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Politics

11 Things Hillary Clinton Could Learn From David Cameron

He might be a conservative, but the prime minister's message and tactics could be better suited to the Democrats than the Republicans.

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The election featured a strong, solid, experienced candidate who'd protect your job, your home and your family.

The opposition, they claimed, couldn't be trusted not to put its own ideological prejudices before the nation's needs. In the process, the campaign was reduced to a few essential economic talking points, drummed home via sympathetic media channels: We've got a plan to make things better, and a track record of doing so. They've got crazy pipe dreams.

That was the message that won the British Conservatives a shock election victory last week. But it also sounds much like the pitch for a President Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Obviously, there are all sorts of weird and unique factors in British politics at the moment that don't translate across the Atlantic. But at the same time, there are some lessons that seem just as applicable in the US – and might well be of greater help to the Democrats than the Republicans.

Yes, a centre-right party promising a smaller state and welfare cuts took on bleeding-heart liberals fulminating against "the rich," and even made a dramatic last-minute promise not to raise taxes.

But as Obama aide-turned-Cameron-strategist Jim Messina told Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, the Conservatives didn't just campaign as conservatives. They also promised to increase funding for the National Health Service, boasted of their introduction of same-sex marriage and insisted that they would continue to spend generously on overseas aid.

The tax cuts they boasted about most were for the low-paid – those on the minimum wage. And they made clear that most of their promises would have to wait until the deficit in state spending had been brought under control.

Like Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Cameron asked voters one question above all: In an uncertain world, amid economic turmoil, can you really afford to take the risk of rejecting a proven leader? Words like "chaos", "uncertainty", "strong", "stable" and above all "security" were deployed to make this the pre-eminent choice in voters' minds.

Cameron's pitch to voters was the same as Barack Obama's: he'd done the hard work of cleaning up an economic mess and creating jobs in the process, while faced with relentless, knee-jerk criticism from an ideological opposition party. And where Cameron can boast about having halved the government budget deficit (if rather behind schedule), the U.S. deficit was entirely eliminated during Hillary Clinton's husband's presidency.

The Tory victory seemed to come as a complete surprise: Not a single poll, throughout the campaign, came anywhere close to reflecting the final result. Nate Silver, whose projections were as wrong as everyone else's, argued that the scale of the victory, in what was meant to be a dead-heat race, showed that polling system is in crisis.

Obama veteran David Axelrod – who'd been advising the Labour campaign – was taken aback, tweeting that he'd never seen as big a failure.

In all my years as journalist & strategist, I've never seen as stark a failure of polling as in UK. Huge project ahead to unravel that.

But that's not the full story. According to the election autopsies, private polling by both the Conservatives and Labour gave a much more detailed picture. (The Tories' polling as BuzzFeed News revealed, was largely carried out by MQR, the firm owned by another Obama adviser, Jim Messina, who played a key role in their campaign.) In other words, there's still good data out there – you just have to look for it.

"All elections are always about the candidates and we had the better leader," Messina told The Spectator. For all the efforts of the Milifandom, the tribe of teenage girls unearthed by BuzzFeed News who genuinely crushed on the Labour leader, Ed Miliband could never shake the fact that too many of the British public didn't think he was up to the top job.

Whatever else can be said about Hillary Clinton, she certainly has the discipline, gravitas and experience for the Oval Office – and projects the same air of disciplined reassurance that Cameron and Netanyahu worked so hard to give off.

5. Commentators can be ignored, data can't.

@LyntonKCrosby and I watching the early results.

Messina may have been a huge asset to the Tories – but the campaign was run by Lynton Crosby, the Karl Rove of Australia. He is the man who has won election after election, at state and national level, for Australia's Liberal Party (which is actually deeply conservative). He was the man who twice got the Conservative Boris Johnson elected as Mayor of London in a city that is solidly Labour.

Since November 2012, Crosby has been David Cameron's chief strategist – and, alongside Chancellor George Osborne, the most powerful man in the British Conservative Party. He's also widely credited with being the architect of the party's election victory last week.

Politically, Crosby and Messina are complete opposites. But they share a love of data, a contempt for the armchair strategists in the media and a habit of winning elections without anyone realising what they're actually up to.

