By Daniel Smith
An important point in the maturation of any political strategist or government relations advisor is accepting that election results are very difficult to predict.
As Thomas Harris writes in Imperium, A Novel of Ancient Rome, you can always spot a fool, for he is the one who will tell you he knows who is going to win an election.
What makes elections difficult to predict is that many election outcomes have all the qualities of what have become known as ‘Black Swan’ events.
In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s masterpiece, The Black Swan, the author outlines three qualities of such highly improbable events. These are that they are unpredictable (few people predicted them), they carry massive impacts, and, after the fact, explanations are concocted that make them appear less random, and more predictable, than they actually were.
Taleb cites examples of positive and negative Black Swan events as the rise of the Internet and the development of the personal computer, World War 1, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Global Financial Crisis would also fit the bill.
The Black Swan model also fits many of the (free) election results we have seen in recent years. It fits Bill Shorten’s almost defeat of Malcolm Turnbull in 2016, the Brexit referendum or Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the same year. It fits Jeremy Corbyn taking Theresa May’s majority in the 2017 British election, and possibly Boris Johnson’s thumping of Corbyn in 2019 as well. It also fits with Scott Morrison’s ‘miracle’ victory over Shorten in last year’s federal election.
In each of these contests, very few people predicted the result, the outcomes had huge domestic and/or geopolitical consequences, and narratives were constructed – by both the winners and the losers – to rationalise the outcomes.
Taleb attributes the human desire to construct narratives about past events as one of the biggest contributors to our blindness to future Black Swan events, election outcomes included. Confirmation bias leads us to develop narratives that fit with our own world view or previous positions, then look for evidence to support the narratives we have developed.
Take Shorten and Corbyn, as examples. The narrative flowing out of their surprisingly strong showings in 2016 and 2017, respectively, was that they had tapped into community angst over inequality and other social injustices. This led to them doubling down on their platforms, putting forward even stronger redistributive policies. Despite high expectations of victory, both were defeated in 2019, in results that many, again, failed to predict. In Shorten's case right up until the results were announced, and for Corbyn until Boris Johnson assumed control of the Conservatives.
But what if the narrative that flowed from Shorten and Corbyn’s first attempts at becoming Prime Minister was that their opponents’ political ineptitude was the biggest factor in their relative success? Malcolm Turnbull, in having blown his political capital by doing nothing in the months following his elevation to the Liberal leadership, then refusing to run negative campaign ads targeting Shorten. Theresa May, who called an early election for no reason and then promised to take away free milk from British school children in her election manifesto.
While such a narrative wouldn’t have confirmed the merits of the policies they had taken to their respective elections, if it had been part of the takeaway for Shorten and Corbyn, perhaps they wouldn’t have tried to refight their earlier elections in 2019. Instead, they might have developed new strategies and approaches that reflected the social and economic situations at the time, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their new opponents, the much more politically adept Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson.
US President Donald Trump is going through a similar journey at present. The narrative flowing from Trump’s surprise victory over Clinton in 2016 was that a surge of support in white working-class voters swept Trump to a ‘massive’ win in the electoral college.
An alternative narrative is that, while Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton, he narrowly eked out a win in the electoral college, with his victory dependent not only on increased support from non-college educated white voters, but also on low turnout from African American voters and college educated Republicans reluctantly voting for him over the even more odious (to them) Clinton.
Of course, this narrative doesn’t confirm Trump’s view of himself or the world. But, if he had incorporated this thinking into his 2016 takeout, perhaps he would have made more of an effort to expand his supporter base over the past four years, instead of doubling down on the racially divisive approach that he believes won him white working-class support in the first place.
Will Trump be defeated as he seeks re-election in November. Who knows? Right now, the signs don’t look good for him, but anything could happen between now and then. That is the nature of Black Swan events.
For those of us interested in the political process, the acceptance of elections as Black Swan events carries a number of implications.
For political strategists, it means being clear headed and objective about the reasons for past successes and failures. It means not taking anything for granted about future elections, fighting them with strategies developed for the conditions and opponents of the day.
For those who engage with government, it means not making assumptions about election outcomes, instead preparing for any possibility by engaging with all sides of politics to develop relationships and a shared understanding of policy.
A mature political strategist or government relations advisor will be highly cautious in predicting election outcomes but will have a lot to say about how you shape outcomes or policies and best position yourself for any version of the future.