Can Scottish politics learn anything from Obama’s re-election?

Unless you work for the BBC, you can ease yourself awake this Sunday morn gently.  The free world is safe, the right man was re-elected as President of the USA, and we can ignore the prospect of a fiscal cliff, at least for a week or two.

One of the most remarkable things about the US Presidential election is its ability to unite sworn political foes.  The one thing Scottish Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrats can agree on, it seems, is that we all prefer a Democrat in the White House to a Republican.  There’s a lesson in that for further down the line, methinks.

But what more immediate lessons can we take from the Presidential and state elections across the water?

The first is that money doesn’t buy electoral success.  And perhaps, less add to that, that the more money you have to spend in a campaign, the less edifying that campaign becomes.  Both parties spent an eye-watering six billion dollars in the race to the White House.  A lot of it went on questionable television advertising, though having seen a few of Obama’s they were devastatingly effective in terms of trashing Romney on his economic competence and also in galvanising the women’s vote in the face of threats to diminish women’s rights.

Thankfully, laws exist in this country on what can and cannot be broadcast during an election campaign.  But there are no such rules on billboard advertising and leaflets.  The Advertising Standards Agency has no locus on political campaigning, nor has the Electoral Commission a remit to ensure that what parties and candidates put out there is accurate and proportionate.  No one has control over what can be said on paper during an election and there have been numerous instances of scare-mongering tactics and flagrant mis-representation – by all parties – in previous elections here.  It does not augur well for the forthcoming referendum campaign that such a vital tool in the information wars falls through the cracks with no one having the power to regulate it.

And if we allow unregulated and unlimited campaign spending in the referendum, then we can look forward to the kind of free-for-all, albeit on a smaller scale, that dominated the US elections.  The more money, the parties and the sides are allowed to spend, the more negative it is all likely to be.  And that should at least give the Electoral Commission pause for thought when determining whether to put a cap on referendum spending in the campaign proper.

It would be easy – as some have done– to state that Obama’s re-election holds no lessons for the UK, especially if you apply a literal treatment.  Of course, we don’t have the impact of fast growing and changing demographics, such as hispanic voters, to contend with, but in campaign organisation terms, there are a number of lessons for Scotland in terms of the referendum campaign.  Or at least, activity we can learn from and work out how to adapt for our own politics.

Obama successfully built a coalition of voters in 2008 which despite the economic back-drop and other issues, largely held together.  And it was his ability to get large sections of that coalition out to vote last Tuesday in all states, but especially the vital swing states, which resulted in his decisive victory.

At first glance, it looks less like a coalition and more like a ragbag.  Women, young people, blacks and the new add to the mix, hispanics, blue collar workers (the old Democratic core vote) and high earning professionals:  it’s hard to see how any candidate or party could come up with a platform which appealed uniformly to this little lot.  But that is the point.  He didn’t.  And the key defining factor in his coalition is that it wasn’t “pale, male and stale” ie the coalition was largely made up of groups traditionally on the outside of the political tent looking in.  He can successfully corral their base electoral instincts with a carefully crafted and tailored programme to fit distinct needs and interests because he is one of them, an outsider.  And together they are breaking down the conformities in American politics.

Which gives pointers to both sides on the referendum divide – coalitions of support are vital representing a breadth and depth of opinion but built around key core positions and beliefs that all can hold to.  Movements need to be living, breathing entities with enough room for all:  they need to be careful not to confuse defining their policies and stances with measures which simply limit their appeal.  If voters in this referendum have nowhere to go to, then nowhere they might well go.

But there is potentially a strength for the SNP and the Yes campaign in all this outsider business.  (Incidentally, am I the only person to notice that again, the Democrats and the SNP currently share campaign slogans, in Forward?)  It might be the party in power but it has, by and large, successfully cemented its reputation of being on the wrong side of the establishment, but on the side of the people.  It is a difficult balancing act and it causes no sense of frustration for the Opposition that the SNP continues to pull this one off.  When it comes to the referendum, the Yes camp are absolutely on the outside, wanting to dismantle the current order of things.  But it seems very nervous of this and at pains to stress that this is not actually what they are trying to do.  Could this be a mistake?

One defining characteristic of Alex Salmond’s success as SNP leader and First Minister has been his canny ability to make a virtue out of this outsider schtick.  Sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, he plays this card well.  But in recent times, his willingness to cosy up (or at least give that perception) to establishment figures as varied as the Queen, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump and business figures too numerous to mention chips away at that side of his political persona.  How can he be on the people’s side if he is also – or at least perceived to be – on theirs?  The First Minister has few equals on this side of the pond, but could he – and the Yes camp more broadly – learn something from Obama’s ability to do this, that despite being the incumbent, he successfully made a virtue out of being the outsider, who wants a different politics and a different way of doing things?

