International - Opinion

2007 - 2021

Campaigning strategies: Obama v the SNP


The 45th President of the USA will be elected today. With little separating them in the polls, both Romney and Obama have been campaigning nearly twenty-four hours a day in the nine competitive swing states that will ultimately decide the outcome of the vote. Obama continues to carry the mathematical advantage, but pundits predict the closest result in years. In Scotland there are still two years until judgement day in 2014. But six months after the launch of Yes Scotland, it is time to take stock. And there are lessons to be learned from the Obama campaign.

No one can deny that the polls have been moving in the wrong direction this year, although explanations and excuses abound. The jubilee, the Olympics, a plethora of Union Jacks – the summer didn’t provide the most fertile ground for attacking the British state. But with support for independence declining, it’s clear the official Yes campaign did not get off to the best possible start. So the question remains: how are we going to win in 2014?

Prozac Nationalism

The SNP have a clear strategy. Learned from their success in the last Scottish general election, they argue that only a ‘positive’ campaign will prove successful in the referendum. This was summed up by Alex Salmond at the launch in September of the late Stephen Maxwell’s book Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues. When asked how the polls could be turned around he stated simply “When there are two negative campaigns, the most negative campaign usually wins. But when you have a positive campaign and a negative campaign, the positive will always win.”

This argument is crude at best. At worst it is a losing formula. The problem is that nationalist strategists have interpreted the success of their 2011 election victory as the last word in political strategy – as if this model of political campaigning would win any election at any time in history. This begs an initial question: why doesn’t everyone do this – as well as a second: have they forgotten that this message was learned from an even more successful election campaign?

Obama 2008

Barack Obama produced one of the most dramatic electoral victories in modern history. And he did so on a platform that expressed hope and an optimism about the future. The slogan “yes we can” was a masterstroke – it summed up the aspiration of a nation. After eight years of a Neo-Con Whitehouse, Iraq and (in 2008) economic crisis on an unprecedented scale, the desire for a break from the status quo was palpable.

But in 2012 the Obama campaign has performed a 180 degree turn. This election has been described as the most negative in history (which is saying something). And it wasn’t started by Romney. Axelrod, Plouffe and the Democratic strategists developed their approach early on: initially outspending the Republicans, the campaign produced a slew of negative ‘attack adds’ as the Republican primaries were finishing. They attempted (and largely succeeded) in defining Mitt Romney before he had a chance to define himself.

According to David Plouffe – Obama’s national campaign manager in 2008 – this was a well considered and strategic approach. In one interview about his book, The Audacity to Win, he said:

“After Bush we knew the political landscape had changed, something the Clinton campaign hadn’t grasped. There was a real desire for a new kind of government. People needed hope. They needed to think that things could change and get better. We knew this wouldn’t last forever because politics changes at break neck speed. It would inevitably have to change for a re-election campaign. But for 2008 we would emphasise the positive – our watch word was hope.”

The message of hope translated into success – winning the election and mobilising the biggest grassroots campaign in US electoral history. 2012, however, was about painting the opposition as the worst possible candidate for the job. The space to run a positive campaign had shrunk.

Background and transformation

The message of hope resonated in 2008 because it was foregrounded by years of anger at the Bush administration. In Scotland in 2007 and 2011 this was no different. As James Foley argues in Britain Must Break:

“we should reassess Salmond’s victory. Any notion of a joy bomb is farfetched. It was a recession era victory. Positivity may have moved voters, but only as Con-Dem Britain cast a gloomy pall. The victory came after the end of Labour’s credit boom, a decade of failure in Iraq, and the expenses scandal. Optimism won the day…after everything else failed.”

The background remains unchanged today, but the point is that a positive argument regarding the future of Scotland must be based upon an intellectual argument against Britain – both domestically and on a global scale. We need to articulate what is wrong with Britain so that we can best convey what would be ‘right’ about an independent Scotland.

This leads to the other flaw in the SNP’s approach. To date they have shied away from articulating what would be different in an independent Scotland. This is summed up in an article by Gerry Hassan who suggests the SNP have attempted to position independence as “an expression of traditional Scotland, as being about continuity and preservation, rather than fundamental change…a kind of ‘devolution max plus’”.

