Insights from the 2020 US Elections: A report from Liberal Democrats Overseas North American Branch

For the past six months, while liberals everywhere were biting their nails, the LDO North American Branch were analysing data sources and talking to anyone they could to gain useful insight into the US Elections.

The result is a report and Paddy Ashdown Forum / Liberal Democrats Overseas webinar entitled US Elections: Insights and Lessons for Lib Dem Campaigning to be held on Monday January 18th at 18:00 GMT.

So, what are the insights and lessons learned? The LDO report distills it all down to 7 key insights.

1. The ‘non-campaign’ campaign: Virtual campaigning comes of age

While Trump repeated his 2016 strategy, relying heavily on big rallies and live cable news coverage, the Biden team relied on virtual campaigning tactics. Democrats had to completely rethink how to connect with voters, finding new, imaginative ways of re-creating the emotional connection over the phone, text, Facebook message, and Zoom. In fact, virtual campaigning turned out to be more efficient, greatly extend reach, and be as impactful as traditional in-person events and door-knocking operations.

2. Digital Election Toolkit: People, passion and technology

Unprecedented voter data, shared across data exchanges, combined with cutting edge digital organizing technologies and vast numbers of tech-savvy, digital-native activists, allowed the democrats to leapfrog the Republican’s 2016 online supremacy, and transformed the democrats’ campaigning efforts during the pandemic.

3. Making local battles national – and national resources local

Democrats used a distributed organizing model to build massive volunteer capacity virtually and empowered them to organize from anywhere across the country. Individual candidates in the House and Senate ballots reached out nationally to raise small-dollar donations and fundraising events moved to platforms like Zoom and Facebook Live, making participation easier, wherever you lived.

4. ‘GOTV Early and Mail-In Vote’: The biggest GOTV effort in history

There were massively expanded, digital GOTV campaigns from both parties. Campaigns used social media ads, text messages, emails and other platforms to digitally chase voters, targeting them every step of the way with information on how to vote and reminders about key deadlines.

5. Consistency, character and contrast: Getting the message right

Biden’s messaging consistently reinforced themes of unity, character and competence, with a winning pledge to control the pandemic. Homemade straight-to-camera testimonials from regular people talking about the pandemic far outperformed conventional ads about policy or negative ads about Trump.

6. Just enough of a coalition: Tweaking the turn-out knobs

Biden’s campaign strategy was ultimately all about adjusting the turnout knobs on the groups that powered Trump’s 2016 victory and getting out the vote in cities where Democratic turnout had lagged four years ago.

7. Covid vs. The economy – A false choice?

Despite winning on Covid and having a strong story about the new green economy, Democrats’ failure to message on economic transformation hurt Biden and cost the party in the House and Senate elections.

To find out more, visit the Paddy Ashdown Forum or click here to register for the Paddy Ashdown Forum / Liberal Democrats Overseas webinar on Monday January 18th at 18:00 GMT.

* John Surie is a member of the Executive of the Liberal Democrats Overseas North American Branch.

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This entry was posted in Campaign Corner and News.


  • John Marriott 11th Jan '21 - 6:25pm

    To misquote that old SUN headline, as far as Biden and his Democrats were concerned, “it was COVID wot won it” for them. Despite Trump’s behaviour let alone his character, had the virus not arrived, given the way the US economy seemed to be going until earlier last year, there’s a good chance that the Orangeman would have secured a second term. Thank heavens he didn’t! What this horrible pandemic has exposed in spades is the incompetence of politicians and non politicians on both sides of the pond.

  • David Chadwick 12th Jan '21 - 2:07pm

    Thanks John, interesting summary. Would be interested in learning more about point 1.

  • Peter Martin 13th Jan '21 - 10:50am

    The Democrats shot themselves in the foot in 2016 by the manipulation of their primary selection process to ensure the nomination went to Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie Saunders.

    It not only alienated their own radical left supporters but it also allowed Donald Trump to successfully argue that the power-brokers at the head of the Democrats are prepared to cheat to ensure they get their own way. At least they didn’t make the same mistake this time but we’ve all paid a heavy price for their duplicity.

  • Daniel Walker 13th Jan '21 - 11:38am

    @Peter Martin “The Democrats shot themselves in the foot in 2016 by the manipulation of their primary selection process to ensure the nomination went to Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie Saunders.

    This article is about the 2020 election, not the 2016 one. Having said that, while I don’t doubt Clinton had the majority of the “superdelegates”, and even that the DNC favoured her, in fact she won 34 states to Sanders’ 23, and won the popular vote by a comfortable margin.

    I would have favoured Sanders too, who AFAICT is a moderate social democrat by European standards, but Clinton won the nomination validly and reasonably easily, according to Nate Silver. Mr Saunders himself supported her afterwards. Trump’s utterances bear no strong correlation with the truth; had Sanders won he would have attacked him for “being a communist”, and quite possibly done better against him than against Clinton given her much better support amongst African-Americans.

