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How Politicians Lost Touch In 2016

2016 was the year when politicians really seemed to lose touch with the people, not just in the US but in all sorts of elections around the world. If you were a betting man, would you have taken outside odds to see Donald Trump sitting in the Oval office come 2017? What about Britain leaving the EU? Italy without a Prime Minister over Christmas on the verge of financial collapse? 2016 was a year that put the power back in the hands of the people, left pollsters waving in the wind and journalist found themselves at a loss. What is the function of these leaders if not to serve and acknowledge those who put them there?

The overarching narrative in society currently appears to be that “politicians are crooked” and the reality is that politicians have not been taking that seriously enough. Trump was in a good position to address this as he was outside of the political establishment and this factor alone was critical in getting him elected. Until mainstream politicians really engage with this perception and address it directly then we will continue to have outsider candidates winning shock victories.

Poll Position

The obsession with political polling in the media and among politicians themselves has shown itself for what it is this year, in other words, a guide, not gospel. The issue with polling was simple; we struggled to interpret the data accurately. Polls just outside the margin of error were being called as landslide victories in the making. A more sober view of the closeness of polls would have benefitted everyone.

In the US, the urgency with which Trump campaigned and pushed his ‘change’ manifesto seemed almost circus-like. Many viewed his charge for the White House as a joke and failed to respect how very close the polls were in many of the vital states. Clinton didn’t factor in the importance of key swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania and even when the polls indicated that Trump may be gaining ground, no counter methods were deployed.

Why Aren’t We Talking To The Voters?

It is amazing that so few politicians do ‘broad spectrum’ surveys of voters regularly. In other words, speak to people outside their supporter base, speak to opponents and those on the fence. Bernie Sanders lobbied at grassroots level from the beginning of his Primary campaign and, in the process, seemed to be able to gauge the temperature of the people far better than Clinton. His campaign messaging spoke to the disaffected middle of America as well as the Democratic base showing that grassroots surveying yields the rich data needed for a successful campaign. Many scoffed at him for being seen to be too involved at a low level but when he took a surprise victory in the New Hampshire Primary back in February we realized that ground-game surveys work.

This, of course, could not be sustained nationally, but the lesson to be learned is that we only learn by talking directly to our voters. Carrying out surveys while canvassing not only leads to practical research but it closes the gap between politician and voter. This is an overriding problem that became obvious in 2016. The relationship between voter and politician has soured to resentment and the lack of understanding between representative and represented has been clear in elections in the US, UK, Italy, Ireland, among many others.

Media Narratives

Pity any politician in the midst of an election campaign for the speed with which the ‘story’ changes. Being the candidate that can adjust to media narratives and manage the story as it unfolds is fiendishly difficult but we have been given a good example this year in the form of Donald Trump. Firstly, his response times were lightning fast as his Twitter account responded to the story of the day. Secondly, his responses were ‘head-on’ without the usual politician spin or fudge.

Before we talk about fake news, we need to acknowledge that if you worked in the media in 2016, it was possibly one of the golden years of news. The main outcome of the year, though, appears to be that so much of the reporting was fake, stories that went viral on social media were never fact-checked by anyone. The upshot of this was a maelstrom of misinformation and the increasing inability of the political establishment to counter this. At times, it has to be said, it has felt more like propaganda on either side of the argument and this is a question that needs to be addressed by wider society if we are not to go backward in terms of civil society. It seems ironic then that, although the media succeeded in capturing the mood in Austria, Italy, US and Italy, the leaders of these countries ignored it. The warning signs had been there, the people were not happy and yet nobody heeded it. At times, government bodies failed to take hold of the narrative to address the ordinary citizen and again show them they are listening.

Back To Basics For 2017

Time to rebuild and in some cases heal. In 2017, voters in the Netherlands, France and Germany, Italy and possibly Britain too – will vote in elections following the triumphs of Trump and Brexit, and the new politics that drove those campaigns. The lessons will not be lost on continental Europe’s populist parties, who hailed Trump’s victory as a body blow for the political mainstream. Political fragility seems to be the new norm so, maybe now is a good time to take a look at how to counter this at a local level.

Go Back To Your Roots

Politicians need to get local and focus on grassroots engagement if they are to stay in touch with what the electorate are thinking. This engagement needs to include outreach work beyond the support base and into areas or demographics that are traditionally a bit more challenging.

Be Critical

Lines of communication to voters have exploded in number, from social media platforms to a host of ‘new media’ blogs and outlets. Meeting the challenge of the various narratives that are swirling around means being critical of what and why these stories are being spread. Tackling media narratives head on will benefit everyone in the long run and having a credible outlet to communicate that to voters is essential. That means investing in face-to-face engagement as well as credible online and traditional lines of communication.

Invest In Supporters

Support bases can often be taken for granted or seen as a fixed entity. Investing time and resources into building support on an ongoing basis connects politicians to their communities and means they never lose touch.

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