Hassan adds:

“One senior SNP politician once told me, ‘All independence entails is extending the Scotland Act until it covers all Scottish domestic life’. They then sat back satisfied with the straightforwardness of it, ‘It’s that simple’ they concluded. Such an approach explicitly positions independence as a politics of gradualism and incremental change, and as the child of devolution.”

If we are going to win the referendum in 2014 we need to stress the transformative potential of independence. The major slogan of Obama 2008 we should recall is “change we can believe in.” A positive case will resonate. But it cannot be abstract positivity. It must be based upon concrete ideas and a genuine belief that a future Scotland will be founded on the principles of social justice, democracy and a break from the status quo.

Pete Ramand is an organiser of the Radical Independence Convention and an activist in the International Socialist Group.


Comments (14)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. fourfolksache says:

    Absolutely spot on. I just hope the Yes group buy into it – indeed O hope they are already there and are about to start delivering!!

  2. Doug Daniel says:

    There are two things to consider here. First of all, it’s difficult to fight a positive campaign of hope when you’re the “no change” candidate – that’s why Obama has had to fight dirty this time, because everyone knows he’s not been anywhere near the transformational president he said he would be in 2008. So as absurd as it is to see Mitt Romney using “Real Change” as an election slogan, the reality is Obama would look even more ridiculous (I’m sure I remember Gordon Brown speaking at a conference in the run up to 2010 using a “change” slogan, which was just hilarious). You can only use the “change” slogan successfully once, because after that people think “well, change would be to vote you out…”

    The second thing is you have to make sure the “change” in question sounds like a good thing, and this is our problem. The campaign against independence has always centred on the idea that it would lead to a catastrophic upturning of everyone’s lives. So, when it comes to independence, a lot of people associate “change” with negative things. “Change” therefore equals uncertainty, rather than opportunity. Clearly, the SNP way thus far has been to say “och, don’t believe that rubbish about uncertainty – nothing’s going to change, don’t worry.” I understand the criticisms over this, and I want independence to lead to an overhaul of how we do things, but I think those who call for a radical vision for independence overlook the reasons for the SNP doing this.

    I’m very much in a minority amongst my friends when it comes to supporting independence. I’ve also yet to find myself in an office which wasn’t overwhelmingly against independence. That includes jobs in Livingston (dominated by Edinburgh dwellers), Glasgow and Aberdeen. The main reason for this is because I find myself surrounded by middle-class people at all times – my primary and secondary schools were mainly middle-class, and software development tends to be a middle-class pursuit. The politics of fear works on these people, because they have something to lose, and unionists tap into that. This is why the SNP have always concentrated on the idea that people would be personally better off with independence.

    Now, we can completely ignore these people and cross our fingers that enough of the working class vote can be motivated to go out and vote for a transformational campaign. That’s not even a criticism; I firmly believe it will be working class voters who have given up on politics over the past 30 years – and are therefore an unknown quantity for pollsters and party strategists alike – who will decide this referendum. But it is rather putting all our eggs in one basket. Surely it would be even better to bring such people along with us?

    I actually think the way to win the referendum is a two step process:

    Step one is to let the NO campaign expend its energy coming up with all these ridiculous arguments against it, and calmly debunk the myths (which appears to be happening at the moment in regards to the EU – note how the old “Scotland would have to reapply as a new nation!!!” line is quietly being replaced with “oooh the negotiations process will be affy complicated” by more cunning unionists).

    Step two is to say “having debunked all that nonsense, here’s some things that really COULD happen…”. This way, you’re presenting a more radical vision of Scotland from a more stable foundation.

    Of course, there’s not necessarily any reason to do the two in a linear fashion, and I’d be amazed if even the most cushiest of middle-class folk couldn’t find something exciting from the sort of things Patrick Harvie was saying in last night’s Big Debate…

    1. Stevie says:

      Has the EU entry issue been debunked? Jim Sillars and Gordon Wilson are in the news today saying Scotland should consider joining the European Free Trade Association (Efta) if the EU deal falls through.

