When Hillary Clinton stepped down after four years as the US Secretary of State, she had a 69% approval rating. It was an unparalleled achievement. In her first campaign for the US Senate she won in Democratic New York by just 55%; six years later she won by 67%. (An internal growth of 20%.)
Which means that this was a woman who got results in government. She knew how to get things done, for her country, her constituents and her voters. But when it came to the 2016 US presidential race she only managed to scrape to a loss, despite winning the majority vote. Why is that?
There were many factors outside her control – historical voting trends, the false email scandal, the baseless Benghazi scandal, WikiLeaks, the Russians/ Facebook/Cambridge Analytica, FBI Director James Comey – and of course the instinctive, Donald Trump’s bluster & fearmongering.
But at the base she could not manage to invigorate and convince enough undecided voters to get out to the polls and support her. She admits she is not a natural campaigner, and her campaign message was not simple enough, or inspiring or directed at “new voters”. It preached to the converted.
Watching Mmusi Maimane’s speech at the DA Congress this weekend reminded me of a Clinton rally. The party faithful were praised (which is great), but any potential voters who watched were not shown a clear way into the party.
Like Clinton, the DA is way ahead of the competition when it comes to delivery. They get real results in government. Corruption is the cancer which is crippling our country, but in the Western Cape the DA has effectively killed corruption. Unemployment is the heaviest chain that keeps this country from gaining forward momentum. As unemployment grows nationally, it continues to drop in the Western Cape. Simply stated, the DA delivers clean government and job creation.
And with those two essentials the other massive social problems we face are moved from a spiral of destruction into a positive cycle. Equal Education improves, quality healthcare improves, widespread service delivery improves, land redistribution succeeds, there are more houses and title deeds delivered, safety improves, and financial prudence flourishes. And you don’t have to take my word for it, nor do you have to accept the DA’s assertions – ask the Auditor General or Stats SA.
The DA needs to get that message of achievement out to potential voters as effectively as they govern. And the mistakes of the Clinton campaign give them a clear road map of what not to do.
Do not insult opposition voters (as with Hillary’s basket of deplorables comment). There are potential DA votes in opposition ranks. You can attack an opponent but not in a way that attacks their supporters.
Keep it simple and clear. Clinton would lose people in endless policy details – voters want to know what you are going to do, not the confusing details of how you do it. I don’t expect my electrician to explain how he is fixing a problem – I need him to fix the problem, and the same goes for politics.
Learn the smart message. For instance, when it came to discussion about the loss of coal /oil /gas industry jobs in a changing and greening economy Clinton got bogged down in clumsy verbiage. By contrast France’s Emmanuelle Macron found the perfect reply to the same question:
“Jobs inevitably change, we have to take care of the people. Prepare those people who will need a new job in a new economy.”
Trump managed to label Clinton as Crooked Hillary, and she could not shake off that label. She never effectively dealt with it, confronted it, or refuted it successfully. The DA is going to face the “white party” and “white puppet label” – it is inevitable, though statistically inaccurate.
They need to calmly grab that sword by the blade and turn it around. “Racism succeeds because of corruption: we kill corruption and so we kill racism.”
They have to find their key messages and stick to them. Repetition – over and over and over and over:
We Kill Corruption (ANC).
We deliver More and We deliver Better (DA).
Julius Mugabe – a Zimbabwean disaster in waiting (EFF).
As for the visual messaging at the congress itself, thank heavens for the rainbow nation of South African attendees. On stage, Mmusi Maimane was the only tiny dot of black in a sea of blue, with lots of white detail, a touch of red, and two South African flags, but why was there no black? In terms of basic “voter priming:” that is not helpful. It was a grand-looking but generic political stage from any Western liberal rally, when it should have been a visual statement that screamed “South Africa”.
And they can avoid simple errors. By making the podium a nice glossy blue it shone like a distracting laser on TV. It was a rookie mistake. Anything shiny on stage is a problem for cameras under lights. This is not their first campaign, they should know better.
And Maimane himself? At his best moments he was in soaring form. He had an easy and unending multilingualism; the warmth and obvious pride of his connection to the delegates from around the country was excellent, and he had some fine spells of soaring Gospel Revival Rhetoric.
The one policy he managed to articulate convincingly was that the DA was the party of diversity. He tried to tackle the race issue but he still needs to find a simple way to squash that attack convincingly without losing control.
But when he had to get down to the brass tacks of facts and policy and read the autocue he lost his power. He needed to slow down, and he needed to alter his Gospel speech pattern. By wanting to keep the whole speech “fresh” he often inserted ad libs (“in fact” and “I want to say”), which would make him trip over his tongue and stumble.
He also chose to quote three people in his speech, Chinua Achebe, Martin Luther King and Michele Obama. Where were the South African quotes? He was reaching out to the audience in the room, and connecting emotionally, but they are already connected. The country of potential voters wants to see a President-in-Waiting – for all of South Africa.
His wife Natalie gave more insight into Maimane’s political journey than he gave himself. Her steady, calm, controlled conviction was a lesson for him. She stripped away the “performance” and showed us a man that a woman (and a nation) could trust and respect. He has to show us the same thing. Calm. Thought. Strength. Conviction. Resolution. Steadiness.
Herman Mashaba spoke with an unsmiling, unvarnished truth, proving that simplicity is power. It might not have had the flourish of John Steenhuizen’s effervescent eloquence, which made for great excitement, but on the TV screen Mashaba was real and convincing.
Solly Msimanga’s humble and naive delivery was not the act of someone out to impress – its lack of pretention was what made it so appealing.
Bonginkosi Madikizela nailed the DA delivery track record in the Western Cape but in an agitated and erratic way.
The congress is now over and all the leaders have spoken, but it is the DA grassroots activists who are going to win or lose this election for the DA. They need to be armed with tools, skills and messages to persuade the unconvinced: these big events need to prime voters so that they are open to the message that the grassroots campaigners will be spreading.
If Maimane is going to talk about opposition “lies and deception”, then he has to talk about the details of what those lies are and the strategy of how the DA is going to counter them. The congress proved that the crowd is ready for the fight – but they need tools to win the battle. A million unarmed warriors cannot win.
There was a lot of angry talk about the tens of millions of South Africans suffering from current failures and abuses, which is accurate. But that has to be balanced with clear direction and messages on how to channel that anger to maximise results.
At the end of his speech, the pyros burst out of the floor, and the roof rained down confetti – and the crowd leapt to their feet. It was a great adrenaline burst in the room, but that crowd has to work for the next year, and they are going to need more than adrenaline burnout. They probably would have been far better served to have had actual pamphlets and messages rain down on them that they could take away and use the next day on the most important people, who were not at that congress. The potential voter.
Yes, this was a party congress, but it was also the launch of an election campaign. The speech worked on one level but not on the other. Still, it gives the DA an opportunity to learn from what they left out. The DA has a difficult campaign ahead, they need to convince millions of black South Africans to trust them – and they need to use every opportunity to make that job easier. DM