Running a winning election – Harvard Professor’s insights on political campaigns a month before Zim polls

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steve-jarding-1474256851Violet Gonda: Hello and welcome to the Hot Seat with Violet Gonda. As the country heads towards the crucial July 30th polls, we talk about how effective campaigns are run, the role of money in campaign, voter targeting, the role of social media and fake news in campaign and more. My guest today is Dr Steve Jarding, a Harvard Professor who teaches the famous Making of a Politician class, an award winning course on political campaigns. Professor Jarding is also a consultant for political candidates around the world. He joins us today in his capacity as an advisor of Shikamo, an African focus political campaign and advisory service. Shikamo is holding one day seminars in how to run and manage political campaigns. The Road-shows will cover Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi. Welcome on the Programme Professor Jarding.

Steve Jarding: It’s great to be on your show, it’s great to talk with you again.  

Violet: Thank you. Let’s start with the basics. What matters in a political campaign?

Steve: Well, I think at its base, or its core, a political campaign needs to be about the people.  It needs to be about what problems people face, it needs to be about what fears people have, what insecurities. Because, at the end of the day, if it’s a true political campaign, if it’s a true election system, government and politics is about people. And so the best campaigns that I’ve worked on; I’ve been in 31 countries now around the world working; is when candidates understand that elections are bigger than they are. They are about the people and their needs and can they make a case that they can best represent the people.  And, if they do that, then I think you’ve got a stronger election and a stronger electoral system. So that’s what we try to teach.

Violet: So how do you run an effective campaign?

Steve: It’s  a business, and I teach, as you mentioned Violet, I teach a course at Kennedy School at Harvard on how to run a campaign anywhere in the world. There are basic tenants on what you need to do and there’s anything from how to schedule a candidate , how to create a budget, how to fundraise depending on the laws of the country, how to do research in campaigns, how to develop a message. I mean just everything, voter contact, voter persuasion and ultimately, how to best turn a vote out. And, if you do those things in a business-like fashion, I believe that we’re going to win more campaigns than we lose.

And, I’ve been fortunate enough in most of the campaigns that I have worked on and consulted on, both in the United States and around the world, we’ve been successful because we view it as a business, because we look at what can we best do to give our candidate the best chance of winning.  Campaigns are about the art of winning. You have to win in order to govern, in order to effect change. So, campaigns can be hard, and I certainly understand that, they can be difficult.  In this day and age, there is a lot of stuff going on out there that makes it more difficult. But, you have to play the game by whatever the rules that are out there. Hopefully you will have a kind of a moral compass and you won’t break the law and you won’t do things that you shouldn’t do, but I believe that you can win virtually any campaign in the world if you effectively create a plan to deal with all the different entities that occur in a campaign and allow you to put your best foot forward.

So, the biggest or the best advice I give to my candidates is ‘we’re going to run this as a business’. We’re going to literally try and anticipate every possible component to a campaign, every possible thing that could go wrong in a campaign. We’re going to try anticipate that and make it work’.  And if we do that, the odds that we win increase dramatically.

When I run campaigns around the world I have about a 350 page Campaign Plan that I use, that I start with. This company now that I’m working with in Africa, we have experts on the ground. I insist on that, I don’t pretend to know all the laws and the culture in every country you know, in Africa or anywhere in the world. So get experts who know that but then take the basic tenants; of how to contact voters, persuade voters, turn voters out; that work and have proven to be effective all over the world. I take that as a plan, and then go from there.

Violet: You know I did take this class, in fact, at Harvard a few years ago.  And I thought if I was a politician, this is one class that I would take, especially to look at that 350 page Campaign Plan that you were talking about. So, in the Zimbabwean case, we’ve seen an avalanche of campaign manifestos. In your view, what is their role and do they make any difference?

Steve:  Well, they do in the sense that I firmly believe that candidates and parties have to stand for something. The danger in this day and age is that there’s so much false kind of information and the potential for fake news and different things that voters can get confused. But, I don’t think that should be an excuse for candidates or parties not to stand for something. I think you have to present to the voter – here’s what I’m about, here’s what our party’s about, here’s what we are going to do to try to impact your life in a positive way, and we’re going to make that work for you.  And so I think it is very important and yet I know people are cynical. I talk about it in one of my lectures on leadership, that political party participation in the world is at an all time low that people’s support of government is at an all time low around the world. Politics, frankly sadly I think, is the number one profession that parents don’t want their children to go into because they just think it’s distasteful. And I’d argue it’s just the opposite.

