What the fuck just happened? First, the near-miss on Scottish independence, then the 2015 general election, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, Brexit, Corbyn’s re-election and now Donald Trump’s victory. Well, I’ve been working through a theory for a while now. I suspect some of you have been doing the same too. But if you just baulked at my use of the word ‘fuck’ in my opening sentence consider yourself part of my theory. What do I mean? Let me explain.
I’m a data person; I’m proud of it. If you’ve got numbers I can ‘model’ them to do whatever you like. Campaigns contact me all the time, from all parties and political leanings within parties. Normally I am given numbers or demographics based tasks as that’s what I’m known for. I use good data to provide good evidence. The numbers say this; the demographics say that; these are the high propensity voters you need; this is why. Clients are happy, I get paid, nobody gets hurt.
Except I often come away wondering what was missed. I’ve long viewed data to be extremely useful and necessary. All political campaigns should employ the best analysts available. However in the last year I’ve started to supplement my work with analysis of additional components: emotion and personality. I believe all of the above campaigns were successful because they employed emotional messaging aimed at particular personality types. In effect they were much less about what people are (demographics, data) and more about what they feel (anger, disillusion, etc). The latter are at least, if not more, important influencers in determining how people vote in my opinion. So it is puzzling to me that our politics continues to analyse data and less how voters represented in the data think or feel.
Which brings me back to what the fuck just happened. I suspect some of you won’t like the use of profanity. It may evoke an emotional response. You may prefer if I cut down the emotional stuff and state the facts. After all, I am Election Data, so “give us the cold data and analysis” would be reasonable. However in my view the election of Donald Trump is just the latest example in a growing list of elections where progressives have ignored emotion and personality in favour of data and analysis. It’s an entirely understandable thing to do, particularly when you’ve been reared on Philip Gould’s grid (I admire Gould a lot btw) or Barack Obama’s 2007/2008 field operation. There is also much more of a market in progressive audiences for considered research pieces; for think-tanks; meetings; broad debates; evidence; data. Should anyone express an unsafe opinion it’s normal for all parts of the Labour party to round on it for example. Trust me, I know.
Brexit was a perfect case in point. Remain had a difficult product to sell admittedly but they appeared to favour facts over emotion. After all, they said, this was totally obvious: staying in the European Union was just common sense, right? The logic seemed uncontroversial and absolutely undeniable. The only emotion they invoked was fear; the risk of leaving. The Leave campaign saw things differently. So we got ‘Take back control’, a message which by-passed complex factual arguments about sovereignty and plugged straight into the cerebral cortex of the voters Leave needed. I remember speaking with Goddard Gunster last year about this exact thing. The control message was so powerful it affected people hearing it; they sat up in their seats, jutted out their chin a little. The key reason this worked was because Remain’s Risk Of Leaving didn’t beat Leave’s Taking Back Control amongst the voters Leave needed to win.
The same was true of the now infamous poster produced by UKIP showing a long line of migrants apparently heading for Britain. Again, a nakedly emotional message which went straight to those voters which were already primed to believe the threat was real; regardless of whether it was or not. Remain’s answer was to rightly denounce the poster but that didn’t take away from its power; in fact it have cemented it amongst all the voters Remain needed. Unconsciously those voters would have heard the Remain campaign denouncing their perceptions. If the Remain campaign was going to win it would have to rely on Evidence, Experts and Data defeating Emotion, Perception and Imperfect But Strongly Held Opinions. We know what happened.
What the Remain campaign missed, and what data and polling often misses, is how people think and feel. I believe the same thing happened to Owen Smith in the summer and has just happened to Hillary Clinton in America. It’s the so-called progressive side of the aisle which has forgotten how to speak to people’s base emotions. It is they who still regale the audience with facts (apparently clear facts!) whilst Farage waves a passport. The left are repulsed by such imagery; UKIP know it. It is the progressives who hold dull press events about Corbyn’s inability to win elections whilst Corbyn holds mass rallies where logic gives way to emotion. Which is right? That’s less important to me than which has won. 2015, Corbyn, Brexit, Corbyn II, Trump. I make it 5-nil to emotion.
Another example may explain this point further:
The evidence seems to suggest that areas with lower levels of immigration were more likely to vote to leave the European Union. This partial finding has been used as definitive evidence to support the liberal progressive argument that much of what drives anti-immigrant sentiment is based on racism and bigotry. That may or may not be what the data is saying but by focussing entirely on that one finding the left in particular has ignored the personality types involved and the emotions that influence them. What if the ‘perception’ of immigration is more important than the reality? Those areas may have lower levels of immigration but they rarely have none. And even if they did it’s the perceived threat of immigration which drives people’s voting intentions. Ignore that and it won’t matter how good your data is because they won’t listen. Emotion beats Data hands down here. Particularly if you know, as I do, the personality types involved. You know who else knows this stuff? UKIP knows this stuff. Arron Banks and Nigel Farage know this. Donald Trump knows this. They don’t turn their nose up at employing it like many on the left do. They don’t counter it with facts and evidence in dusty think-tank launches. They reinforce it in people. They put it on giant posters on the side of trucks and drive it through council estates, That’s their job, like it or not.
So, what to do next? I have been including emotional and personality markers in my work for some time. I am carrying out focus groups and find myself pouring over Haidt, Cialdini and Kahnemann much more than Cohn, Gelman or Issenberg. All of us also need to be less wedded to data alone. Everyone has an election model these days it seems. Political parties, academics and even pollsters have models to predict this and that. There are models about models for goodness sake! Nothing wrong with that in itself but none of those models seem to incorporate the most important factor in people’s voting decisions: what they think and how they feel. It’s the question which the data rarely gets to. It’s a question I now incorporate in my work although I am working through this carefully; hence why I was still all too wedded to what the US data appeared to show in this election.
I won’t make the same mistake again. The key learning of the last year or so has been that the communication of effective emotional messages is currently beating data alone. This is particularly true in the age of social media which is effectively a delivery system for emotional weapons. Allied to which there is more volatility in our politics than there has ever been. Voter retention is weaker than ever, particularly on the left. Rich pickings for any party which knows the personality types of its voters and taps into base emotional instincts with effective messaging around issues they know the left are too feeble to confront. It doesn’t have to be this way.