CampaignTech Europe 2017. Closing remarks held at The Factory, Berlin, May 19, 2017.
I’ve been asked to talk to you about the role of the digital in the German elections. Well, I can take a shortcut. There is nothing to learn that you haven’t heard from others today.
Instead you might want to step outside and take a breath of fresh air.
Because the answer, why Germany is not an advanced digital campaign nation lies right in front of you.
If you step out of this building you step into a crime scene of massive proportion.
Roughly 50 meters from here, people where shot and killed for trying to cross the street from the east to the west.
Look at the buildings on both sides of the street. People gathered for dinner, turned on the light in the living room – saw each other across the street but couldn’t cross the street without getting shot by the border troops.
The wall was up until 1989 and many got killed or imprisoned and tortured because their critical views about the governing regime were conveyed to the secret police through neighbors, friends, even relatives.
Some 45 years before, same city, other regime: thousands of citizens of Berlin – millions across Europe – deported into the concentration camps, tortured, starved to death or executed because of their religion, political views, homosexuality – not few of them betrayed by their neighbors, colleagues even relatives.
Now, what is the old man talking about.
I am talking about prevailing cultural differences between people in democratic nations in spite of the many similarities we observe in shopping malls, fast food chains or Facebook accounts.
If you care about technological knowledge transfer especially from US-Campaigns or UK-Campaigns to Germany and many other nations you have to take into account, that you are balancing on a very thin line.
We heard a lot today about micro targeting, data mining and gathering as much information as possible about the electorate in order to customize messages and improve the position of your client.
Fine. I am all with you. And yet, I cannot make use of all of the technology available, even if I wanted to – and even if I were able to afford it.
Germany has some of the most complicated and effective data-protection laws in the world.
That is, because we lived under two of the most effective dictatorships of the 20th century. The Nazis as well as the Communists used social profiling and social networks – offline, that is – to gather as much information about each individual citizen as possible. To keep control, to demoralize, to threaten, to hurt and eventually to kill whoever stood in the way.
This is not a game we are in.
This is not about selling shoes.
Yes, we all have a selfish interest in fair and open elections since that is the business we are in. But it is more than that. Hopefully to each one of us.
We are working hard in the engine room of our democracies and it is also our responsibility of whether or not the ship will go down or prevail in stormy weather.
The essence of the democratic electoral process – the right of each citizen to cast his or her vote in the safety of secrecy – is at stake.
You are standing on blood-stained soil today – and much of this blood was shed due to the effectiveness of what we in Germany refer to as “Desktop Assassins”. Cold blooded men and women – but mostly men – sitting not far from here at their desks and most effectively planning deportations, gas chambers and the death of six million Jews through massive data mining and micro-targeting.
With that in mind: Data protection laws in Germany are not an old fashioned, somehow amusing or irritating and eccentric relict of the past – standing in the way of our excellent technological abilities. These laws are the answer to two dictatorships – the last one collapsing only 28 years ago in this very city.
So all I can ask you is to be aware of what we are capable of with todays technology: We are profiling our people politically.
With our knowledge we are able to look in the head of others. We know what they think about global warming, social security, homosexuality, democracy, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, their neighbor, their mayor and more than that.
And we who gather the data for our cause – which each of us considers a good cause – are responsible of what we do with the data we collected. And of what can be done with this data once times change. Once governments change.
Once democracies turn over to pseudo democracies and later to dictatorships.
Once – let’s say – a travel ban is enacted not based on the country of origin, but on your voting behavior, sexual orientation or critical view about the current government.
So: we bear responsibility because we know so much and because we have advanced technology on our hands that can be used for a good cause – as well as for the opposite.
On that happy note I switch to the German election 2017
The first campaign I actually got paid for was the campaign for the first and last free election in the German Democratic Republic held in March 1990.
The elected Parliament abolished itself only 7 months later and the GDR became part of the Federal Republic of Germany.
By the way: I got paid lousy – and subsequently the result was lousy.
We had two innovative communication tools at hand. One was a landline phone that enabled us for calls inside East-Berlin. Our second landline phone was ready for outside calls – in all of East Germany.
At that time only 10% of the population in the GDR had access to a phone at all – and most of the opposition never experienced the luxury of a phone.
Well, why didn’t we twitter… Hm, because it was 1990 in East Germany: no fax, no e-mail, no world wide web, no computers not even Xerox machines.
So we organized the distribution of billboards and most of the printed campaign material via telegram. Yes, we send a telegram to our ground manager in Leipzig: Please unload campaign material –stop – tomorrow noon –stop – at central station.
