What can we learn from the 2016 Presidential Election?

Mike Miley
The political PR business in the United States is one
of the big losers from the 2016 Presidential Election
according to Mike Miley.

Donald John Trump will become the 45th President on January 20th and will do so by defying political experts, data analysts, campaign strategists, communications gurus and the 'hotshot' pundit class in the Democratic and Republican parties.

In short, the entire political and communications industry in the United States.

Elections are big business in the US. They happen at least every two years and aside from electing local, state and national officials, voters also decide on ballot initiatives, or referendums (in Santa Clara last week there were 32 referendums on the ballot paper- 32). In short there are thousands of elections and each generates a lot of money; all in, €160 million is estimated to have been spent in Pennsylvania where 6 million people voted.

As a result, US polling companies, campaign consultancies and political communication advisers have become the most advanced in the western world. They tend to innovate before anywhere else – being the first to put serious money behind data analysis for example – and export their product abroad (most Irish political parties engage their services). These companies tend to be very, very good at what they do. In other words, not only do they win elections, they pride themselves on their strategic advice and critical analysis.

Where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump come in.

Hillary Clinton ran the most expensive and sophisticated campaign in history. She invested heavily in data analytics, secretly developing a complex computer algorithm nicknamed ‘Ada’. ‘Ada’ was known to only the most senior members of Team Hillary and with reams of data inputted into it, would dictate the direction the campaign advising on how to best focus resources, what messages to use and where to send surrogates and the candidate. ‘Ada’ was to be unveiled following polling day as an example of the cutting-edge campaign infrastructure that handed Hillary the advantage.

Alongside this, her campaign invested early in communications and ground organisation. In February 2015, communications professionals in Washington DC were quitting their jobs and moving to Brooklyn to work on the campaign (Hillary didn’t announce she was running until April 2015). Her messaging was tested, refined and released using the most appropriate channels. The on ground organisations were viewed as second-to-none with hundreds of local offices opening up in battleground states such as Florida. There was a focus on early-voting which was believed would deliver the White House by 8pm on election night (6.4 million people voted early in Florida in 2016. 5.8 million voted in total in Florida in 2000).

Donald Trump eschewed all that. His campaign was a hastily thrown together mish-mash of people, most of whom had no experience of campaigns or communications. There was little infrastructure and no plan. Trump initially refused to run television ads saying he didn’t need them. He hated online ads. He didn’t focus group and ignored all the data analytics which said that he needed to reach out to women and minority voters.

The differences between the two campaigns was neatly encapsulated in two stories from the beginning and end of the campaigns.

As it became clear in late spring of this year that Hillary would win the Democratic nomination and Trump the Republican, she already had over 70 people working in her press office. He had one person.

A few days before the election, the Washington Post released this piece which was surely intended to provide an early explanation as to why the Trump campaign lost. Clinton’s team employed complex data analytics in order to predict how each State would vote. In contrast, Trump’s team sat around in a restaurant playing a favorite US political parlour game where you predict the election based on no data whatsoever (Full disclosure: I played it and picked Hillary to win although with a relatively ‘conservative’ 307 electoral college votes).

Every single poll bar one – the University of Southern California - picked Hillary to win. Every single communications professional, while praising Trump’s direct-style, predicted his messaging couldn’t deliver victory. Every campaign consultant stated that his slipshod campaign would falter against a superior alternative and he would lose.

Trump, perhaps channeling his inner-DeValera, said he would win because he knows what the people want when he looks into his heart. He just kept repeating that the polls were wrong, the professional PR class were wrong and the Washington insider campaign consultants were wrong. He was right.

So what now for the industry? Lessons can be learned

Polling Companies:
On the face of it, 2016 has been disastrous for polling companies. Brexit was followed by Colombia’s referendum which was followed by Donald Trump. However, the short term picture isn’t too bad. Pollsters feared the fallout from calling Brexit wrong but within a month reported that business was as strong as ever.

The same will be true following Trump. There is still a thirst for data and numbers. That will continue to drive revenues. However, the long term picture is bleaker. Those who measure public opinion cannot continue to incorrectly measure that opinion and continue to exist. Startups are experimenting with measuring public attitudes without engaging surveys (Crowdpac which is run by former Tory adviser Steve Hilton is an interesting study here) and, as is the case with all startups, once one ‘cracks it’, the old business model will collapse. Existing pollsters need to invest now in radically altering their models. To refuse to do so will ultimately result in their demise.

Campaign Consultancies:
Campaign consultancies will also be severely bruised now that the fallibility of relying entirely on data analytics has been exposed. However, the victory of intuition over data actually presents huge opportunities.

Political instinct in an individual cannot be measured and Ireland provides a good case study here. Anyone who as ever worked in Irish politics knows that those who are prized most are often those whose skills are most difficult to describe. They are simply advisers who possess ‘great instinct’ and intuitively know which way the election is going to go before it shows up in the numbers.

The lesson is to invest in human capital. Searching for and hiring individuals of real talent needs to be intensified as opposed to employing companies who have the latest in computer technology.

Communications Professionals:
Trump was racist, profane and refused to follow the advice of communications advisers.  Parsing his victory though provides two key insights going forward.

Obviously social media played a large role in Trump’s victory with his Twitter account ‘cutting through’. However, could anybody but Donald Trump have had such an effect? I doubt it. Hillary invested a lot more in social media and online advertising yet didn’t reach many of those she needed. The lesson is just because Trump was successful doesn’t mean another candidate will be.

Secondly, earned media is still king. In his run to become Republican nominee, it is estimated that Trump received $3 billion in 'free advertising' through earned media. As such, traditional media was forefront in driving conversation and setting the agenda. In 2016, every communications professional should be conscious that traditional media must still be at the centre of communication strategy.

The election is indeed over but for the communications and political industry, it has just begun.

Mike Miley is a political and communications consultant based in Washington DC. He was a Client Director in Dublin’s MKC Communications from 2011 to 2015 and served as a Press Officer for Fine Gael from 2004 to June 2011.


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