In June of 2016, Britain voted to leave the EU. Brexit came as a surprise, given all recent polls had indicated a clear victory for remainers. The campaign to stay had huge structural advantages: status quo bias, the support of the government, vast financial resources, the ability to set the rules and choose timing of the vote. So how did the leave campaign win? As Cummings, who ran the campaign, says “It is hard to overstate the relative importance in campaigns of message over resources”.
Rather than hiring a big advertising agency to produce posters, the campaign tested thousands of digital ads to see what messaging was most effective. The campaign implemented the winning message in ~125 million leaflets and nearly a billion targeted digital adverts. This was all overseen by a data science team, rather than a traditional political campaign planning structure. Completely uncoventionally for a political campaign (though not unusual in the startup world), the team decided to do the following:
“1) hire extremely smart physicists to consider everything from first principles,
2) put almost all our money into digital (~98%),
3) hold the vast majority of our budget back and drop it all right at the end with money spent on those adverts that experiments had shown were most effective”
Their theme of ‘take back control’ played on 3 big, powerful forces – the immigration crisis, the financial crisis, and the euro crisis – all of which had diminished the public’s faith in institutions. Remaining in the EU meant trusting faceless bureaucrats in Brussels to decide what’s best. The Leave campaign had found a psychologically compelling alternative, and plastered it on the side of a bus: “we send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS (National Health Service) instead”. The message resonated with a British public who had been left behind economically and culturally for so long, and had accumulated a lot of contempt for elites from the 2008 financial crisis. These are essentially the same prevailing forces that conspired to elect Trump to office in 2016.
From the beginning of the campaign to the outcome 9 months later, those strongly voting for leaving the EU had increased from 33% to 44%. In the end the vote was won by 600,000 people: just 1% of registered voters. The result was not inevitable, as those afterwards attempted to say in rewriting the history of what happened. It was a close run thing, where only maniacal focus on finding the right messaging tipped the balance. The previous anti-immigration lobby in the UK had achieved close to nothing in prior to the campaign, as they appealed to the 10% of the populace who were radical on immigration, rather than paying attention to what millions of normal people thought.
Cummings claims that finding this effective message was easy: “all I really did was listen”. The difficulty was in protecting his team from interfering politicians, who demanded endless meetings to feel important, wasting the team’s time. Cummings had to protect the team from distractions, and from being forced to run politicians’ own pet messages like “go global”, which would, by his estimations, have lost them hundreds of thousands of votes alone. Having Boris Johnson – later elected as Prime Minister – dominating the narrative meant less airtime for extremists like Nigel Farage, who would have turned off the middle class. As we know from Girardian Mimetics, who transmits a message is sometimes as important as what is being transmitted.
As Cummings laments, most people are “much more comfortable with failing conventionally than risking the social stigma of behaving unconventionally”. The core team behind the campaign were willing to risk looking stupid to win, which is a weakness elites always have: they’re rather lose than adopt an effective message that affects their social life. Depending on your moral view of Brexit, take this as motivation or a warning: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has” – Margaret Mead.