      1. Dave Coull says:

        I have disagreed with both Sillars (over him being pro-NATO) and Wilson (over him being anti-gay) recently, but this time I have to agree. The EU isn’t the be-all and end-all of everything. If it doesn’t work out, or if they are demanding too much in the negotiations, we can walk away. There are alternatives.

      2. Doug Daniel says:

        Not totally, but it’s in the process – and a lot of these issues will take a long time to be debunked, hence why we need two full years! But even this intervention, by highlighting that there is an alternative to the EU, helps debunk the idea that Scotland is going to be left isolated in Europe (which is pretty much what Dave is saying!)

        But as I’m saying, just the fact that unionists are now shifting onto talking about difficult negotiations, rather than the flat-out “Scotland will be chucked out of the EU and have to go through the entire application process” line they’ve been pushing for years, shows things are moving in the right direction.

  3. Dave Coull says:

    A campaign being “non-party-political” means that campaign is not exclusive to, or controlled by, any political party, but is open to anybody who agrees with the aims of that campaign. However, if a campaign is seeking a political aim, then OF COURSE “non-party-political” doesn’t mean “non-political”; that’s a very different thing.

    A good example would be the anti-poll-tax campaign. Getting rid of the poll tax was certainly a political aim, and anybody who supported that aim was welcome to play a part in the campaign. But in practice, few Tory voters played an active part in the campaign.

    A local anti-poll-tax group started on my initiative had, as well as a lot of folk who were not members or supporters of any party, members of the Labour Party, members of the SNP, two members of the Socialist Workers Party, one prominent local LibDem, and one Tory, involved.

    Nationally, the most active members of the anti-poll-tax campaign tended to be either Scottish Militant Labour (the forerunners of the SSP, for example Tommy Sheridan – although personally I was never all that impressed with him) or their rivals on the far-left, the anarchists.

    The campaign for a pro-independence vote in the forthcoming referendum is intended to be non-party-political. But obviously, that does NOT mean “non-political”. It simply means a campaign which is not exclusive to, or controlled by, a political party. In this case, that particularly means not controlled by the SNP.

    But it is obvious from those involved – not just Dennis Canavan, Patrick Harvie, and Colin Fox, but others too – that the campaign is not going to make a huge appeal to Conservative voters. And that is only to be expected.

    Not only are Tory voters a minority in Scotland, but they are also the ones who are most hostile towards independence and least likely to change. By contrast, LibDem voters are a bit less hostile to independence, while Labour voters (though not liking that Alex Salmond etc etc) are far more receptive to the pro-independence message.

    As well as political persuasion, there is another factor which needs taken into account in the campaign: social class. While it is easy to find plenty of exceptions to any generalisation, nevertheless, all indications are that those lower down the social scale are likely to be more favourable towards independence than those higher up the social scale.

    Now, of course SNP Members of Parliament are not working class. That is obvious. But all indications are nevertheless that the working class is more favourable to a pro-independence message.

    The difficult bit for pro-independence campaigners is that the social class most likely to favour independence is also the social class which, in elections anyway, is less certain to turn out and vote.

    Quite simply, a well-off Tory is, in elections, more certain to turn out and vote than somebody lower on the social scale.

    But it doesn’t have to be that way, and a referendum is NOT an election.

    I know a woman in her late 50s, a personal friend of mine, who has never voted in ANY election, neither a European election, nor a Westminster election, nor a Scottish Parliament election, nor a local election. She has never voted for ANY politician in her entire life. But she says wild horses wouldn’t prevent her from voting “Yes” to independence in the referendum. A referendum isn’t an election.

    In a referendum, you’re not voting for any politician, or any political party. If that message is constantly emphasised, then other non-voters can also be enthused.

    “Non-party-political” certainly doesn’t mean we have to refrain from attacking the Tories, and it doesn’t mean we have to play along with some Westminster-based idea of “moderation”.

    What we are advocating is a profound change from “business-as-usual”. In making that clear, we can enthuse the people whose support we need to get out and vote for independence in the referendum.