I think electoral politics and public service is arguably the most honourable profession. That we have to get our best and brightest into politics and in the government because government impacts our lives in so many ways.  It’s the largest business in every country on earth and if our best and brightest young people walk away from it and don’t get into it, it leaves a void, and that void is going to be filled by people who probably have less than pure motives. So, one of the things I hope we can do with this company in Africa is that we can show young people particularly that politics is a good and honourable profession.

I argue all the time; I don’t think governments are the problem. A lot of people say ‘you know, government doesn’t work’.  It’s not government that is the problem; it’s the people in government that tend to be the problem. If we can get our best and brightest into electoral politics, I think we can change the world very quickly. But we have to change this mindset that government is not a good thing. Government is a good thing, it’s the best collective activity that I think human beings have ever created that allow us to have a better world. And so, it’s incumbent on us to let the next generation of young people know that it’s a good thing.

You can go into business or law or education or whatever you want, but at some point in your life, I want young people to say that our best in Africa, our best in North America or South America or anywhere in the world, I want you to consider and believe and understand that you have a responsibility to give back and there’s no better way to do that …

Violet: It’s a public service.

Steve: Well it is, and again, I’m biased because I’ve been doing this for 40 years Violet. And, there’s nothing more powerful, nothing that has the capacity to affect change in a positive way, than government. I think Africa has unbelievable potential. I think Africa can be literally one of the world leaders if we can help get better governments

Violet: How can you make people want to be part of this, especially in our part of the world and in Zimbabwe in particular? Just last week I moderated a panel discussion, a public debate with some  independent candidates and during the Question and Answer session, someone from the floor introduced himself as a member of the voter apathy association. Basically, he was saying that there are a lot of people like him who no longer have faith in the political system in the country and that there are a lot of undecided voters out there who do not know who to vote for because of what they have seen happening in the county and also with the way politicians run affairs in the country. So what can you say to people like that, or people listening right now?

Steve: Well, my easy answer would be ‘you’re making a mistake’. If you think about it, if politics has the power that it does; again, it’s the largest business in every country on earth; why would you throw your hands up and say ‘I’m going to concede that entity, I’m going to concede that to people that I think are bad, that I think don’t have our best interests at heart’. Why would you do that? A lot of times, I’ll refer to, or use an analogy and say, ‘If you put your money in a bank and the bank stole your money and every month you would see that they are stealing money out of your account, you’d pull your money out of the bank. Well, in politics, if it’s the largest business, and it is, and they are corrupt, why would I throw my hands up and say I’m going to be apathetic and let them be corrupt? Then they win. The only way to defeat corruption is to defeat politicians who have motives that are not pure, not good, is to get them out of office.  So when I throw my hands up, I’m giving them the win. They don’t deserve to win, they deserve to be defeated. They are hurting countries, they’re hurting political processes, they are hurting people. And so, I would say to somebody who says I’m a member of the apathy movement, I would say ‘well, you’re making a mistake.’ Why would you do that?

Violet: What is the best way for a candidate to target these people who are undecided?

Steve: You have to address their needs. I talk about it in the class that you took Violet at the Kennedy School.  I talk about it that you have to come to the people and show that you are going to address their fears, their insecurities, their problems. If people are hungry you’ve got to make government work to feed them, if they’re sick you’ve got to make government work to heal them. You know, every issue down the line, government has such great capacity to impact peoples’ lives in a positive way. My advice would be, let’s show the people, in your campaign – and we have a section on messaging; and what I’m going to talk about when I’m in Africa in a couple of weeks; that here’s how you take a message to the public to show them what works, to show them that you understand their fears and their insecurities and that you are going to address them.

If you do that, I believe very genuinely, that people will respond and give you the capacity to change, they will support you, they will elect you. But it starts with this idea that you have to come to the public and say I understand your fears and insecurities and I’m going to use government as a vehicle to solve those problems. If you do that,  I think you are going to get the trust of the people and then you have the responsibility to honour that trust.

Violet: Right, what about the role of money in campaigns? You said  a candidate has to draw up a budget.  How can a candidate run an effective campaign without adequate resources?

Steve: Well it’s hard, there’s no question. I wish it weren’t the case, I wish that we didn’t have, frankly, money in politics; I wish that every candidate had the same number of resources. But, it doesn’t work that way. In most of the countries or virtually all of the countries I’ve worked in the world, money is clearly a huge component in a campaign.

