Progressive Futures

Trumpageddon: Working out what went wrong

17 November 2016

The UK Labour party failed to conduct a proper analysis of why they lost last year’s general election. US Democrats can’t afford to make the same mistake

James Morris

After the Yom Kippur war, Israel held an inquiry into the country’s preparedness for attack. Despite winning the war, the Agranat report publically called for the dismissal of leading military decision makers and led to the resignation of the prime minister. With the existence of the country at stake, there was no alternative to a forensic and public accounting for the decisions that were made.

Now, after a shock defeat, it is the turn of the Democrats to decide how to account for what happened. The usual answer is for campaign principals to selectively brief journalists on how everyone else screwed up. Meanwhile, people on the outside decide that every element of a losing campaign is itself a losing proposition and everyone urinates on each other until no-one can be bothered to pay attention any more.

The other option is something modelled on the Agranat report: analysis that is robust, deep and to a significant extent public.

That sort of reckoning was proposed by interim Labour leader, Harriet Harman, a few days after Labour lost the 2015 general election. She called for a “truth and reconciliation commission” to conduct a “forensic, honest examination of where we went wrong”. She said “no stone must remain unturned” and that “we will dare to look over the edge of the precipice at what happened.”

It never happened. Internal Labour party politics killed it. Instead, the party brought in a single former KPMG consultant to interview some campaign staff, conducted a handful of focus groups, crunched some numbers – an entirely anodyne version for public consumption and an almost equally vacant private version. As an exercise, it was as close to useless as you can get.

The Democrats cannot afford to make that mistake. The DNC, the Clinton campaign and her aligned PACs have a responsibility to be open about what went wrong so the party does not make the same mistakes again. Just as important is to know what went right so the baby doesn’t depart with the bathwater.

This kind of analysis would include understanding what drove voters, but also even more importantly, it would look at what drove decision makers. Even in election campaigns, the two do not always align.

Decisions can be well-grounded and wrong, but they can also be foolish. There were plenty of voices arguing that Hillary’s continuity message was a problem for her. Did her pollsters find the same thing but get over-ruled by others? Did the effort to avoid the querulousness that cost her the primary in 2008 lead to group think? How should the Democrats organise campaigns in the future to reduce avoidable mistakes? How did the campaign relate to the DNC and the president and was there too little co-ordination? Or too much?

A similar analysis of Labour decision making would have looked at how the leaders’ office was staffed and organised, how it related to the party and the factors that shaped decision making. It might not have helped Jeremy Corbyn avoid repeating mistakes, but it would certainly help the next person in post to create a more cohesive organisation.

The key to understanding voting patterns is in the data held by the campaign’s pollsters and data analysts. They are the only people who will have comprehensive data on the factors that influenced the election; that can be re-analysed to understand what went wrong. They should be asked by their client to publish their data and focus group transcripts.

Focus groups would help unpick the question of what motivated the vote. Why didn’t the campaign’s ‘stronger together’ message sufficiently motivate minority voters? Was it voter suppression or something else? Were white working class voters alienated by the identity politics close of the election? Would a more economic message have worked? Did women respond well to the attacks on Trump in focus groups, but then behave differently at the ballot box – and if so, what does that say about research methodologies? If the attacks weren’t landing in the focus groups, why did the campaign run with them?

As well as content, the campaign should look at its research processes. One of the mistakes Labour made in 2015 was to square deeply hostile focus groups with more benign polls by disregarding the qualitative research. Similarly comforted by public polls and a media narrative that portrayed victory as virtually inevitable, did the Democrats make the same mistake? If so, how should future campaigns go about synthesising different types of research?

The party’s targeting strategy is particularly curious. Hillary Clinton never went to Michigan. There were seven times as many pro-Clinton ads in LA as in Milwaukee. This seems, to put it mildly, curious. Why was the Clinton world so confident about the rust belt? Was there hubris in playing for a blow-out, or was decisionmaking more rational?

The Labour party in the UK also faced questions about its targeting when it lost seats it had no idea were in play, while spending money on seats in Scotland that it knew it had no chance of winning. In an effort to be efficient with its money, the party didn’t poll in any seats it held and just relied on public polls, while its seat-level targeting strategy was more a function of political management and media relations than data. The party was afraid of angering Scottish MPs who it knew were doomed by refusing to resource their campaigns. The party had an implausibly long target list because it didn’t want the press writing that it had written off a majority. Analysts who produced models showing Labour going backwards redid the models. These kinds of management decisions have a habit of dominating in politics, and it would be no surprise if something similar happened in the US.

Answering these questions for 2016 is no guarantee of being able to solve them for 2020. The country will continue in its demographic drift towards to a younger, more diverse electorate. Out of power, the Democrats might find it easier to have the insurgent energy they lacked this time around. This was no blow-out – if 50,000 voters had switched sides across three states, it would be President Clinton.

The campaign and party will worry about giving succor to Republicans by being open about their own problems. There is some truth in that, but the much bigger opportunity for the Republicans is if the Democrats do not learn the lessons of failure. National elections are too few and far between, and their leaders bear to great a responsibility, to allow them to pass without wringing every drop of insight from them. If you don’t learn from history, you’re more likely to repeat it.

Photo credit: Olya Steckel / Shutterstock.com