Campaigning strategies: Obama v the SNP
The 45th President of the USA will be elected today. With little separating them in the polls, both Romney and Obama have been campaigning nearly twenty-four hours a day in the nine competitive swing states that will ultimately decide the outcome of the vote. Obama continues to carry the mathematical advantage, but pundits predict the closest result in years. In Scotland there are still two years until judgement day in 2014. But six months after the launch of Yes Scotland, it is time to take stock. And there are lessons to be learned from the Obama campaign.
No one can deny that the polls have been moving in the wrong direction this year, although explanations and excuses abound. The jubilee, the Olympics, a plethora of Union Jacks – the summer didn’t provide the most fertile ground for attacking the British state. But with support for independence declining, it’s clear the official Yes campaign did not get off to the best possible start. So the question remains: how are we going to win in 2014?
The SNP have a clear strategy. Learned from their success in the last Scottish general election, they argue that only a ‘positive’ campaign will prove successful in the referendum. This was summed up by Alex Salmond at the launch in September of the late Stephen Maxwell’s book Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues. When asked how the polls could be turned around he stated simply “When there are two negative campaigns, the most negative campaign usually wins. But when you have a positive campaign and a negative campaign, the positive will always win.”
This argument is crude at best. At worst it is a losing formula. The problem is that nationalist strategists have interpreted the success of their 2011 election victory as the last word in political strategy – as if this model of political campaigning would win any election at any time in history. This begs an initial question: why doesn’t everyone do this – as well as a second: have they forgotten that this message was learned from an even more successful election campaign?
Barack Obama produced one of the most dramatic electoral victories in modern history. And he did so on a platform that expressed hope and an optimism about the future. The slogan “yes we can” was a masterstroke – it summed up the aspiration of a nation. After eight years of a Neo-Con Whitehouse, Iraq and (in 2008) economic crisis on an unprecedented scale, the desire for a break from the status quo was palpable.
But in 2012 the Obama campaign has performed a 180 degree turn. This election has been described as the most negative in history (which is saying something). And it wasn’t started by Romney. Axelrod, Plouffe and the Democratic strategists developed their approach early on: initially outspending the Republicans, the campaign produced a slew of negative ‘attack adds’ as the Republican primaries were finishing. They attempted (and largely succeeded) in defining Mitt Romney before he had a chance to define himself.
According to David Plouffe – Obama’s national campaign manager in 2008 – this was a well considered and strategic approach. In one interview about his book, The Audacity to Win, he said:
“After Bush we knew the political landscape had changed, something the Clinton campaign hadn’t grasped. There was a real desire for a new kind of government. People needed hope. They needed to think that things could change and get better. We knew this wouldn’t last forever because politics changes at break neck speed. It would inevitably have to change for a re-election campaign. But for 2008 we would emphasise the positive – our watch word was hope.”
The message of hope translated into success – winning the election and mobilising the biggest grassroots campaign in US electoral history. 2012, however, was about painting the opposition as the worst possible candidate for the job. The space to run a positive campaign had shrunk.
Background and transformation
The message of hope resonated in 2008 because it was foregrounded by years of anger at the Bush administration. In Scotland in 2007 and 2011 this was no different. As James Foley argues in Britain Must Break:
“we should reassess Salmond’s victory. Any notion of a joy bomb is farfetched. It was a recession era victory. Positivity may have moved voters, but only as Con-Dem Britain cast a gloomy pall. The victory came after the end of Labour’s credit boom, a decade of failure in Iraq, and the expenses scandal. Optimism won the day…after everything else failed.”
The background remains unchanged today, but the point is that a positive argument regarding the future of Scotland must be based upon an intellectual argument against Britain – both domestically and on a global scale. We need to articulate what is wrong with Britain so that we can best convey what would be ‘right’ about an independent Scotland.
This leads to the other flaw in the SNP’s approach. To date they have shied away from articulating what would be different in an independent Scotland. This is summed up in an article by Gerry Hassan who suggests the SNP have attempted to position independence as “an expression of traditional Scotland, as being about continuity and preservation, rather than fundamental change…a kind of ‘devolution max plus’”.
“One senior SNP politician once told me, ‘All independence entails is extending the Scotland Act until it covers all Scottish domestic life’. They then sat back satisfied with the straightforwardness of it, ‘It’s that simple’ they concluded. Such an approach explicitly positions independence as a politics of gradualism and incremental change, and as the child of devolution.”
If we are going to win the referendum in 2014 we need to stress the transformative potential of independence. The major slogan of Obama 2008 we should recall is “change we can believe in.” A positive case will resonate. But it cannot be abstract positivity. It must be based upon concrete ideas and a genuine belief that a future Scotland will be founded on the principles of social justice, democracy and a break from the status quo.
Pete Ramand is an organiser of the Radical Independence Convention and an activist in the International Socialist Group.