Then there is the role of a breathtaking campaign organisation.  Whoever Obama has working for him at the heart of the Democratic organisational machine has got this sorted.  They seemed not to allow the grassroots organisation established for the victory in 2008 to fade away but kept building and growing in those vital swing states.  When it came down to it, decisions were made to invest in organisation and also to create local, federated bases populated by volunteers.  Moreover, the use of social media meant that they could bypass traditional routes, meaning they could ensure those poorer voters who came out in droves for Obama in 2008, could be kept in contact throughout the four years and encouraged to turn out again in 2012.

I saw one news clip from a predominantly Republican voting district in Florida where the Republican interviewee looked on in consternation at the lines of voters snaking down the block.  They were black, they were young, they were women.  He could only say that this doesn’t look good for us but he seemed at a loss to understand how and why they were there and who got them there.  It neatly sums up the Republicans’ problem, that they are losing the race to get out a diminishing vote.  Parallels surely with what happened to Labour in 2011?  And opportunities for both camps in the referendum campaign.

The SNP has dipped its toe in the water and learned a lot from using social media to reach voters and potential voters.  Yes, as in the US, the referendum campaign will still largely be a TV election, but social media and the use of smartphones and tablets to reach voters in different ways will play a huge and potentially decisive role.

What President Obama can teach us is that you can build and hold coalitions of voters if you pitch the message right; that negativity has its place but only if it serves to galvanise;  that identifying yourself on the side of less traditional voting blocks works but they need nurturing over the medium term;  that organising and organising early – creating communities of volunteers, largely self-reliant in the early years, getting on with the tasks at hand, quietly and diligently – is important; and finally, that future proofing your methods of getting out the vote is the final, crucial piece in the jigsaw.

If both sides in the referendum campaign manage to learn these lessons well, we are in for an enthralling time.

6 thoughts on “Can Scottish politics learn anything from Obama’s re-election?

  1. Good article. Firstly, about Salmond’s outsider status. You could make the case that he his part of the Scottish political establishment. This is because he is the best known, and most high profile poilitcal figure in Scotland. The office of FM also gives him access to international political figures and the business community. Salmond recently had a meeting with an Israeil ambassador. Therefore, in this regard he has insider status. Salmond is presently an outsider to the Scottish establishment, in respect to his support for independence. It is a good post by Indy, but I do think that by 2014, a greater element of the establishment will vote for independence than he/she believes. Already, business people who supported some form of Devo-whatever have indicated they will support independence. I would think that this number will grow.

    Also, the establishment has been eased into the referendum by the length of the campaign. It has been known that there is going to be a referendum since May 2011. Effectively, they will have had more than three years to prepare for change. Another reason why I think there will be a significant establishment vote for independence is that they will be made well aware of the dangers of a No vote by the time of the referendum. This would include the block grant continuing to be cut by Westminster, which will result in the eventual forced privatisation of the NHS and other public services. This has to be spelt out to the establishment, as much as to the wider electorate, because the coalition government have made it clear that austerity is going to continue for at least an another five years. If you listen to what people such as Tom Farmer and Tom Hunter say, which is that they want much greater fiscal powers for Holyrood, then it is clear that a No vote is not going to be appealing to them at all. Establishments by nature like power, and I reckon that many will privately vote for independence, as a positive for them, as much as the country. In addition, business people tend to be driven and ambitions, and a No vote will see their own profile diminsh, as focus returns to Westminster at the expense of Holyrood.

    In regards to campaign organisation I do not see this as a problem, because the SNP have become very professional in this area. Furthermore, Yes Scotland already appear to have been organising events. They will be both be using social media extensively I would imagine, mostly because the broadcast media are so hostile to independence. What I think Yes Scotland will be best at is highlighting that it is not just the SNP who want independence. It has been rumoured that Alistair Darling does not want to debate with Blair Jenkins, as he is not a elected member of a party. They want to concentrate all their fire on the SNP. That is why the involvement of the other parties, and groups such as Labour voters for Independence, is so important. Yes Scotland needs to be politically diverse, and seen, as well as to be, a different entity from the SNP.

  2. Enjoyed your analysis Kate – and I too had noticed that the SNP was using Forward as its slogan – think Obama got there first though!

    The Obama campaign won I think because of:

    message: government can do good things when it works for the people and with the people;

    candidate: despite his terrible first debate – and few incumbents enjoy a good first debate – the President’s political and personal charisma dominated the rest of the campaign. And in Joe Biden he has the perfect foil.

    organisation: the campaign built on the 2008 infrastructure and using an amazingly powerful blend of data management, social media and old-time techniques such as door knocking and TV adverts they identified their vote early on – old and new, kept in touch with them with tailored messages using the most appropriate channels, and then made sure they all got out to vote.

    Obama is the “greatest vote-getter” in US history, gathering 130 million votes over two campaigns.

    Once a community organiser – always a community organiser.

