After every US election, people in British politics spend an inordinate amount of time trying to draw parallels to the UK. I have learned, after being in love with a Texan Democrat for years, that knowing what swing voters on a different continent think about healthcare will not help you understand the voters of Arundel and South Downs – even if you have watched all seven series of The West Wing. But the sheer amount of money involved in US elections and the entrepreneurial political culture means that there are things we can learn about practical campaigning.
This is especially true from a digital perspective. Covid forced Joe Biden’s campaign to invest heavily in online organising, reaching 58 million people with calls and texts in just one weekend. Building on some of the tactics that worked for Biden will be important if Labour is going to make significant gains in the local elections in 2021.
Analysis in the Labour Together review into the 2019 election defeat revealed that Labour’s digital campaign was directed inwards, mainly reaching existing supporters, whereas the Tories broke through to undecided voters, which was a critical part of the Tories victory. With this in mind, here are seven things the Democrats did that local Labour campaigns should do in the UK. If you want to learn more you can sign up for free digital campaign lessons here.
1. Host digital phone bank events.
Door-knocking is at the heart of all progressive campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic, but Covid has made that difficult. The Democrats switched to phone banking at the start of their campaign. They did not just create an online tool but instead made it social, hosting thousands of online phone-banking sessions through Zoom. This allowed activists to feel part of a team, get trained by experts and swap stories of good (and bad) calls.
What started out as a Covid fix is here to stay, according to reports from the campaign. It allowed the campaign to better apportion activists’ time as races narrowed. Democrats in solid areas could easily call swing states. For Labour, this can not only allow for local Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to continue to make contact, but can also allow affiliated socialist societies to get involved across the country.
2. Build a vote-tripling infrastructure.
Something really simple, and that the data shows is extremely effective, is asking people to ‘triple their vote’. This basically means asking people to tell three friends to register to vote, ask for a postal ballot or vote, and ask them in turn to triple the vote.
Online, you get supporters to sign up to a simple form saying that they will nominate three friends – they can even tell you who they are – and then you send them friendly reminders to do it. Labour candidates like Jess Phillips MP did this to great effect during her leadership campaign, and it will be an effective way of increasing Labour turnout during traditionally lower turnout local elections.
3. Use local influencers to break out of the bubble.
Biden’s influencer strategy did not just look for traditional endorsements, which influencers who are not political can feel uncomfortable doing. Instead, his team set up a series of interviews with influencers who appealed to specific audience groups.
This is a great way for candidates to break out of the inward-looking, lefty Twitter sphere and reach voters. Some areas will have more ‘influencers’ than others. But it is important to remember that influencers come in all shapes and sizes. It might be a landlord of a local pub with an engaged Facebook page, or the admin of a local news Facebook group.
4. Save ad spend for key moments in the election.
American elections, with their astronomical budgets, are able to do much more with paid advertising than most local UK candidates. But one trend we saw in the US election is that candidates who concentrated their ad spend on the final weeks seemed to have been more successful. This makes sense as most voters tend not to pay attention to elections until close to ballot day. When thinking about pacing, follow the pattern below.
5. Create ‘help’ content
Elections are complicated. That is especially true during Covid. People look online for answers on how to register to vote, how to request a postal ballot, how to find a polling station etc. Stacy Abrams’s anti-voter suppression organisation ‘Fair Fight’, which helped turn Georgia blue, created a series of videos, animations, and posts to explain each step of a voter’s journey. It was really effective and is something that all Labour councillors could do at a local level.
6. Use less partisan content to get people registered to vote.
Democratic campaigns ran a lot of tests online throughout the contest to see what types of messages and content worked best. The results were that clear, less partisan content (even against someone like Donald Trump) encouraged more people to register to vote than attacks. Think about general messages, such as getting your voice heard or being productive, like the below advert from the Meme2020 campaign.
7. Create an online organising HQ.
Campaigns are a slog. It is the camaraderie that means activists are willing to give up their time. The Biden campaign created a ‘Victory 2020’ Slack channel where they could ask organisers for help and celebrate voter contacts. Think about creating something similar locally to help chat to volunteers and keep them engaged.
This is not an exhaustive list. It is meant to provide inspiration. Campaigns will also have to find what works locally for them. You do not have to do everything. In fact, some say the best thing Biden did was log off of Twitter as they realised it gave a false view of the issues that mattered to voters. As Bridget Philipson MP recently said: “Making our own echo chamber larger is no substitute for knocking its walls down.” After four years of Trump tweets, that is something everyone can celebrate.