American consultants abroad

It’s a frequently asked question. “What can Americans contribute to political campaigns in countries we know far less well than do the natives?”

We get good at campaigns because we get lots of practice. Malcolm Gladwell argued that real expertise requires some 10,000 hours on task. With big elections almost every year, whether for mayor, governor, Senate or House, American consultants get vastly more time on task than those who work in parliamentary systems with one election every four or five years.

Of course, every country, every state and every election is unique. Our job is to know what travels and to understand what doesn’t. And the learning goes both ways — lessons learned overseas can be just as applicable here. 

Having just finished a year as the strategist and pollster for Yesh Atid in Israel, the party led by Yair Lapid, which went from zero seats in the Knesset to the country’s second largest party in one night, I’ve been thinking about lessons learned there that apply here. A few follow:

Candidates count: Here we generally have one candidate at a time. In Israel, where the allocation of parliamentary seats is based on proportional representation in a single nationwide election, we were blessed with 20 outstanding candidates. From the leader, Lapid, on down, they were hardworking, intelligent and empathetic leaders. Consultants like to think that we matter, but in the end candidates make the real difference, as they did for Yesh Atid.

Diversity is a strength: Americans might not see diversity in a Jewish state, but Yair Lapid brought together one of the most diverse tickets in Israel’s history and earned the support of voters from a wide variety of backgrounds. The party’s list included secular individuals along with a modern orthodox rabbi and an ultra-orthodox rabbi. It had more women (half) than any party list in the country’s history. It had individuals who emigrated from Ethiopia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Morocco and the U.S., as well as native-born Israelis; antiterrorism experts, an advocate for the disabled, a children’s advocate and an Olympic judo champion; a former police commander and several writers. Parties that represented a single sector or demographic group did less well.

Test the conventional wisdom: The received wisdom in Israel is that “serious” political parties communicate with billboards (TV/radio advertising cannot be purchased) and the Internet is worthless as a vehicle of communication. Israel’s campaign finance laws strictly limit spending based on the number of seats a party has in the current Knesset and allow new parties very little spending. Yesh Atid could have either posted billboards and transit ads or a few weeks of Internet ads. Challenging the conventional wisdom, we chose the Internet, eschewed the billboards — and the party won big.

Focus and repetition are key: Politicians everywhere tire of saying the same thing. After all, they have lots of important matters to discuss and they already delivered the old message; isn’t it time for something new? Rarely. If there’s one lesson professional campaigners have learned, it is that for voters to hear you, you have to say it over and over and over again. In fact, just about the time candidates become physically ill from repeating the same thing, over and over and over again, just about then voters are beginning to hear that someone is trying to say something to them.

Trust the research, stick to the strategy: Every campaign hits highs and lows — and when the lows arrive, some are willing to set aside the research and adopt some new strategy to save the day. There were days when public polls said (wrongly) that Yesh Atid would get just seven or eight seats. The pressure to abandon the strategy was strong. But the party leadership and candidates were stronger, resisted the pressure and trusted the course they had set.

It all paid off — handsomely.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.