Last Thursday, voters in the United Kingdom went to the polls. A couple of weeks ago, expectations were that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party would romp to a big win and expand its narrow four-vote majority in Parliament.
Instead, as I write this on Friday, the Conservatives are eight votes short of a majority and May has just struck a deal with Northern Ireland’s Unionist Party to give her party a reed-thin margin to form a government. Many in Great Britain believe her future is tenuous at best.
Are there any lessons that Idaho candidates in this year’s municipal elections or in next year’s statewide races can learn from the British vote?
I think there are several . . .
First, don’t assume the political tide will continue to run in one direction. After the Brexit vote, many assumed that British voters would rally around the Conservative Party and its efforts to negotiate a clean break from the European Union. Instead, it appears that voters are second-guessing their decision to leave the EU as they voted to strengthen the Labour Party’s ability to hamper an exit and boosted Conservatives in Scotland who actually opposed an exit in the first place.
Many assume Idaho’s pro-Trump leaning and overall conservative politics will continue for the next couple of years. But, the tide can shift, sometimes suddenly, and such can leave candidates stranded if they are not adaptable.
Second, a persuasive message is critical! The Conservative’s ran on a manifesto focused on plugging a gap in health care spending by requiring the elderly to pay for their health needs if they had more than £100,000 in assets. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn labeled it a "tax on dementia" and forced the Conservatives to retreat on the issue. This misstep kept the Conservatives from ever framing a positive agenda.
Idaho candidates need to get beyond slogans and lay out persuasive, compelling policy prescriptions that will attract voter attention and loyalty. Failure to do so will lead to vacuous campaigns with lots of negative attacks and overall pettiness that will just frustrate voters. Now is the time to think seriously and begin to articulate the 2-4 specific ways your election will make lives better for Idaho residents.
Third, good poll numbers don’t necessarily lead to a win. When the election was called a few weeks ago, May was looking at survey data that showed massive support for the Conservatives over Labour. That margin slid down over the campaign, but final polling averages still showed the Conservatives with a 7-8% overall lead. The final vote was only a 2.4% margin for the Conservatives. British analysts believe two factors were in play: 1) Undecided voters broke heavily towards Labour and 2) Turnout surged among younger voters (more about that in a minute). Of note, the national exit poll on Election Day was dead-on, so the issue was not that pollsters didn’t know how to measure the electorate. They struggled to deal with late shifts . . sort of like what happened in the 2016 U.S. election.
My read for Idaho candidates is that an early or even late lead doesn’t guarantee a win. The key is the direction of the late trends.
Fourth, who is motivated to vote is critical. Young voters in Britain voted heavily against Brexit last year. They stayed fired up and turned out last week in numbers far beyond their historic norms. Indications are that they wanted to elect leaders who didn’t want to leave the EU. Measurements of particular social media activity heavily dominated by the young showed their heavy engagement several weeks ago and their online interest translated into actual trips to the voting booths.
In 2017 and 2018, who in Idaho will be fired up? Will it be conservative activists wanting to back a more conservative take on state government? Or, will the energy be with users of public land for recreation? What about those connected to agriculture or those frustrated with painful commutes in the Treasure Valley? Maybe like the U.K. it will be young voters who want in Idaho more accessible higher education and better jobs or seniors whose focus is reducing the tax burden. The campaigns that can figure out which segments of the electorate have the energy and motivate those voters to back their particular candidacy will have a leg up.