  3. Indy

    I agree almost entirely with your piece. I would point ut however that Trump’s golf course development was intitially Jack MacConnell’s and AS inherited a scheme which had massive popular support. Whether Trumpling is a bampot is a different question

  4. What the YES campaign is beginning to do – and this process must continue – is to present a number of groups which hold seriously conflicting views on a number of other issues joined together in an independence coalition. Thus you do not have to agree with the SNP’s position on any particular issue or range of issues to support independence.
    This is exactly the position we have always required.
    There are appearing now a very wide range of organisations who recognise their adherents have a vested interest in Scots running Scotland.
    In the longer term this will more than match the malign influence of the media.
    As traditional elements of the larger Labour movement abandon it in an accelerating shift towards independence we are left with an unattractive cabal of reactionary elements as our opponents. The dishonest media is our major foe but it seems to have have an inadequate understanding of the thrawn and disputative nature of the Scots. And its unacceptable continuous personal attack on Alex Salmond is already backfiring. That the Orange Lodge is against independence gives many others, not independence supporters particularly in the past, every good reason to favour independence and a suggestion widely trailed that they will be bringng over loyalists from NI to back a “NO” vote damages the Better Together campaign. Alastair Darling – the epitome of the politician who rose without trace – is a inspired choice to front the NO campaign – from the YES camp’s point of view. Deep down inside you feel this man has never had a poke of chips or a black pudding supper and he doesn’t speak to most Scots in any language they might react to.
    What we should be aware of is that the line that the SNP wants sixteen or seventeen year olds to vote because they believe they are “easier to deceive” is being widely deployed and that a full scale press rehabilitation of the LibDems in Scotland designed to take support fom the SNP is swinging into action as is evidenced by the continuous high profile now being given to Willie Rennie and today’s risible full page given to Michael Moore in the Sunday Mail. A LibDems for Independence would be a very useful developement at this point.
    What Obama’s campaign illustrates is that the huge vested interest of the reactionary right wing conspriracy that owns the US media can be beaten by giving very disparate elements in the US a common purpose in a very big tent and I think this lesson has been well learned by Alex Salmond

  5. I think the reason for the SNP taking the line it does on the monarchy, currency etc is to take these issues out of the equation as far as possible.And I think that is a good idea.Practically speaking if independence is won we are going to go on using sterling because we couldn’t join the euro immediately even if Scots people could be persuaded to vote for that (which imo they wouldn’t) and launching a new currency immediately on independence would be barking mad. Making the Queen an issue would also be a mistake in my view as it would pander to the whole identity/Britishness thing that the No campaign are trying to use. We don’t want the debate to be about identity but about powers and what we do with them. The NATO thing is also strategic, though a lot less clear cut for me than the currency or monarchy. The jury is out on that one for me but I don’t think it is as big a deal as it is portrayed as being.

    The Rupert Murdoch thing is another one that is finely balanced. I have absolutely no problem with the SNP “cosying up” with the Scottish Sun because it enables some positive messages about independence to be carried in a paper that is read by tens of thousands of working class Scots, who may never have been exposed to any positive messages about independence before. The votes of working class Scots are going to be absolutely crucial so I think it is right to take every opportunity to communicate. Ditto Joan McAlpine’s column in the Daily Record.I know nats who tear their hair out at Joan’s column failing to understand the very simple point that she is not writing for the Herald but for the Daily Record. There is I think some residual snobbery in some people in the SNP – ironically usually those on the left – about some of the things the party is doing and will do to target working class voters. I think everybody in the SNP has to grasp that the coalition of voters who won us the Scottish Parliament election will not and cannot win us the referendum. We need the votes of people who only usually vote in the X factor,who don’t care about politics,don’t follow politics, don’t have an ideological hinterland and find detailed policy debates boring. We won’t attract them doing the usual political things – we almost have to work out a way to get them onboard which is not overtly political.

    Trump – yes. Total cock-up. I can understand why Alex Salmond as a constituency MSP supported the application because there is no doubt the majority of locals did want the investment and jobs and didn’t particularly care about the fact that Trump is an eejit. But it has been easy for people to portray his actions as constituency MSP as being the actions of a First Minister. Hindsight is a great thing but, with hindsight, maybe he should have taken a back seat and asked a regional MSP to take the lead.But I don’t think it is catastrophic, just a mistake.

    I do agree that the SNP has to be the anti-establishment party here.I don’t even think they have a choice about it because the establishment is not going to vote Yes. Some individual members of the establishment may do, of course, but as a whole they won’t.Why would they? The Union has been pretty good for the establishment and independence would by its very nature threaten them. So they will vote to keep the status quo because that is what protects them. The only exception to this is perhaps the business establishment – although I think it is noticeable that the leading businesspeople who have come out in favour of independence are “self-made” business people. It’s not the established business class, the inherited wealth brigade. It’s those who have worked their way up and probably find the establishment mindset as frustrating as we do. That may be another challenge for the left in the SNP, to recognise that the interests of many in the business sector and the interests of the poor and the unemployed may in this case be the same. Businesses want to grow, they want an economic policy and a government that will support that and if it happens there will be more jobs. That’s an alliance I think is quite important but one which challenges the traditional right/left model that we have all grown up with – though I don’t think it would raise a single eyebrow in the Nordic states.

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