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'Marry me, so we don’t break up' The political proposals of 2016 that got it all wrong

Like any good proposal, a political campaign must give voters a sense of hope that things in the future will be wonderful, writes Eoghan McDermott.

IMAGINE A PERSON planning and preparing their proposal to their partner of five years, thinking of how they’ll do it, figuring out what they’re going to say – and they come up with “marry me to keep things tipping along?”

Not the most romantic, enthusiastic or special way of asking someone for a life commitment. But that proposal is essentially what we were offered by government strategists in this year’s General Election.

The Remain campaign in Britain and Hillary Clinton propositioned their voters with the equivalent of “marry me, so we don’t break up”, and “marry me, because the other guy is a complete headcase”.

2016 saw three major political campaigns – our own General Election, the United Kingdom’s referendum on membership of the European Union, and the US Presidential election.

Across all three there are things that a would-be political strategist, candidate or campaigner would do well to learn.

Like any good proposal, a political campaign must give voters a sense of hope that things in the future will be wonderful. When asking people to go out to vote, it can’t be for the status quo. It has to be to fix a problem, or build a future.

The Remain side and Fine Gael offered neither. What they offered was to keep things as they are.

The defining word of the Referendum on Europe was Remain. Sit in your nappy.

EU referendum Niall Carson Niall Carson

The Remain side should have given a vision of Britain leading in Europe again. Drawing on the memory of the country that saved a continent twice, rather than an impotent campaign focussed on staying in a body that most of their politicians had criticised for 30 plus years.

Fine Gael’s ‘Let’s Keep the Recovery Going’: ditto. Dull, and speaking to a converted audience who were feeling the recovery. It was the status quo. Don’t you dare mess this thing up.

Donald Trump’s proposition was visionary to many – he was going to fix things, it was active, focussed on the outcome to “Make America Great Again”. He had the ability to make a cohort of resentful and angry people feel hopeful and proud. Hillary Clinton’s slogans of “Stronger Together” and particularly “I’m with Her” spoke to an already-converted group.

As much as Democrats will hate it, Trump followed what their two most loved Presidents did. He gave a vision. For example, Obama’s “Yes We Can” filled his voters with the hope that they could fix the mess that George W Bush had created.

Or JFK with his speech at Rice University to persuade the American people to support his space strategy, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Future tense. Inspiring.

These “proposals” were more like, “We’re going have a wonderful life together, and I’m going to make you very happy.”

The vanquished also failed to speak to the Floating Voter about things they cared about and in terms they understood. This is the most obvious thing in the world. Don’t preach to the converted because they’re already with you. Clinton even said that half of Trump voters were “deplorables”. Dismissing them when she should have been trying to wrap her arms around them.

It would seem the strategists behind 2016’s losing campaigns didn’t listen or appreciate what the Floating Voters cared about. Whereas Trump did. For example, illegal immigration and unemployment are big issues for many Americans. Trump spoke to that.

In Flint Michigan he did it perfectly, telling the crowds:

It used to be that the cars were made in Flint, and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now, the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.

And he was going to fix that.

Campaign 2016 Trump Evan Vucci / PA Wire Evan Vucci / PA Wire / PA Wire

The “establishment” in the three jurisdictions has been rebuffed.

Ireland has gone for Independents or the Left, rather than swinging to the right like the US and Britain.

This is because there is a cohort of people who feel things are pretty rubbish for them, and who didn’t hear from the losing campaigns how things were going to improve for them.

Obama gets praised for his oratory but his policies were about supporting the middle class and improving their lives through health insurance and fair taxation.

Ken Bone (the man wearing a red sweater who asked a question during one of the debates) said that he had to weigh up his dislike for Trump versus the impact on his family and pocket. 45% of college-educated white women voted for Trump.

He may be an ass but they felt he was giving them more things than Hillary was. He was going to bring jobs back, deal with illegal immigration and address fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.

In an argument of logic versus emotion, emotion often wins. The Greeks called it Pathos. They appeal to people’s emotions. Trump did that. The Leave campaign did that.

Campaigns need to equip the man or woman to win an argument in the bar. And be able to do it in five sentences. The Remain side gave no simple clarity. Their campaign forgot the Monty Python sketch of “What did the Romans ever do for us?”.

What did the EU ever do for the UK?

For years politicians in Britain had reaped benefit by slamming Europe for anything bad that happened and taking credit for the good stuff. The Remain side failed to differentiate to voters what value membership of the European Union gave versus the cost accrued.

And Cameron, in particular, should have spent a year or two ahead of the referendum doing that, explaining to people what Europe contributed to the UK.

In Ireland we were given terms like “fiscal space” rather than a vision of a country where nobody would be left behind. Hillary’s thesis seemed to be that she deserved it because her experience made her one of the most qualified candidates ever.

Part of what’s to blame might be focus groups.

Political strategists love them because they give them a chance to test their ideas on a selection of the public to find out if they’re any good. And to give them the cover of “it tested well with the focus group”.

But focus groups are flawed for so many reasons. Issues discussed tend to be national – but all politics is local. The topics may not be personal to the attendees, so why would they care?

People behave differently when they know they’re being watched. The facilitator may influence them. Individuals who turn up to focus groups are a particular type of person.

The stuff you say publicly in a room full of strangers is different to what you would say privately to your nearest and dearest.

The result of focus groups for campaigns tends to be dull, boring and safe “messages”. I would be amazed if anything Donald Trump said was focus-grouped. But you can be sure the others were.

So for any campaign in 2017, parties and candidates would do well to remember the importance of a vision – fix something or build a future; to talk to floating voters about the things that they care about and in a way they can understand, remember and retell; and not to be ironed flat by the pseudo-science of focus groups.

The French Presidential election is the one to watch.

Eoghan McDermott is a Director of The Communications Clinic. Find him on Twitter @EoghanMcDermott


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