  • Daniel Walker
    Hillary Clinton also won the popular vote in the US general election. She lost mostly because of voter suppression in key states. She was a good candidate, hampered by history. On top of which Americans very rarely let a party stay in office more than two terms. Either way she was a lot better than Trump.

  • Peter Martin 13th Jan '21 - 12:21pm

    “……. she won 34 states to Sanders’ 23, and won the popular vote by a comfortable margin.”

    That’s not the point as I’m sure you know. You can read for yourself, in leaked emails, how Bernie Saunders was undermined and the voting was influenced.

    Neither is it the point that Trump would have attacked Saunders just as he attacked Clinton. Of course he would. The argument that Saunders would have done worse is just your, and the DNC’s opinion. If they are the only ones that matter why bother asking anyone else? Why have a supposedly democratic process?

  • Daniel Walker 13th Jan '21 - 1:48pm

    @Peter Martin “The argument that Saunders would have done worse is just your, and the DNC’s opinion.

    I said “quite possibly”, although it is certainly fair to say quite possibly not; like all counterfactual suppositions, it is very hard to be sure. It’s entirely possible that, given the weird US electoral system, that Sanders wouldn’t have done as well as Clinton did in the popular vote, but that his different vote distribution would have won him the election in the Electoral College. 2016 was a bizarre election even by US standards. I get what you are saying about the leaks, and I agreed that she was favoured by the DNC(which is supposed to be neutral) and the party establishment(which isn’t required to be). But the “superdelegate” process, (which I don’t like, but is designed to give the establishment a casting vote) wasn’t needed for her to win the nomination. (indeed reckons “clearing the field” allowed Sanders to consolidate the anti-Clinton vote)

    The DNC clearly believed Clinton had a better chance vs. Trump than Sanders did (and, granted, that he is too left-wing for many of them). If it had been close, I would have said that might have tipped it. But it wasn’t and Sanders accepted the defeat with good grace. (I note that Biden considered Sanders for Secretary of Labor, but that would result in a byelection for his Senate seat, which they both agreed couldn’t be risked. Clearly the Democratic establishment don’t dislike him that much)

    I will say that you and I arguing about the result of a 2016 election where I contend that a disingenuous campaign didn’t significantly affect the outcome and you are arguing that it did is…something of a change, to say the least 🙂

  • Daniel Walker 13th Jan '21 - 2:48pm


    Oh, agreed. I doubt you’d find many people regularly on here who would have preferred Trump to Clinton. Too hawkish, rather authoritarian I suspect, too right-wing. But clearly better than Trump.

  • Peter Martin 13th Jan '21 - 3:32pm

    @ Daniel,

    I’ve no real complaints about the Trump vs Clinton contest. It went pretty much as you’d expect. Except the Republicans were smarter in knowing where to direct their campaign energy. Clinton had already lost the support of many activists even though Bernie Sanders was generous (maybe too generous) in his own support.

    We could have a similar problem here if Starmer gets himself offside with the party activists at the next election. The rational choice would be to still campaign for him on the basis that Johnson is much worse. But, human nature being what it is, many just won’t be able to raise the enthusiasm.

  • Paul Holmes 13th Jan '21 - 8:29pm

    To return to the actual article I would be intrested to see some of the evidence behind the bold assertions.

    On messaging for example there have been plenty of articles etc arguing that a key reason Democrats did less well than expected in the Senate and House elections was the over identification with the Defund the Police campaigns that could be used heavily against Democrat candidates in many areas.

    On the, usual, bold, claims for digital campaigning I saw a number of reports of Democrats going out in the usual teams (but with masks) to doorstep and turn out the vote. Also of course there has been huge praise for the ground campaigns over a couple of years which registered new Democrat voters in places like Georgia and Arizona and contributed a great deal to the narrow swings in those traditional Republican areas. Likewise the Republican ground campaign amongst Florida Latinos has been credited with the Democrat failure there. As for digital ‘extending the range’ the Test and Trace fiasco in the UK has once again shown that personal door to door efforts (Local Authority) have much higher contact rates than phone/email (Serco) albeit they are more time consuming.

    Distributed organising capacity (paid staff) to organise mass volunteers has been a major and traditional feature of US elections for a long long time. As I saw when studying both Republican and Democrat campaigns in the 2008 Illinois Primaries -and participating a small amount in Obama’s successful campaign to over turn Hillary’s initial large lead in that State.

  • Thanks for all the feedback. You can find out more and ask questions directly at the Paddy Ashdown Forum / Lib Dems Overseas Webinar tomorrow. Click on link to register:

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