doorsteps ranted at me about how crooked Hillary was, others said Trump was a lunatic. Both candidates have the highest negative ratings ever seen during a Presidential race. Without doubt the Republican’s relentless negative campaigning against Hillary has worked– partisan attacks on the Clintons dating back to when Bill held office in the 90s have taken their toll on her public perception. Perhaps because of this she has developed a defensive media handling habit that has also hurt her, in my view. She struggles to show her genuine passion for public service with authentic, unscripted moments few and far between. In the face of absolute bile from her opponent during debates she remained so stiffly dignified that came across a little robotic. Many voters would have like to see a more human reaction. Trump on the other hand is seen as more authentic every time he is more offensive.
- Americans campaign on personality not policy. The leaflets I’ve delivered and adverts I’ve seen mostly speak to faith, family values and lifetime commitments to defending rights, in a way that I suspect would make most Brits gag a little. Although one of my favourite ads makes a virtue out of one candidates personality flaws. The Presidential race has been very policy light, with Trump in particular making sweeping generalisations that mean little in reality. He speaks of draining the swamp of Washington. This leaves plenty of wriggle room for him to react to new situations in office but will mean the markets have had a tough time pricing in the likely impact of a Trump presidency.
- The amount of money is mind boggling. The UK Conservative party spent about £15.5 million, Labour £12 million and the Liberal Democrats £3.5 million on the 2015 General Election, all the UK political parties combined spent less that £40 million. I supported democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Katie McGinty, who is locked into the most expensive senate race ever, $81million combining the candidates and affiliated groups. I was campaigning with a regional advertising director for a major media company who told me that collectively US elections would top that figure almost every day in ad buy. Interestingly she also estimated that only 25% of the spots she booked were negative ones but they come in a much higher frequency towards the end of the campaign and get more attention, which explains the feeling that it is wall to wall negative.
- Grassroots ground game matters but it’s not everything. If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll have heard a lot about turnout assumptions and how much they can skew polling models. Particular segments of the electoral are important to either candidate – women and black and latino minorities for Clinton and white, blue-collar and college graduate men for Trump. I have been working with teams trying to get out the vote in Washington DC (calling and texting voters in swing states) and in Pennsylvania in York and Philadelphia. The organisation to ensure that Democratic voters get to the polls is slick but it’s not glamourous stuff. Reminding people to register, telling them where their polls are. Its less uplifting than in ’08 but teams of hundreds of door knockers are motivated by fear rather than by hope this time around. The volunteers I spoke to were resolute “he is scary, we must not let him get in, this is the first time I’ve campaigned”. New York people apparently queued round three blocks to get on buses to come to Pennsylvania to help out where it mattered. A friend in DC jumped on a plane to North Carolina with four days to go to help get out the vote.
- Change is a more powerful message than more of the same. In the last few days particularly Barack Obama has been out talking about Hillary represents his legacy and the continuation of the promises he made. In all countries, the pendulum of public opinion swings away from an incumbent party after about eight years. Arguably even
- This result is disappointing for women and girls around the world. I really believe “you can’t be what you can’t see” and that we need powerful female role models to inspire us all. For a generation of girls around the world, to see Hillary Clinton alongside Angela Merkel and Theresa May calling the shots, would have be immeasurably uplifting. Donald Trump has shown such a shocking lack of respect for women during the course of his campaign. His win sends a message that being an aggressive misogynist is the way to get ahead and that his disregard is acceptable. Thus far not a single political analyst on any of the major channels has questioned whether latent sexism has played a part here. It will be interesting to see if this emerges in the next few days.
When I first floated the idea of the trip my American family said they need all the help they can get. Volunteers and organisers valued the extra pair of hands. On the doorsteps I told people it was important to us Brits because America has a global reach and they totally got it. Arguments about the right name for pants vs trousers aside, America and the UK share a lot of cultural and economic values about competition and collaboration, public service, decency and openness – and many of those stand to be eroded if Donald Trump fulfils some of his campaign rhetoric. We might not always agree on policy but we need America to be a force for good in the world, now more than ever.