In campaigns around the world, emotions and political-tribal identities, rather than facts and policies, are deciding elections. In other words: it’s the candidate’s branding that counts.
How strongly that branding resonates with voters, and how far those voters are repulsed by the opposing candidate’s brand, is now the key factor determining who will make the effort to vote – and who will stay home.
This is true in the United States as much as in Israel and in the UK’s Brexit debate. Political choice has become part of our personal identity. Voters increasingly define themselves through their choice of a particular candidate. This is not a debate about taxes or a health plan, but about branding. Just as buying an iPhone for many people is not just a device to call your mother, so is the vote not just about a political platform.
In polls conducted in the United States during the current election campaign, the percentage of undecided voters is very low: 11 percent compared to about 25 percent in the previous election in 2016. This is due to the powerful branding of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. That branding does not leave much room for fence-sitting.
One graphic illustration of this came in last week’s ugly first presidential candidate debate. Very little usable information for the voter emerged from it, and the undecideds weren’t given the tools to help them decide.
Shorn of the undecideds, the us-or-them loyalty culture then triggers a "who needs campaigns" mindset. After watching the Trump: Biden confrontation, one popular reaction was to ask why the debates were necessary at all. Anyone who likes Trump's style, likes it; anyone who dislikes Trump's style, dislikes it. There’s very little room for movement: the debates are performance, not persuasion.
Trump's behavior corresponds with the image he already has, one that he builds for himself and that Biden's campaign also enhances for him.
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Since his campaign for the 2016 election, Trump has faced the claim that he is racist and antisemitic.
During and after the first presidential debate, the media was quick to pounce on his non-condemnation of white supremacists - but it's already part of his brand, for better or worse. The research I saw during campaigns for past elections showed that voters’ everyday concerns always trump the media headlines. For white, non-Jewish Trump voters, those headlines won’t be anything near a dealbreaker.
Now that Trump has contracted COVID-19 and is hospitalized, the suggestions that face-to-face debates be cancelled are already irrelevant.
But even before that, those calls betrayed a lack of understanding of complicated and sophisticated modern campaigns, which work on different platforms and target various micro-groups, responding to 24/7 media and social media cycles for the benefit of any candidate with the correct strategy and execution. When Nixon fought Kennedy for the presidency in 1960, on election day he went to Mexico to have lunch. That could never happen today. Nixon lost.
The campaign manager in 2020 has four key goals.
First, keep hold of the voters who have decided to support you. This means building a long-term brand that constantly has to throw trees into the branding bonfire to keep the fire burning. In that sense, Trump was raucously successful in that debate. It was classic Trump, for good or for bad.
The phrase "to convince the convinced" usually has a patronizing, or derogatory, meaning. But these days, it really shouldn’t: Convincing voters, ensuring they stick with you and will go out and vote for you, is also an art.
Trump’s current coronavirus incapacitation is cold water on that branding bonfire, and a hard blow for his strategy, which will now have to pivot to online ways to project his personality and forcefulness.
The diagnosis puts COVID front and center in voters' minds, and the Biden camp is already using it to brand his infection as a sign of his failure, both policy-wise and behavioral. But if Trumps has a mild case, and recovers soon, it could actually boost his "strong man" image.
The second goal is to move members of an electorate from voting for one candidate or party, to another. This is the classic goal of campaigns, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve and functionally anachronistic.
The third goal is to get voters to vote. In the last election in Israel, that was the sole focus of the incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu, on whose reelection campaign I worked.
At Likud headquarters, we understood that voters for his main opponent, Benny Gantz, dislike Netanyahu, and no matter what facts could be presented to them, it would not change their minds. Therefore, we set the goal as getting Likud voters to leave their homes and cast a ballot. That took the Likud from 32 seats in the previous election to 36 seats - and a big election victory.
In the U.S., with voting in advance and by mail, that effort is well under way. Time will tell if Trump’s situation will dissuade his voters from on-the-day voting, when they see even their candidate is not immune from the spread of coronavirus. Trump’s public diagnosis, amplifying the potential danger of voting in person could, of course, affect the Biden vote too.
The fourth, more elusive goal is to persuade the other side's voters not to go to the polls. This may sound awful, but it is just as legitimate a political goal as attempting to persuade voters to cross sides. Every individual must decide for themselves whether to go out and vote or not.
A documentary shown last week on the UK’s Channel 4 explored Trump's 2016 "Deterrence" campaign. His election headquarters used micro-targeting to persuade Black voters, who tended to vote for Hilary Clinton, to stay home. That campaign was very successful in the swing state of Wisconsin - and contributed to Trump’s victory there.
The ethics of a Do Not Go Out to Vote campaign are no different from a classic Get Out the Vote campaign: present the facts as you see them.
Critics base their opposition on the accusation that tactics like these are a form of "voter suppression." Everyone has the democratic right to vote. You are entitled to go to the polls and mark that you do not want to vote for anyone. It's the voter's decision.
Each side has its own way of telling its story. The clear ethical red line of a campaign should be lies. For example, don’t claim that at a specific polling station, the local voting official is infected with coronavirus. But there should be no problem, for example, to claim that Biden, or Clinton before him, will not take care of people like you and therefore it is a waste of time to leave home to vote for them.
This no-vote goal has a number of associated tactics: throwing mud at the other candidate so that the potential voter will come to the conclusion that there is really no point in going out to vote for him/her. Soften the image of your candidate so that there is no motivation to "go out and screw ‘em."
When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recovered from COVID, his popularity rose: the illness had first "humanized" him, but then he’d "beaten it." In Trump's case, it all depends on how he and his strategists use the situation.
His illness, and Melania’s, could potentially trigger a compassion-then-admiration response too – and could then become a branding opportunity.
The upcoming U.S. election will be decided on turnout. So when judging both Trump and Biden’s campaigns, and the conflict between them, the really critical question is not who is convinced by their policies, but who better fuels their supporters with the burning incentive to go out to vote - and who does not.
There is a more than reasonable case to be made that this calculus, rather than being ethically murky or disenfranchising, frames the democratic right to vote in its purest terms.
Srulik Einhorn is the founder of perception.media, a strategic consultant and creative director to leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Serbia’s President Aleksander Vucic. Twitter: @SrulikEinhorn