Most of the time, nobody showed up.
But the lack of technology was not our main problem and the reason why we ultimately lost the election.
The reason was the lack of a convincing message.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his party promised hard currency, unification, wealth and “blooming landscapes”. He and his party were the most convincing campaigners for unification.
The smaller opposition parties were the most convincing campaigners for a third way: a modern GDR without unification.
And the old communists were the most convincing old communists.
The Social Democrats found no coherent and convincing message of their own.
But especially in times of turmoil your message has to be clear, convincing and simple.
So we lost.
And we would have lost with any of the technology at hand we heard about today.
Now. Almost 30 years and more than 30 campaigns later I am here to tell you:
Yes, you can tip an election that is almost too close to call in your direction through better targeting and custom made messages. But as far as I can see it has not been proofed and tracked down to that single technological breakthrough or advance. It has been claimed often – but never proofed. Because it can’t be proofed.
There never was the one singular technology or choice of channels as a cause for defeat or victory
Neither here nor anywhere I took a closer look.
In the upcoming German election we expect 7 parties to enter the next parliament. CDU, CSU, SPD, Greens, FDP, Linkspartei, AfD.
It will be a highly competitive election and due to a variety of coalition options after the election the winning party will not necessarily be able to claim the office of the chancellor.
Germany now has a population of roughly 80 million. The population in the highly contested US Battleground States sums up to 80 million as well. And only there a campaign actually spends money and energy.
In the US the two biggest parties spend roughly 1.5 billion EUR each. In Germany the two biggest parties spend 25 million EUR each. This amount has remained on the same level in the last 20 years, while so many more channels have to be served.
In the US about 1 million TV ads were aired in the battleground states. In Germany roughly 1000 ads were aired due to campaign regulations.
With all that in mind, a campaign manager in Germany has to make some very hard choices. In a campaign you permanently lack manpower, money and time.
And as campaign manager of a big party, the fragmentation of media channels raises more highly important issues. Because part of your target group already lives 100% in 2017 – but many still live very much in the year 2000. So you can’t cut traditional media spending as much as you probably wanted to. Same with out of home.
So: yes, we face a lot of restrictions. But as I mentioned before – maybe not all of these restrictions are a bad thing.
My two cents of advice:
If you want to find the answer of why a candidate won, I urge you not to look at the winner.
The winning team and anyone only remotely connected to the campaign is so busy claiming victory for themselves and the part of the campaign they worked for, that you hardly find a sane person to interview.
Journalists almost never have a clue and only write about the hottest new stuff in order to find an explanation for what they probably did not see coming.
If you want to find the key to an election result, look at the losers.
Most of the time they were competitive in fundraising, competitive in technology, competitive in media spending and on the ground. They had articulate candidates not breaking under pressure and performing fine. They had all of that and good, intelligent people – some excellent, bright and ambitious.
And yet they lost.
Because they had no convincing message.
No convincing reason why.
Oh yes – they had a lot of policy answers, sometimes even brilliant programs.
But they did not manage to find the one convincing reason why.
And if you look at the US you will find the answer, why Hillary lost, not in the Trump campaign. You will find it – as in 2008 in the democratic primaries – in the Clinton Campaign.
And in September in Germany it will not be any different.
Both major parties are ready technologically – as ready as they can be, given the laws of the land.
Both major parties have able campaign directors and staff.
But it all comes down to one simple question:
Is Angela Merkel able to deliver a convincing argument why Germany is in need for a fourth term – for another four years after 12 years in office?
An election is not about saying thank you to an incumbent. Winston Churchill won the Second World War and was voted out of office only months later. Helmut Kohl was the architect of a united Germany and was voted out of office when Germany felt, that he had nothing else to give.
Now, is Merkel better for Germanys future as her challenger or not?
Martin Schulz was nominated in late January as the Social Democratic Candidate. That was a late start – maybe too late.
But the man is full of energy and power.
Will he be able to make the convincing argument?
Why a Germany facing the digital revolution, facing challenged democracies all around us, facing a fragile Europe – now needs a fresh start more than ever.
If one candidate is able to find that convincing argument the whole campaign will carry him or her.
With advanced new technology, old print ads, GOTV, Billboards, TV. Radio and Social Media campaigning, rallies and all of that.
If you have no message, nothing will safe you.
Not one thing we have discussed today.
I have not heard that convincing argument yet either from Angela Merkel or from Martin Schulz.
Until September 24 they better have a message to deliver.