Was the #MarRef No campaign just a bad Karl Rove tribute act?

Earlier today I posted my thoughts on the Marriage Equality referendum and highlighted some of the key campaign components of the Yes Equality campaign which I believe helped it secure a historic overwhelmingly victory.

In this piece I will do the same with the No campaign though this time I do it from outside, rather than inside the campaign.

Last November the Yes Equality group invited me to make a presentation to their core campaign team on the lessons learned working with the No side during the Seanad Abolition campaign.

My Powerpoint pack had twelve slides, though most of the discussion focussed on two. The first of those looked at the inertia advantage any no side has in a referendum campaign. The main bullet point on that slide said:

• Irish voters are resistant to constitutional change

In other words voters will instinctively tend to vote No UNLESS they are convinced of the need for and benefits of the proposed change, especially where they had no deeply considered view on the issue in the first place.

The other slide, which I showed first, was more optimistic. It drew on research from Dr Jane Suiter and Dr Theresa Reidy showing that there is very little movement away from the Yes side where the issue is one that accords with the voters’ core fundamental values and attitudes.

Re running old, failed strategies
00000286Perhaps the biggest single error the No campaign made was that it did not develop a new campaign playbook. Instead it re-ran the old one from the Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s, failing to recognise that the public mind-set had moved on.

While the YES side was about discussions and empowering, the No sought to ordain. Its commentaries and messaging had all the hallmarks of sermons and and more closely resembled was being told what to do and think than campaigning.

This is not to say that they stuck with the campaign tactics of the era, far from it. The No side saw the power of social media and did seek to use the platforms – the problem was that they went to quantity over quality and presumed that the bulk messaging that may work in the USA doesn’t play here.

No side gambled on a low turnout?
While the No side clearly understood the point about voters being resistant to constitutional change, they made the mistake of thinking that was all there was to it. The no side mistake seemed to think that all they had to do was raise awkward questions and bring in extraneous matters and the win was in the bag. The No side rarely seemed to stray beyond that simple flawed strategy.

It had a definitive tactical advantage from the outset, but rather than capitalising on that – it relied on it. From the outside it looks like they gambled on a low turn-out and their capacity to mobilise their forces and get their big wedge of core voters out to vote on the day.

This was a big mistake as their messaging and postering campaigns were so shrill and pointed that they only served to incense the middle ground (esp single parent families) and drove up turnout on the other side.

Addressing the wrong audience – enter Karl Rove
Karl_RovePerhaps as a consequence of this gamble on a lower turnout, the No side also seemed to run a messaging campaign that was primarily aimed at voters it already had in the bag and never reached much beyond the boundaries of its own minority.

Was this an Iona reworking of 2004 Karl Rove (pictured) base strategy: do not put so much effort into convincing traditional swing voters in the middle, but instead look to the disaffected voters on your (right) fringe and mobilise them to come out in bigger number?

The logic of this approach in the American context is that you get a bigger bang for your buck. The competition for the people on your outer fringe is obviously less than it is for those in play in the middle. These people feel disaffected – your role is to excite and mobilise them and get them voting in bigger numbers.

The mistake is that the Rove base strategy is not only about base motivation. To quote Matthew Dowd, the Chief campaign strategist on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign:

“We didn’t say, Base motivation is what we’re going to do, and that’s all we’re doing. We said, Both are important…”

The No side did.

Though it tried to label itself as the underdog it statistically was the No campaign still looked and sounded like a Dublin based middle class elite speaking to us from the late 1980s. The absence of a genuine popular ground campaign compounded this impression. This perhaps helps to explain the high turnouts and higher yes votes in working class areas.

The no side, despite all its resources, had no ground campaign, just an air war and it fought that with a fleet of clapped out turbo props and recycled stukas

GerIt also failed to produce many unexpected No voices – its only real effort in that regard, producing Ger Brennan (pictured) was a good one despite Ger’s admittedly faltering Morning Ireland interview. He came across as sincere and genuine, qualities that non committed /soft yes voters did not associate with other no voices.

The No campaign possibly thought it had a trump card in the unexpected voices game with its two articulate gay voices – but it was a card they way over played.

They failed to see that continually parading these two voices only served to give the impression that they were the only gay people they could produce on their side. Not only that they were male, middle class 40+ (being kind here) and the products of an Irish society that had treated them unkindly – a society and attitude the Yes side were more credible as seeking to banish to history.

The victim-hood card.
Possibly one of the No sides biggest strategic errors was it’s playing of the victim-hood card. It is not that it was wrong to try to play it, but rather that it played it so unconvincingly.

It is hard to claim to be the David to the other sides Goliath when their Goliath looks young, friendly and speaks quietly. The No side bleating that it was being attacked by the Yes campaign had diminished credibility when viewed alongside the scurrilous things its activists were saying on posters and leaflets (example below).


Perhaps this was another example of an American campaign tactic being transferred across the Atlantic and used badly – once again the trick comes from the Karl Rove playbook, in this case it involves projecting your side’s weaknesses on to your opponents.

The No side protests about Yes sided campaign financing is an excellent case in point. The No campaign frequently proclaimed its own penury – but that’s a hard case to make when you are spending (at least) over half million euros (see my blog) on postering alone and the evidence is there for all to see.

It is also unwise to claim your YouTube clips have been viewed 680,000 times when those are paid pre-roll ads (i.e. the clips you are forced to watch for 5 – 10 secs before the YouTube video you wished to watch is played). These pre-roll ads are not cheap – so it is not wise to give the other side a figure to use when calculating what you spent.


Another element of this victim-hood, which the No side continues to play even after the campaign, is its cry that it had no political parties on its side.

Clearly this is true, but this fact should have been a fore warning of the degree to which it was on the wrong side of the issue, not a cause for complaint.

Its ongoing complaint that no political party now speaks for the 730,000 plus voters who voted no misses a number of important points: including the fact that the no cohort is no more a homogeneous grouping than the Yes side and that voters are more motivated by bread and butter issues in general elections than they are by social ones.

Though Prof Gary Murphy makes the point much better than I could…


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