With next year’s European Parliament election shaping up as a showdown between pro-EU parties and Euroskeptics، the race is on for both sides to find a winning edge.
For the pro-EU camp، one possible source of inspiration lies in Barack Obama’s successful U.S. presidential campaigns، which managed twice to win majorities for liberal and outward-looking policies. In the past year، French President Emmanuel Macron has portrayed himself as the great champion of the EU and further European integration. But lessons from Obama’s campaigns could also apply to pan-European groups such as the center-right European People’s Party (although not the part that takes its lead from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán)، the center-left Socialists and Democrats، and the liberal ALDE alliance.
All those groups face a formidable challenge from Euroskeptics surging at the national level in member countries. Since British voters opted to quit the EU in 2016، nationalist-minded parties have made historic gains in Germany، Austria and Italy — waltzing into government in the latter two. Even in traditionally progressive Sweden، the anti-migration Sweden Democrats are polling neck-and-neck with the mainstream parties ahead of September’s general election.
So what would Obama do? POLITICO spoke with alumni of the ex-president’s two successful campaigns to find out how the Obama playbook could be applied to the European election.
1. Don’t fall into the migration trap
While migration has emerged as the hot-button issue in European politics، that doesn’t mean pro-EU parties should focus on it، according to Marshall Ganz، a Harvard Kennedy School lecturer who pioneered the organizing model of the 2008 Obama campaign. “Migration is a proxy for something else،” Ganz said. He said anti-migrant voters — many of whom actually rarely encounter immigrants — are drawn to the issue because it touches upon deeper feelings of insecurity and abandonment. Progressive parties، therefore، should not assume that a shift to the right is a winning formula، Ganz suggested.
“It’s not that the values that drive social democracy are dead، but that they’ve lost connection with who their base could be، needs to be،” he said.
2. Listen without prejudice
To get at those underlying issues، don’t begin with policy prescriptions. “Start in listening mode،” said Lex Paulson، who managed Connecticut operations for the first Obama campaign and advises Macron’s centrist La République En Marche party. He urged other pro-EU politicians to follow the example of a door-knocking campaign in France by Macron’s party، which garnered 80،000 survey responses on EU topics in April and May. For those unable to mount such an undertaking، Paulson noted another resource: consultations with citizens — online and in person — being carried out by the EU. Paulson said that the data gathered from such listening exercises is useful later for developing messages and policies that address voters’ deep-held concerns.
3. Fire up the moderates
“Leaders who are capable of driving inspiration in the moderate middle have an opportunity، in most countries، to create massive coalitions of support right now،” said Michael Slaby، who was chief technology officer in Obama’s 2008 campaign and chief innovation officer in his successful 2012 reelection run. Slaby estimates that roughly 60 percent of voters find themselves detached from either ideological pole and “are more open to ideas، more open to compromise، and less stratified in their opinions.”
The challenge، Slaby said، is getting voters on the same page given an increasingly splintered media landscape. “Different voters experience entirely different elections،” he said.
To unify these voters، leaders should bring them a fresh and inspiring message that transcends partisan quarrels، Obama campaign veterans say. “What you saw in the Obama campaigns، particularly in ’08، was all kinds of new، first-time participants in politics inspired by a conversation that sounded different from what they had heard their whole lives،” Slaby said. Ganz، the organization expert، also stressed the need for a powerful over-arching message. “There’s a Europe narrative that’s missing،” he said. “You don’t counter with arguments about the budget.”
4. Raise the stakes
The problem: Turnout in European Parliament elections is traditionally much lower than in national contests in many EU countries. The solution? Portray next year’s vote as an existential moment for Europe.
Guillaume Liegey، an Obama 2008 volunteer from France، said Macron’s party will win handsomely if it can replicate the French leader’s success in last year’s presidential election. “If Macron’s first-round supporters vote، that would make En Marche the winning party by far،” said Liegey، who now runs a Paris start-up that preaches Obama-style campaigning in Europe. Liegey argued that “making this thing big” would frequently be to the benefit of pro-EU advocates، particularly in countries like France with underlying pro-European majorities. In Obama’s 2008 victory، turnout was its highest in 40 years — and Obama took 52.9 percent of the vote، the biggest share for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Making the European election feel as important as a national race is a tall order، however. Turnout in the first round of the French presidential election last year was 78 percent. In the last European election، in 2014، only 43 percent of French voters took part.
5. Mix high and low tech
To get the vote out، Liegey advised trusting science. He said campaigns should base their budgets on the empirical findings of randomized campaign experiments، not gut feeling. “Intuitions shouldn’t guide campaign decisions، data should،” he declared.
And sometimes the science shows that old-fashioned campaigning can’t be beaten، especially when the election is generally regarded as unimportant. “The best way to get out the vote، especially in low-salience elections، is to knock on doors،” Liegey said. Liegey stressed that campaign science isn’t a magic bullet، but yielded powerful results for both of Obama’s campaigns and Macron’s surprise presidential win in 2017.
However، some successful U.S. tactics don’t easily transfer to Europe، Slaby warned. “A lot of the strategies we used [in the Obama campaign] are tied to the concept of individual voter contact،” he said. Tailoring messages to individual voters on the basis of personal data is much harder in Europe، where privacy laws are more stringent.