A tale of two election campaigns

  • Winning strategy: PLP leader David Burt celebrates victory on election night with his wife, Kristin (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

It really wasn’t so much a tale of “Two Bermudas”, to borrow one of the Progressive Labour Party’s political slogans.

Rather the story of the 2017 Bermuda election was, in large measure, a tale of two radically different approaches to election campaigning.

The One Bermuda Alliance ran a determinedly establishment campaign, one that was the political equivalent to fighting the next war with the outmoded tactics of the last one.

By way of contrast, the PLP campaign was far more unconventional, mobilising the energy and enthusiasm of a standing grassroots army of supporters through a combination of digital strategies and boots-on-the-ground organisational savvy.

The volunteer army in question had started to form in the months following the 2012 General Election, when the PLP was ousted from the Government benches for the first time in 14 years.

Although the 2017 election season in Bermuda technically only lasted from the dissolution of Parliament on June 8 until polling day on July 18, the reality is the PLP ran what amounted to a permanent campaign following its chastening 2012 defeat, with the last five weeks given over to what proved to be a superlative get-out-the-vote effort.

By spiritedly positioning itself at the intersection of social and traditional media in the aftermath of its 2012 loss, the party took an important early step when it came to rehabilitating its image, boosting its visibility and actively re-engaging with the electorate which had rejected it.

The PLP, in effect, become its own around-the-clock media outlet. And its communications strategy confirmed that in an increasingly digitally driven environment, the most effective way to get both attention and public backing is to use social media to control and communicate your own message and then to rely on traditional media to amplify your voice.

The core of the PLP’s message for the past 4½ years can be distilled down to a kind of identity politics. But it would be wrong-headed to view its appeal purely in terms of racial identity: the PLP’s messaging consistently spoke more to the politics of Bermudian identity, a Bermudian identity many believed to be growing increasing threatened in recent years.

With OBA economic stimulus and job creation policies always enjoying a broad measure of public support, the PLP generally avoided questioning its technical competence in these areas.

Rather the PLP focused remorselessly on what it characterised as the OBA’s rudimentary sense of social responsibility, its almost un-Bermudian nature if you will.

The OBA’s credibility deficit on this front may have been more perceived than real, but it’s a perception the then governing party did precious little to correct. It allowed itself to be repeatedly branded as insufficiently engaged with the community and insufficiently sensitive to the struggles thousands of Bermudians were contending with in the island’s distressed post-recessionary environment.

And with renewed economic growth taking longer to achieve than anyone would have liked, the PLP message resonated. By consistently portraying the OBA as both indifferent and unresponsive to the people it served and itself as the champion of those who saw the Bermuda they knew slipping away, the PLP soon created a robust and engaged online community of supporters whose enthusiasm began to translate into off-line participation and activism.

And this is where the PLP’s superior online presence was matched by an equally superior ground game.

While the new-fangled digital messaging was identifying and motivating likely voters, a lot of old-fashioned political legwork was going on in parallel to organise and mobilise them.

The results could be seen most vividly in a series of large-scale exercises in political theatre, mass rallies staged over issues ranging from the ancient grievance surrounding the development of the Tucker’s Town resort in the 1920s to an appallingly presented proposed overhaul of immigration regulations.

But, more consequentially in terms of the eventual election outcome, was the PLP community organising which took place on an altogether more intimate scale.

Direct and ongoing involvement with the electorate became something of a preoccupation for the PLP, taking the form of everything from door-knocking to constituency barbecues to hosting countless roundtable discussions on the issues of the day.

This non-stop, year-round canvassing, all heavily promoted and subsequently reported on social media, allowed a formidable PLP ground operation to begin to take shape within just a year or so of its 2012 debacle.

Almost from the outset, then, it was apparent a resurgent and re-assertive PLP was determined to use better organisation and increased elbow grease to help ensure more of its supporters went to the polls at the next election.

But just as its communications strategy consistently lagged behind the PLP’s, the OBA also never had anything remotely approaching its opponent’s permanent ground game in place.

The OBA leadership was criticised more than once by parliamentary backbenchers and grassroots party membership for its lackadaisical approach to constituency work and community engagement.

For instance, last year PLP MP Kim Wilson hosted a hugely successful workshop to help unemployed women find work. The event not only drew more than 150 participants, it couldn’t help but highlight a lack of similar OBA community outreach initiatives, feeding into the PLP narrative that the governing party was unresponsive and uncaring.

To add more than a little insult to injury, the workshop was held shortly after the Government had withdrawn its Pathways To Status initiative. That immigration reform package was, of course, so comically tone-deaf to public opinion it might have emerged full-blown from a PLP propaganda meme depicting the OBA as apathetic and detached from the social issues which most concerned Bermudians.

When an OBA MP challenged Cabinet as to why the party wasn’t engaged in similar efforts, connecting directly with the electorate about the matters which caused them the most anxiety and sleepless nights, she was effectively told to mind her place and, of course, her tongue.

Cabinet’s view was that it would reap the rewards of its long-term push to course-correct and reinvigorate the economy at the ballot box, that prudence and proficiency would prevail with only the minimum necessary amount of warmth and fuzziness added at the last minute. A kindly-bedside-manner approach to voters could wait until the next election campaign had started a year or so hence, when it could be rolled out with a slew of up-ticking economic indicators, some new candidates and a party platform pledging consistency and continuity.

The OBA leadership didn’t seem to understand the campaign in question had actually been under way since 2013. Nor did they grasp that for a party perceived to be technocratic and aloof, winning the minds of voters would not be sufficient to guarantee re-election: it was equally important to win their hearts, or at least to consistently attempt to do so.

While availing themselves of almost every recent advance in voter targeting techniques and marketing and communications strategies, the PLP’s strategists always remained very much aware that mounting a successful election campaign can still be as unpredictable a business as catching lightning in a bottle.

They recognised that the worn-through shoe leather of candidates and volunteers would be every bit as vital to the outcome as the latest in data analytics and digital gimmicks.

So the PLP never assumed it was on a guaranteed flight-path to victory on July 18, and certainly only the most optimistic (or delusional) of party number-crunchers would have dared predict the twin blowouts which ensued in terms of the popular vote and parliamentary seats won. But by so successfully marrying new technological capabilities with old-school political organising and the mechanics of voter turnout, the PLP did go into the election with some reason to believe this tale of two campaigns might well end in a best-of-times scenario for itself — and an absolutely worst-of-times nightmare for the OBA.