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.