In next election against populists, centrist forces already making mistakes

The new year brought new analyses and indices offering hope that populism declined, or at least stalled, in 2018. They cite as evidence Republican losses in the U.S. midterms, the Brexit’s implementation chaos, and populist losses in Poland.

As American campaign professionals and pollsters dedicated to fighting populism globally, we think these forecasts are premature. Populists still won major 2018 elections in Italy and Brazil. Rising populist leaders and their extreme campaign promises factor into every election where we work. The underlying crises that feed populism, especially surrounding immigration and globalization, are not going away.

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In 2019, the health of populism will be gauged partially by the success of its flag-bearers: President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE and those behind Brexit. On those metrics, populism could buckle under the weight of investigations, mismanagement and unrealistic, unfulfilled campaign promises.

But our attention is not on the United States or United Kingdom, but on the European Parliament (EP) elections in May. Here, populists are looking to bounce back.

EP elections are strange affairs. The minority of Europeans that does vote mostly does so to support or oppose their own country’s government, but results will be presented in the media as a continent-wide referendum on populism.

This is why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and French President Emmanuel Macron both characterized the election as a vote for or against Europe. It is why former White House adviser Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonJuan Williams: The new abnormal Catholic cardinal says Steve Bannon using monastery for political purposes How Russia exploited Trump's messy presidential transition MORE is coordinating nationalist campaigns from Brussels.

To declare victory, European centrists must quickly learn lessons from those who overcame populist tactics, including U.S. Democrats in 2018. Three adjustments are needed in particular over the next three months.

First, throughout the 2018 midterms, moderate Democrats remained laser-focused on health care, despite the tempting target of Trump’s outrageous comments and transgressions. European centrists have yet to refine their winning issue, although it is increasingly present: populism is hurting economies.  

With several years of populist governance behind Europe, the results of its economic policies are crystalizing. In Italy, populist policies have worsened the deficit and recently forced the country into recession. In the United Kingdom, Brexit uncertainty is dragging down stocks and investment, with consumer confidence in the economy at its lowest point since 2013. In the United States, Trump’s shutdown over the border wall slowed consumer spending and economic growth, with predictions that first-quarter economic growth dropped up to 0.13 percentage points for each week the shutdown lasted.

Centrists must be relentless and unified in emphasizing how quickly bad populist policies can hurt voters’ wallets while evidence is mounting.

Next, across Europe, centrists consistently present populism as on the rise, amplifying a false sense of success and momentum. Media outlets contribute by heightening populist legitimacy with extreme headlines such as this, and this.

These stories miss the mark. While voter support of populist leaders is rising, populist coalitions are only expected to win 25 percent of EP seats. Meanwhile, in the new Eurobarometer poll, a 67-24 percent majority agrees the rise of parties protesting against traditional political elites is a matter of concern.

In 2016, U.S. outlets gave Trump $2 billion in earned media, covering every incendiary comment and moral outrage. European centrists now are making the same mistake, highlighting the 25 percent who vote populist instead of the 75 percent who do not.

In practice, campaigns should engage in and promote traditional center-left and center-right debates on social protections and government’s role in business without legitimizing populist rants about culture and outsiders. For media, this means providing populists only the minutes they deserve based on their current success, and no more.

Third, European centrist leaders are treating the migration crisis as a past issue, while voters view it as a present crisis. Although migration rates have slowed, Eurobarometer still shows migration as the top concern in 26 of 28 European Union countries. Twice as many are concerned about immigration than any other issue.

When centrist campaigns present the migrant crisis as over, populists easily capitalize on what remains Europe’s greatest concern. If anything, the migration slowdown only provides breathing room for centrists to propose bold immigration solutions, such as smarter border security, better cooperation among like-minded countries within the EU, and more structural assistance to countries sending migrants. In Eurobarometer, sending assistance to migrant home countries is the preferred solution to the crisis among Europeans.

There may be reason to think populism is struggling globally, and European centrists could deliver the next blow. Their success in EP elections should provide insights and momentum for upcoming elections in the United States, but also in Poland, Croatia and elsewhere. To succeed, they must apply the lessons from the last ones.

Brian Paler is a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR), a Democratic polling and consulting firm. Carly Meyerson is an analyst at GQR. Both have worked on progressive campaigns throughout the United States, Europe and Africa.