In 2007, Mark Penn was hailed as a visionary after the publication of his book Microtrends. Penn had the world at his feet – he was the closest adviser to Hilary Clinton, regarded as a slam-dunk to be the next President of the United States, and just fresh from helping Tony Blair’s Labour party to a third successive election win. The Economist dubbed him “the next Karl Rove”. Penn’s vision for successful politics was ruthless targeting of voters, not on broad lines, but finessing voters to the nth degree
Then Barack Obama happened. Clinton was defeated, and people in the Labour party remembered that Mark Penn had done nothing other than “get in the way”, in the words of one veteran from that campaign. And Microtrends were largely forgotten.
But perhaps instead of being wrong, Penn was simply too early. It was only a year before Penn’s book that Facebook opened itself up to people other than university students, changing the way that people get their news and information, if not forever, at least for the foreseeable future. In the EU referendum campaign, the demographic that both campaigns are worried about reaching are undecideds who get their news from just two places: Facebook and MailOnline. The Conservative victory in 2015 came on the back of intensely well-researched and well-targeted campaigning that saw the party convert a tiny increase in its 2010 vote-share to a commanding performance in the House of Commons (though the government only has a working majority of 12, its position is far stronger than that thanks to first-past-the-post, as I’ve written about before).
Labour aides, either seconded to or working directly with Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union, repeatedly express amazement at how far ahead the Conservatives were in getting their messages to the right voters, particularly on Facebook. “We always knew they had more money than us,” one told recently, “But they weren’t just spending more of it, they were playing a different game.”
And while when parties say they are worried about “social media”, journalists are often quick to think that means messing around on Twitter – a social network that has come out strongly for a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum, for Britain to switch to the Alternative Vote, and for Ed Miliband to become Prime Minister – but Facebook can make a real difference.
Not that Facebook hegemony is necessarily an indicator of victory. In focus groups in the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum, one set of undecided voters kept saying that they “wanted my Facebook back”, free of the days when everyone they knew was arguing about the costs and benefits of Scottish independence. Those voters overwhelmingly backed a No vote. It may be that Leave’s greater footprint – Stronger In has just over 350,000 Facebook likes, while Leave.EU has a little under 630,000 and Vote Leave’s national page has over 320,000 – is actually counter-productive.
But it highlights the growing difficulty in assessing how political campaigns are doing. Take Zac Goldsmith’s attempts to paint Sadiq Khan as “radical” and “divisive”. That approach may yet prove successful at the ballot box but in the future, similarly divisive campaigns will go unnoticed – not because the Goldsmith strategy will be abandoned, but because political campaigns will get better at hiding it.