Losing an election (without losing it)

How failure in expectation management can lead to losing an election (without actually losing it)

Most things in life are not absolute — victory and defeat included. It’s the objective you set that defines them both.

For that reason, ‘objective’ comes before anything else in communications. As New Labour’s communications lead Alastair Campbell highlights, there can’t be a right strategy without the right goals. Setting wrong objectives will affect how people react to your performance — it doesn’t matter if it’s in business or politics.

Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections of 14th May will quickly become an academic case study for this. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition challenger to autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, built the final weeks of his campaign on an unrealistically set over-promise: ‘Let’s finish this election in the first round.‘ He caged himself to a narrower-than-should-be definition of failure — and it’s haunting him now.  

Turkish presidential elections are similar to the French electoral system

If none of the candidates gets 50 per cent in the first round, the most popular two go to a second round. Hoping to appeal to citizens that were turning to fringe candidates, Sinan Ogan and Muharrem Ince, Kilicdaroglu’s campaign tried to highlight the uselessness of that vote — they were not going to get to the second round anyway.

As I wrote a week before the elections in the Portillo Moment (self-promotion: subscribe for weekly sensible takes like this on international politics), this was a poorly developed strategy since it did not provide an answer to these voters’ doubts and motivations in backing an unhopeful candidate. It assumed that speaking to their rationality (‘don’t waste your vote‘), was enough. However, these citizens knew this already — they had other reasons. Thus, Kilicdaroglu’s campaign tried ‘to fight a headache with a painkiller while the patient actually had a brain tumour.’ It didn’t work. Ogan received above 5% of the vote and became the kingmaker.

More importantly, this was also a poorly designed objective for the opposition. It defined what victory and defeat would mean for the opposition; it made the first round of an election of two rounds a zero-sum game. They were either winning in the first round or losing altogether. Polls were too close for the Kilicdaroglu camp to be this ambitious and not winning on May 14 gave away the psychological lead to Erdogan on a silver plate. Not only did they fail to ‘finish it in the first round‘, Kilicdaroglu did not even take the lead as Erdogan gained 49.5% of the vote and the parliamentary majority.

Similar mistakes were made on the election night as well

Kilicdaroglu’s campaign put the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, forward to combat the ‘regime’s misinformation.‘ Hence, without proper evidence, this duo had to claim that according to their data, Kilicdaroglu was winning. Once again, an over-promise set the expectation for the voters and, in the end, Kilicdaroglu’s underperformance became evident.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition’s voters are demanding answers now — some claiming that their votes were ‘stolen‘, others questioning the candidacy of Kilicdaroglu, not the most popular politician of the opposition camp, altogether. Even though Erdogan did not win the election in the first round, the opposition trapped itself in defeat. They managed to lose, while no one won.

Because of poorly set expectations (and of course poor results), Kilicdaroglu will fight an uphill second round on 28th May. Normally, his campaign would’ve focused on finding non-voters to increase turnout for his advantage or convincing Ogan voters to join the camp. However, now, Kilicdaroglu must make sure that he can re-mobilize his base first against the annihilation of morale. Since his base and other possible target demographics have radically different political priorities and values, engaging with three of these groups at the same time will be much tougher than what should’ve been the second round’s campaign objective.

All this reminds us that under-promising and over-delivering is always better than over-promising and under-delivering. This should be the first rule of expectation management. If you can’t manage expectations realistically, you can lose without actually losing. This is Kilicdaroglu’s tragedy now.

Featured image: Arnaud Jaegers / Unsplash.com

Derin Koçer, Political Consultant

Derin Kocer works as a political consultant and is a frequent commentator on politics and political communications. He writes sensible takes on international politics in his weekly newsletter, The Portillo Moment: derinkocer.substack.com

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