  4. Dave Coull says:

    One of the things that we need is a voter-registration campaign. Somebody settled comfortably in their own house is more likely to vote, but they are also more likely to be conservative. We need to try to ensure that folk who are less comfortable, including folk who change addresses, are registered to vote, and we need to encourage them to get out and vote. They could be the group which swings the referendum for independence. Also, we need to ensure that young people can vote. I know theoretically the vote is being extended to 16 and 17 year olds. But ONLY if they are actually on the electoral register!

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      “One of the things that we need is a voter-registration campaign.”

      Absolutely. It has to be a top priority. The more people that vote the more representative the referendum will be. My hunch is that come 201 the Union will have little support beyond a section of the middle classes and a certain ex-football club.

  5. Cameron says:

    It should say 45th President, not 25th

  6. picpac67 says:

    How could an independent Scotland make itself different from the rest of Britain in a way that really matters? By being a genuine democracy – that’s one where ‘the people’ are the sovereign and have real power. I’ve just been translating an article about Liechtenstein. Not a model for Scotland in many respects (I wouldn’t want Scotland’s economy to depend even more on finance and banking) but definitely one in terms of Liechtenstein’s “direct democracy” (which it shares with Switzerland, all of Germany, Estonia, Slovenia and other countries).

    In 2003 the Liechtenstein government wanted to remove one of its subsidies – to the non-workplace accident insurance scheme. There was strong popular opposition to the plan – and their constitutional rules meant that they had an effective means of challenging the government. A citizens’ initiative was launched to oppose the plan. The required number of support signatures was collected – and the mandatory referendum held. The government plan was thrown out. That’s real democracy.

    As things stand now in the UK, voters get one chance in four or five years to change the government. In between they have to shut up and put up with whatever policies the government chooses – like Obama, the politicians can throw their promises in the bin and the people can do nothing about it. The system then perpetuates itself, with more and more power flowing to the centre – including in the US presidential decrees.

    The only way to break through this perversion of democracy is to have a written constitution and constitutionally guaranteed direct-democratic rights. It works in Liechtenstein, as it does in Switzerland – and even in parts of the USA, where elected officials can be recalled by referendum. It weakens the power of the parties to impose unpopular – and even illegal – policies (two illegal and immoral wars).

    Just think! The Swiss government is 7 people from four different political parties! Is Switzerland a basket case because of that? Hardly. It’s probably the most efficient country in Europe, if not the world. Is Scotland going to grow up and become a real democracy?

  7. DMyers says:

    I would suggest that Obama’s 2012 campaign has been. largely, a failure, rather than the success which has been tacitly suggested. The fact that Romney is pretty much neck-and-neck with Obama on election day itself says as much. While an Obama victory is likely because he is ahead in the ‘swing’ states, Romney has managed to paint Obama as ineffectual, bordering on incompetent and could himself poll more popular votes than Obama.

    However, the analysis that the SNP need to change their narrative in terms of the referendum debate is probably correct. An independent Scotland WILL be different, and perhaps they need to take advantage of the fact that the majority of Scots trust the Holyrood parliament to make the best decisions for the country, rather than Westminster (supported by only one in five to do so). Start banging on about SELF-GOVERNMENT rather than the scary ‘I’ word, and then everything can flow from that core argument. And yes, say why and how things will be different: highlight the fact that independence affords us choices, options, opportunities and control which we do not currently have (especially over membership of the EU/EEA/EFTA, NATO and the monarchy).

    And we perhaps need to try to get the media on our side!

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      You had me until that last sentence!


  8. Barontorc says:

    One thing’s for sure – if people are only told what the BBC and MSM are telling them – the YES game’s a bogey. Whatever strategy is settled on it has to get the information into every household, it needs high personality figures to recommend it, the SNP have to stay spotlessly free from scandal and blame, they also have to keep on doing what they are doing so well now.

    I refuse to accept that the people of Scotland are so far gone, their voting apathy come election times will continue if they get fired up.

    Virtually every social sector of the Scottish population is being threatened by the dilemma facing the London controlled UK and being brought to our door through the Union.

    Scotland does not need to be in this position and people should be told that in no uncertain terms. INFORM THE PEOPLE!

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.