The resulting campaign drove journalists crazy with its relentless focus and constricted ambition. It ignored the media and the polls, in favour of its own data. It spoke to its core vote, while also focusing on getting a limited set of messages to a limited set of voters: those who leaned to the Left but didn't trust Labour with the economy, or to stand up to the SNP.

Businesses and families, hard-working people and small business owners. That's who the Conservative message was aimed at, as the "Share the Facts" section of the party's website makes clear. The effectiveness of this strategy was made clear in a special edition of the BBC's Question Time in which voters grilled each party leader in turn: Labour's failure to support aspiration, wealth-creation and entrepreneurship was front and centre when Ed Miliband was on stage.

This led to a crucial gap on the economy, especially in terms of which party had the best prospectus for ordinary families and their finances:

Campaigns are about future & Cameron was viewed as having the more optimistic vision for future by 10+ pts https://t.co/0JZXV1JGWy

Crosby's method is to boil a campaign down to its basics. He works out the emotional responses that will drive voters towards his candidate – usually a sense of security, or prosperity, or fear – then identifies the issues that will trigger them, and makes sure the party talks about nothing else.

His first piece of advice to Cameron on signing up was to "scrape the barnacles off the boat" – to drop any policies or rhetoric that did not reinforce a few basic messages: The economy is getting better. We're fixing Labour's mistakes. We're sorry we have to make cuts, but it's better than raising your taxes. Above all, don't let them wreck it again.

During the campaign itself, all this became distilled to a few phrases, repeated again and again and again: "Hard-working families." "Long-term economic plan." "Coalition of chaos." This was accompanied by a studious determination to avoid any unpredictable encounters with ordinary voters, or other party leaders, that might rebound in unwanted ways. The result was immensely boring for those looking for excitement or variety, but ultimately highly effective.

Crosby also has a genius for identifying "wedge issues" – those that shore up his right-wing clients' base, while taking a chisel to their opponents'. In Australia in 2001, he stoked up fears about immigrants and asylum-seekers to the point where working-class voters who had traditionally backed the left-wing Labour party flocked to his right-wing clients to feel secure. And in Britain in 2015, he had Cameron talk relentlessly about the "chaos" that would follow an alliance between the weak Ed Miliband and the ravening hordes of the Scottish nationalists.

It may have sown resentment of England by Scotland and Scotland by England, but it seems to have been a crucial factor in persuading wavering supporters of the Liberal Democrats – until last week Britain's third party, now a shattered husk – to swing towards the Conservatives rather than Labour. Obviously, there's no equivalent of the Scottish situation in the US, but there are still issues, such as the rise of China or the hollowing out of the middle class, that could play into the same visceral hopes and fears.

The Tories certainly benefited from an onslaught against Ed Miliband by Britain's right-wing press, which remains dominant in circulation terms. Even the liberal Independent came out for a second term of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, to the fury of many of its readers and even writers. By coincidence, Labour had pledged to end the "non-dom" status which allows many of the proprietors of those newspapers to escape paying British taxes by claiming residence overseas.

But they also exerted greater control of the media agenda. In a review of the election "air war", The Guardian's head of national news, Dan Sabbagh, wrote that day after day, there were bigger policies – and crucially, better pictures (such as the one above) – coming out of the Tory camp. That ensured that their plans got coverage at the expense of Labour's.

After the election, BuzzFeed News asked the main parties which parts of their online media strategy had actually worked for them. The conclusion? The campaigns spent too much time sniping at each other on Twitter, which gets journalists' attention and possibly energises online activists, but doesn't do much to drive online engagement. (It also reinforces the echo chamber effect whereby you're reassured by the constant enthusiasm from your supporters but don't realise how much of a minority they are.)

Obviously, the UK is far behind the US in terms of online campaigning, but it may still be true that fancy adverts and flashy websites aren't as effective as good old-fashioned email lists.

It was one of the most widely mocked moments of the election – Ed Miliband deciding to show how serious he was about his promises by engraving them on a stone slab that would be set up in the Downing Street garden.

Obviously, it's probably not on Hillary Clinton''s shortlist of election ideas, or even the longlist. But it does show what happens when a campaign becomes so insular that there's no one who can puncture the groupthink by pointing out that something is a really, really bad idea...

Robert Colvile is UK News Director at BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Robert Colvile at robert.colvile@buzzfeed.com.

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