In the past decades it has been customary for U.S. political consultants to practice their trade in Europe. There are hundreds of examples of Americans advising European campaigns beginning with Joe Napolitan in the late 1960s. But, there were few, if any, Europeans who played a major role in a major U.S. campaign.
There have certainly been campaigns in which Europeans were more than observers—the Brits in the 1992 Clinton campaign come to mind—but none have been inside the final decision-making chambers. The Trump campaign was different in that regard thanks to the involvement of the British data and targeting firm Cambridge Analytica.
But perhaps more important than simply retaining a European consulting firm, Donald Trump adopted multiple elements of European campaigns. Indeed, Trump ran a very European campaign.
Strangely, in a nation where successful campaigns are marked by paid television advertising, Trump, whose own brand was burnished on prime-time television, used very little paid TV. Much like European campaigns where TV advertising is often limited, if it exists at all, Donald Trump relied on communications through the non-broadcast media, both traditional and social.
In doing so, Donald Trump employed a very truncated messaging frame. Much like contemporary political leaders in Europe, the messaging was neither complex nor policy oriented. Moreover, it was highly sloganistic. Why? In a 30 second TV spot, a campaign is able to communicate in as many as 76 words. Try putting 76 words on billboards or posters—common communication vehicles in Europe. It won't work.
There are multiple repercussions of sloganistic campaign messaging. Foremost is the lack of a need for expansive policy declarations. Recently European populists have eschewed the party policy manifesto emblazoned in eight-point type across two full pages of a newspaper that characterized traditional political party communications. No clearer example of this were the policy sections of the websites of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Clinton had multiple pages on specific policies on multiple issues and in depth explanations of her positions. Donald Trump's website had few policy details on very few policies.
Such limitations in campaign messaging and policies lend themselves easily to today's campaign communications on Twitter and other social media platforms. However, some might argue that the sloganistic messaging of modern European campaigns, and Donald Trump, are precisely a response to the advent of the 140-character limit of Twitter. Did Twitter create Donald Trump or did Trump simply maximize Twitter's capabilities?
Part of the success of the Trump and European leadership campaigns is in the ubiquitous nature of social media. It is available broadly on multiple platforms which allows populist politicians to circumvent the former gatekeepers of news and information—traditional media—to reach highly targeted voters with the news specifically targeted to them.
The result is an authenticity to the communications that have been the hallmark of European populist leadership for many years. The communications from the leaders are short, emotional and speak directly to the concerns of the target audience in spontaneous, real-time, on-message bursts.
But any campaign needs verification of the efficacy of the new communication vehicle and the campaign messaging. In the U.S., it is often in the amount of money raised for a campaign ("We raised $30 million in small donors last quarter"), but in Europe it can be in the size of the crowds and in the frequency of rallies.
Taking directly from the European playbook, the Trump campaign often referenced the size of a crowd, but the cornerstone of his campaign schedule, tour in European terms, were the rallies. He would do five rallies in a day in different media markets. These were not simple appearances at a TV studio or newspaper editorial boards or visits to local factories. These were major rallies in every targeted state.
This allowed Trump, like his European counterparts, to dominate media, both traditional and non-traditional, by guaranteeing an appearance that not only showed large numbers of supporters but allowed him to control the messaging, and create news.
Ultimately, one of the hallmarks of European campaigns is the targeting of a very small segment of the voter population. With multiple parties, the share of the voter population can be very small. Some parties fight over one or two percentage points of the voting population in order to meet minimum requirements to obtain seats in a parliament. Larger parties have a similar problem; there are few persuadable or floating voters in a multi-party system.
Precise targeting is required which is precisely what the Trump campaign did on a mega-level and on a micro level. On the mega level, the Trump campaign focused their efforts on the five states (Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) they needed to win to capture the presidency. They expended little if any effort elsewhere. His campaign schedule in the last month had Trump rarely appearing in any state other than those five. On the micro level, the campaign’s communications were highly targeted toward older white voters. There was little effort to appeal to minority groups or younger voters.
Finally, in one of the most European of all elements of the campaign; in the end, sex didn't matter. For many years, European candidates have succeeded despite having what most Americans would perceive as tawdry romantic entanglements. Numerous European elected officials have had public divorces, affairs, love triangles but these have had limited impact on the vote. Voters saw little connection between an individual's personal life and his or her ability to govern.
The Billy Bush video incident put treatment of women and sex in the forefront of the Trump campaign. Voters had to make a decision whether Donald Trump's personal behavior and treatment of women disqualified him to be president. The voters in the key states made the decision.
European politics has arrived in the States.
Rick Ridder is a former presidential campaign manager and senior consultant for five other presidential campaigns. Internationally, he has worked in 20 countries including the successful campaigns of four heads of state.