WASHINGTON, D.C. — In Thursday’s UK elections, former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who worked with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, came out on top. But that meant David Axelrod, once Obama’s senior political guru and in the UK elections an adviser to Labour’s Ed Miliband, faced a stunning defeat.
Axelrod is not the only former Obama campaign strategist to have fallen short in contests abroad, despite peddling Obama-esque messages of hope and change and using many of the same organizational strategies that drove the American candidate to his unexpected White House win.
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election delivered a rebuke to Obama’s former national field director, Jeremy Bird, who was advising a group working to unseat the prime minister. And Democratic pollster Mark Mellman consulted for the Israeli centrist Yesh Atid party only to see its representation in the Legislature cut nearly in half.
Strategists from both parties often dabble in international elections during their off year as a way to make an extra buck and fill the time between elections.
Those who have worked on races abroad said that while the task and message may remain the same worldwide — “You’re always going to focus on the future, on change, on hope,” said Democratic strategist James Carville — the circumstances vary widely from country to country, making it difficult to use a one-size-fits-all approach to electioneering.
“You talk about 50 shades of gray? There’s 100 shades of democracy,” Carville said. “Political parties mean — in different parts of the world — they mean very different things.”
Carville should know; he said he’s consulted in 22 different countries, and that they all came with unique challenges.
Chalk some of this up to cultural gaps
First, there’s the language barrier. Then, as Democratic strategist Tad Devine — another American strategist who has consulted abroad — noted, there are cultural differences.
“You will never understand as much about their country as they do,” Devine said. “Sometimes, the differences are cultural — different words sometimes mean different things.”
There are also practical constraints that can make it impossible to implement many of the tried-and-true data techniques in other countries. Some nations have restrictive privacy laws that make it impossible for campaigns to acquire all the information they’d need to target voters precisely. And most nations’ politics aren’t as flush with cash, putting some of the more expensive techniques out of reach.
Bird reportedly implemented many of the same organizational and data tactics in Israel that he used during Obama’s re-election campaign, but ultimately fell short. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Paul Begala, another Democratic strategist, who advised Israeli Labor leader Isaac Herzog, pointed to the condensed time frame for elections there as partly to blame.
“The short duration of campaigns in countries like Israel and the UK limits how much data you can compile, as well as the number of times you can contact voters,” he said. Elections run about three months in Israel and six weeks in the UK.
Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and longtime Labour Party adviser, agreed.
“The data techniques are greatly overrated in their effectiveness outside of the U.S.,” he said.
But in the UK election, the issue for the Labour Party wasn’t a failure of data or technology, Greenberg argued — it was the politics of division used by Conservatives.
“The Conservatives did well in running as an anti-immigration, anti-Europe and anti-Scots party,” he said.
That strategy, Greenberg contended, might provide Republicans in the United States with a blueprint for a similar showing in 2016.
“The Republican Party is an anti-immigration party,” he said. “They may look at how, in the end, the Conservatives were able to grow their vote by polarizing around the anti-Scottish sentiment in the UK.”
Faulted for playing both sides of the fence
Greenberg defended Axelrod’s performance, arguing that his role — “mostly to refine the message, to focus on that core issue of what’s facing working people” was actually “pretty effective.” He pointed out that Miliband’s popularity improved by the end of the election.
But his comments for Messina, who has been tapped to run a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC, were much harsher.
“My problem with Messina is crossing the line and working for the conservatives who run an anti-immigration campaign,” he said. “I don’t understand how you go and work for progressives in the states, and go and work for a conservative party in Britain.”
Greenberg’s comments hinted at the tension between Messina and Axelrod that lent the UK election a more personal tone for the two ex-allies. He pointedly declined to comment when asked if that tension had contributed to Axelrod’s decision to work on the race.
But for all the difficulties — and all the losses — foreign elections maintain an allure for powerhouse strategists from both major American parties.
Carville said he doesn’t consult overseas much anymore but that when he did, he did so because “it’s fun.”
“You never go anywhere that you don’t come back with something,” he said. “Hopefully a check — but you come back with some knowledge too.”