Friday, April 9th, 2021

This op-ed by GQR Vice President Jonathan Moakes was originally published via Medium on 9 April 2021. 

Now that the dust has settled after the seismic US election cycle and its turbulent aftermath, it is worth considering whether there are any campaigning lessons for opposition political parties and candidates on the African continent. Many political and campaign headquarters, especially in those countries with elections this year and next, are being pitched by consultants touting new technologies and methodologies used in the US last year. As a current campaign consultant and a former Chief Executive of a political party in Africa, I am often asked whether US strategies, tactics, and technologies can ever be applicable on the continent where elections are more often than not unfree, unfair, and literally a matter of life and death. Add to that a universal lack of voter data, comparatively poor access to Wi-Fi and internet connections, and the prevalence of state-controlled media, and many are left struggling to see any benefit in looking to the US for best practices and campaign inspiration. Yet, to stem the tide of authoritarianism and stop the democratic backslide in Africa, opposition political parties and candidates need to do something different.

It would be a mistake to dismiss a close examination of what worked in the US last year and in previous election cycles. There are some key practices that, if adapted correctly to the African context, can help the opposition grow and become more competitive. However, before one examines some of the newest trends, there are some core basics — campaign staples — that African political parties and candidates continue to ignore to their own detriment. Like most things campaign-related, these practices will not surprise experienced campaign professionals and they are not ‘rocket science’: they centre on sustained campaigning, structured fundraising, direct voter engagement, and digital organising.

To begin with, campaigning doesn’t stop in the US. Its intensity ebbs and flows each year yet candidates, campaigns, and advocacy groups serious about winning continuously organise and deliver their message(s) relentlessly to their target populations. Elections are not won in classic campaign periods two, four, or even six months before an election. Elections are won in between campaigns via sustained, long-term interactive relationships with voters and constituents. These are the trusted messengers that will organise on your behalf and swing public opinion come election time. The run-off Senate elections in Georgia earlier this year are instructive in this regard. Both historic victories were a result of continuous, localised organising, voter registration, and momentum building by Stacey Abrams and others.[1] Too often, political parties and candidates turn off between elections in Africa, switching back on only in the crunch time of an election. These campaigns try and persuade citizens to support them without relational foundations. This can be especially fatal for opposition parties and candidates, who don’t have the inherent public presence an incumbent commands.

An immediate reaction may be that African parties just don’t have the resources to traditionally campaign, let alone in-between elections. Again though, this fails to recognise the need to get the fundamental basics right. Yes, the money channelled towards campaigns in America is immense and unmatched worldwide. Yet, African political parties and candidates can raise sufficient funds for an effective, sustained campaign in Africa. Successful US political campaigns — as well as successful campaigns worldwide — prioritise fundraising in order to execute these sustained campaigning and organising efforts.

Many leaders firmly believe political fundraising just doesn’t work in Africa. This is simply not the case. Admittedly, disposable income is more limited, voters are scared of supporting opposition parties financially, and there is not currently an established fundraising culture on the continent. However, despite these constraints, parties and candidates that design and roll out fundraising campaigns do raise money. A majority of political candidates and parties do not exhaust all fundraising avenues — reaching out to every businessperson in the country for a fundraising appointment, launching digital fundraising campaigns, phoning young professionals, and writing to small, medium and micro-enterprises.

Opinion research is a staple in successful campaigns across the US. The reputation of the polling industry has suffered — partly fairly, partly unfairly — in recent years and a discussion about this is beyond the scope of this piece. What is important is to distinguish between research for messaging and voter insight as opposed to polling that tracks and measures voting intention. Research that helps you understand the thoughts, feelings, and dreams of your target voters is essential. And it should start at least a year before your election campaign as well as draw on and integrate with the insights of ongoing and permanent relational organising. Research enables a campaign to align its underpinning philosophy with the critical needs of voters, helping campaigns develop messaging that connects emotively, shifts behaviour, and inspires voters to turn out to the polls. Again, opinion research is ignored by many candidates and parties in Africa. It’s often dismissed as too expensive or leaders believe they already have the best idea of what voters think and want. Opinion research can be expensive but it is an investment worth making to stay in tune with the pulse of voters’ concerns and needs. The data directs limited resources to the right channels, enabling campaigns to deliver powerful messages to target audiences on a sustained basis leading up to and including campaigns.

A recent election on the continent provides a very good example of the perils of not conducting opinion research. In this election, the premier opposition candidate ran on a human rights platform that — while important to citizens — ranked second in priorities to securing a job and putting food on the table. This is the type of insight readily available in solid opinion research. This misguided campaign platform cost the particular candidate a number of key votes that could have changed the trajectory of a bitterly contested and hotly disputed election.

Finally, a recent core feature of successful campaigns in the US is effective digital organising — campaigns that build themselves around a digital spine, embrace technology to enable the building of relationships and activism at scale, and empower volunteers to self-organise. COVID-19 has forced these campaigns to develop rapidly, but they will remain key to winning elections in the future. Additionally, digital organising campaigns founded on building trust have the potential to inoculate communities against the rising swell of disinformation. Although Africa is far behind the US in terms of Internet access, data affordability, and general social media usage, the potential of digital organising for successful campaigns on the continent is enormous. Access to data and smart phones may well prove to be the great leveller in politics on the continent. Equally, those factors may prove to entrench disinformation and divisive politics. The quicker opposition candidates and parties embrace digital organising and integrate it with their offline operations, the more effective they can be for years to come.

Recent elections in Africa have shown that the democratic deficit on the continent is growing. Current efforts to combat authoritarianism and human rights abuses are simply not working. Multiple avenues need to be explored to protect and entrench democracy on the continent including the pursuit of sanctions, strategic litigation, and engaging big business. However, one factor that can be addressed immediately is strengthening the capacity of opposition parties and candidates. Embracing fundamental basics that US campaigns do so well would be a promising start.

[1] After a decade of working in politics in Georgia, Stacey Abrams launched Fair Fight 2020 in 2018. It organised at grassroots and community levels for two years before mobilising voters for the key presidential and senate elections in November 2020 and January 2021.