Yet I will tell you, and we are seeing this more and more, I’ve done a lot of work in Spain for instance, where a couple of years ago, the Podemos movement in Spain did not exist. There was no movement, no party. The Podemos movement was, again, it didn’t exist. And 2 years after they started that party, that movement, they toppled that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and they did it through Social Media.  They didn’t have any money. And so today it’s much easier to start a movement, to start a party because you have vehicles like Social Media platforms with which to move your message and to connect with voters. And one of the things we are seeing certainly throughout the world, including in Africa, is that even, and I’ve done work in Bangladesh where it’s a relatively poor country and yet Social Media is huge. People are increasingly at all levels to use Social Media platforms and I can communicate with them on those platforms like I never could before. So money is still important and that’s why part of my Campaign training and Management courses we talk about ways to figure out how to raise money in any country on earth and how do you do that, whether it’s in-country or whether it’s through the Diaspora in different countries, we’re going to figure out how to raise money.

But 15 years ago Violet, we couldn’t have said that. But today, we have the capacity to connect and communicate with voters for free in ways we never had before. And, I think that is the most exciting tool in world politics today is that for the longest time there were two ways to get elected. You either had the most money or you had the most votes, and today yes, money is still important, and yes, obviously you still need votes, but today we can actually communicate so effectively with these platforms without money. I think Social Media has opened the door to the opportunity at least to change politics as we know it, and I think that’s an exciting thing.

Violet: Now, Professor Jarding, is there such a thing as a perfect candidate in elections, and also, what should the voting public actually look for in a candidate?

Steve: Well it’s a great question Violet, but I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect candidate. As close to perfection as you can come would be a candidate that understands that public service is one, an unbelievably daunting responsibility, and fundamentally, a candidate who understands that service is not about those who serve, it’s about those who would be served. If a candidate understands that, if a candidate says ‘this isn’t about me, it’s not about my own power, my own title, my own party, my own ideology; it’s about the people I’m supposed to serve’; you’re’ going to have a pretty good politician if they understand that. So, I think it’s fundamental that the public demands, that voters demand that candidates for public office have to understand that responsibility.

And, too often around the world and frankly, in the United States, you know the United States claims to have cornered the market on representative democracy, but representative democracy is hard. You have to work at it all the time. You’ve got forces out there that want to subvert public service for their own good, for their own selfish interest. So you’ve got to fight, you’ve got to demand that politics and government works for people.  So, the best advice, the best candidates that I’ve worked with, and that I’ve tried to help mould, are the ones that understand one, the daunting responsibility of public service, but two, they have to understand service is not about them, it’s about the people that would be served. That is a fundamental core message to I think real leadership.  When we have leaders who understand that, they have the capacity to impact their countries and the world, like no other.

Violet: And the role of Social Media? …can you say a little bit more about that and the issue of fake news in campaigns.  To what extent do you think that this has an impact on results?

Steve: Well first of all Social Media, as I said, I think is huge. It is a great neutraliser. Anytime you can communicate with voters directly and not have to pay for it and anytime most vehicles you pay for, whether its television, radio or newspaper, these are expensive. But, in Social Media you don’t have to have to worry about that. That is fundamental, and as I said, I think it totally changes the dynamic of political campaigns as we know them.

Now the fake news issue is I think, maybe the worst thing. If Social Media is the best thing that has happened in politics, arguably, in modern times, and I believe that it is.  The capacity to communicate with voters directly and without cost has allowed new parties, new movements, new candidates to not only rise but to actually thrive. If that’s the best news, the worst news is fake news that’s out there. The idea that the public doesn’t know what to trust and there are entities out there, and you see it everywhere in the world, that are spewing this fake news and confusing voters and frankly, it’s turning voters off, making voters more cynical towards politics not less cynical, and, it’s making them not participate.

I believe there is nothing more important than the mainstream media, Violet, to your programme, to the things that you do, to call out fake news, to call out these horrible, I think parasites, on the political system, on society, and call them for what they are. They are frauds, they are lying to people and we have to expose them.  And I think in this day and age, it’s never been more important that we have a free and unfettered media such as you and your programme to expose these frauds for who they are, because the only way to defeat them is to show people how damaging and how horribly they are impacting our culture and our society.

Violet: You are touching on the issue of the mainstream media. What’s your advice to candidates, and indeed, the voting public in a country where there is a media blackout especially when it comes to opposing views? How would you advise a candidate who perhaps does not necessarily get enough coverage in the mainstream media?

Steve: Well, it’s a great question again. The good news Violet is that we have a vehicle today that we did not have before. 15 – 20 years ago, if you’d have asked that question I’d say there’s not much you can do if the mainstream media ignores you, if the media is somehow bought off or they’re corrupt, there’s not a lot you can do.  You can try to create your own alternative but there’s not a lot you can do. Today that’s different. Today, you truly can compete. And I would tell any party or candidate, create your own Social Media platforms. Make sure that you communicate regularly and constantly through those platforms to better connect with those voters. It is such an unbelievable power to be able to communicate with people.

