Lessons (and warning) from Trump

The day after the US electoral college chose Donald Trump to be their new president, Huffington Post ran an article on his use of digital campaigning, where Brad Parscale, the digital director of the campaign explains:

We never fought for the popular vote. There was no economic reason, and there was no reason based off the system of our constitution to do so. We needed to win 270 [electoral college votes], and to do so we needed to win in certain states, and we needed to target registered voters that had a low propensity to vote and a propensity to vote for Donald Trump if they come.

This was done by highly-targeted and personalised messages to key voters in key states.

Questionable behaviour by the FBI over Hilary Clinton’s emails, and whatever it is the Russians actually did may have contributed, but Parscale’s point is that very effective targeting gets results.

Part of me is wincing. The targeting is entirely legal, but also strains the definition of democracy — not least because Hilary Clinton had 2.8 million more votes than Trump (and roughly the same number of votes as Barack Obama had in 2012): the problem is that she had the votes in the wrong places. Most worryingly, this means that the voters-who-matter end up being a small number in a few places: marginalising the vast majority.

As in the UK, there is a pressing need for electoral reform, which is hard to achieve because those in power stand to lose by the change. Yet I’m sure that contributed to the sense of alienation among those who turned out to vote for Brexit and for Trump, and to the a referendum campaign where many people were “messaged” rather than informed.

Cynically delivering a targeted message of questionable truthfulness sounds familiar. I am thinking of people who fear illness, value the NHS, and were susceptible to the claim that brexit would bring it another £350 million a week, and are slowly waking up to the fact that this was a lie. The tragedy is that the economic damage of brexit will reduce what the government gets in taxes and so starve the NHS of funding, just as attempts to reduce immigration would compound its staff shortages. In the US, Trump mobilised disadvantaged people, who are now discovering that his cabinet between them have as much money as a third of the US population combined.

In January I’m running a training event on the use of Connect. I’ll talk about about targetted campaigning and say that this is about getting the relevant parts of our message to people, rather than spreading lies in order to win, but things are less clear than I would like. I can understand the population’s cynicism about politicians.

At a technical level, we could do with looking closely at what Trump did with his messaging. The dilemma is how to avoid betraying our principles, especially in a world where simple-but-untrue messages speak more loudly than wise and nuanced ones.

A big difference between us and Trump is that we do have a core set of values we can be proud of. Messaging those clearly is starting to feel very important, so that the specific, highly-targetted messages are within a framework that makes sense, rather than a “telling it like it is” which appeals to what peopleneed to be true rather than what is.

The tragedy is that both the Trump and Brexit campaigns have benefited from voter alienation — and are acting in ways that actually contribute to it. The task is to ensure our messaging gets people elected but taking voters sufficiently seriously that they don’t feel alienated.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Dec '16 - 12:16pm

    ‘a referendum campaign where many people were “messaged” rather than informed.’

    This is a very good point, however messaging and information aren’t exclusive. Look, whatever the LDP mainstream thinks it would appear that something in the order of a third of the LDP vote broke for LEAVE. Surely that alone suggests that there was something a bit deeper with the EU per se? If people were messaged is there not a possibility that they were also informed and didn’t like the information?

    After all there are large parts of the EU political construct that have not gone down at all well across the EU, not just the UK. I have long felt that the REMIAN message was basically Business As Usual – a message diametrically against where a lot of the UK wanted politicians to be. The message I REALLY wanted to hear from remain was:

    ‘Yes, we get that there are problems in this picture. The message you can take is that there will be real reform and the UK can and will do things WITHIN the EU. Those things are….’

    I don’t think I got the end of that paragraph in either the messaging or the information.

    So whilst I agree with the point here that targeting was a very big factor I’m rather less convinced that either the messaging, information or direction of REMAIN was any good. Similarly I can’t say that I’m clear in my own head what the Clinton message was outside of Business As Usual.

  • Tony Dawson 21st Dec '16 - 3:47pm

    @Little Jackie Paper:

    ” I’m rather less convinced that either the messaging, information or direction of REMAIN was any good. Similarly I can’t say that I’m clear in my own head what the Clinton message was outside of Business As Usual.”

    And that’s the kind version of the truth. Clinton’s message was “Usual business getting worse” and ‘Remain’ campaign was. . . .er?….. was there actually a campaign? 🙁

  • Tony Greaves 21st Dec '16 - 6:38pm

    I strongly object on principle to giving different and conflicting messages to different people in the same election.

    Then there is a lesser form of the same evil: giving strong messages to one lot of people who will agree with it and keeping silent on that matter to the other lot who will not.

    If we are not going to campaign in a principled way, who will? And when will we learn that if we want to really change things, we have to lead and persuade, not just follow the herd?

  • LJP I think we have to accept that messaging from the Party’s Remain campaign would have influenced hardly anyone, even those signed up to the party – influence by me and fellow remainers locally, who were most likely to have an effect, appeared not to have made a difference to most of our Leave contingent. As for the “messaging” on official leaflets, locally we found the Green Party’s Remain contingent’s messaging considerably more influential. About as convincing as your average Lib Dem Euro election leaflet!

  • Peter Arnold 26th Dec '16 - 12:34pm

    This is a good article because it asks us to consider some fundamental points about campaigning. It has also encouraged Tony Greaves to make his usual plea for us to remain true to our basic beliefs. I agree 100% with his line. Unlike most current political parties in the UK, we do have a very clear set of beliefs about the sort of society we want to create, and we must find a way of campaigning on those beliefs. Policies should also arise naturally out of those beliefs. Policies will change as circumstances change, but our beliefs will not. That’s what makes us different.

  • Hi Peter
    You said: “Unlike most current political parties in the UK, we do have a very clear set of beliefs about the sort of society we want to create”

    I wonder if I may ask a question – I’m genuinely curious.
    When I did the online Political compass test relatively recently actually, it simply told me what I already suspected.
    However, I then (my curiosity well and truly focussed), started googling all kinds of terms to try and find out what the `Lib Dems actually stand for and what policies they should be promoting, how and why.
    What I find so interesting starting to engage here over the last few months, is that your assumption appears very common amongst commenters and contributors here.

    May I gently suggest your statement above is not understood at anything other than a very superficial level even by many with the time and motivation to engage?

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