As I said, I’ve done races in Indonesia, in Bangladesh. You know, these were not wealthy countries. I’ve done races in India where there is a lot of poverty and where people just are hurting. But in every one of those places, Social Media is available. People do have that platform and they are using those platforms. So my best advice would be, yes, try to raise the money, do what you have to do to in that area of political campaigns, but today, you have the capacity to compete. I’ll come back to the Podemos movement in Spain – you can compete without having money, and they did, they toppled the Prime Minister and they had no money. They did it all through Social Media. I’m working with a group in Brazil. I’ve been working there for 7 years, I’ve done training with 102 candidates there. They have 225 candidates running for local and parliamentary offices, and they are going to win a ton of offices.  I mean they’ve got the Governor of Brasilia, they’ve got the Governor of Rio de Janeiro and they are winning major offices because they are using Social Media as their main source of connecting to voters. The reason they have been able to go from totally nonexistent, you know, the entity 7 years ago was just an idea. And today they have 225 people running for these offices and they are getting elected. They’ve elected people over the last 7 years, and, it’s a movement that I think is going to re-create, if you will, Brazil as we know it and in a good way. They are going to have a better government, better understanding of the role and responsibilities of government because they have this Social Media platform.

Violet: But what was your experience in areas where there was no Social Media platforms? Like in our case, there are some areas in rural constituencies where people have no access to Social Media. So what would you advise in such situations?

Steve: Well there are. Although I can tell you Violet, it’s changing so rapidly. I just wrote a chapter in a book on political communication that was published last year. That suggests, the research suggests that by 2020 Social Media platforms will have tied, effectively, will have equalled Mainstream Media platforms – television, radio and newspaper.  And, by 2024 they’re going to double it. That is, twice as many people will be using Social Media platforms by 2024. I mean, that’s 6 years from now, twice as many people will be using it as they are mainstream tools. So even in rural areas around the world/rural areas in Africa where it’s relatively still new and not used as much, that’s changing so rapidly because it’s so inexpensive to get on these platforms. You’re going to see it in Africa, 10 years in Africa you’re going to see everybody is going to be using Social Media, absolutely. It doesn’t matter where you’re from in Africa, that is going to be the norm because that’s where the world is headed.

So my advice to people right now in areas where maybe it’s not as strong as it’s going to be, is, one, get on those platforms because people are using it more than you think.  But, two, yes, there are areas where people aren’t using it maybe as much as other areas, particularly rural or less affluent areas, whether it’s in Africa or anywhere in the world, you still have to go reach out to people. And, even there, you can do that.

I mean Prime Minister Modi in India famously effectively used holograms. He effectively took – it sounds kind of silly – but he would take a flat-bed kind of truck and go into every rural village and they would superimpose his speeches in 3D. And, it would literally look like he was on top of that flat-bed truck talking and he’d give speeches. That happened 4 years ago. The technology is even better for that. So it may be that it isn’t just that you have to have a smart phone or you have to have a device, He went to rural areas where people didn’t have things and he used modern technology to move his image and his message to people. That had never been done before, and those types of things are happening now all over the world.

Violet: Elections are generally toxic and polarised.  We know that that’s the terrain. Anything you can advise a country going through a complex transition?

Steve: Well they are toxic and the best advice I can give is that you have to; I’ll come back to what I’ve said; you have to understand that service isn’t about you. Yes, elections are tough, I tell my students all the time. I wish I could change the system. I wish the systems weren’t so dominated by money or maybe corruption in some places, but elections are, I believe, it’s kind of like if I used a metaphor that the election process is merely a vehicle to get me across the finish line. It’s not the end, it’s the means. But the end is, once I cross that finish line and I win how I best govern my people.  If I do that, I believe most politicians anywhere in the world are going to be successful.  It doesn’t mean it’s easy but elections are what they are, I can’t change them, I can’t necessarily make them pull all the money out of politics. I can’t take all the corruption out of it that’s there, but I have to understand.

I use the example in my class, that politics and governing is like two islands. There’s the political candidate island and there’s the elected official island. The political candidate island has no power. Those candidates they don’t have title they don’t have resources. In order to get power they have to swim across this water to get to the island as an elected official, and those waters are toxic. There are bad things in the water but you’ve got to do it, that’s politics. But, if you understand that politics is bigger than you are, that it is simply a means to get title and to get the capacity to effect change, then you can deal with it.

Violet: Thank you very much Professor Steve Jarding and all the best with your road show in Africa.

To contact the journalist email violet@violetgonda.com or follow @violetgonda on twitter

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