What does it take to win elections?

What does it take to win elections? What can liberals learn from each other? What is the foundation of a successful election campaign? These questions guided a group of 15 dedicated professional campaigners as they honed their skills at two interactive workshops organized by ELF, the political foundation of the ALDE Party, with the support of FNF, the Dutch Stichting IDI and Austrian think-tank NEOS Lab. Participants were representatives of the liberal parties FDP (Germany), D66 (Netherlands) and NEOS (Austria) and they each undertook to follow both workshops, building a strong network and learning from each other’s successes and failures.

Rise like the phoenix

Historically, parties rise and fall. Today one of the most successful parties in the Netherlands, D66, has gone from strength to strength both at European, national and local elections. However, in 2006 the party was one vote away from disbanding entirely. Since then it re-invented itself by sharpening its profile and limiting its focus to one main theme; education. D66 is now one of the recognized political voices on education in The Netherlands and a large part of its success is due to this credibility. The party used the education issue to reach its clearly defined voter group, at the expense of running more general election campaigns. Campaigners from D66 also described a professionalization of their campaign activities since 2006, with local and regional campaign managers autonomously running the campaigns, allowing the candidates to focus their undivided attention on being the outward face of the party. The story of D66 is an encouraging one for those liberal parties which currently find themselves in dire straits.

News from Austria

Beginning in 2013, NEOS – Das neue Österreich swept onto the scene of Austrian politics. The party, originating as a civic movement, prided itself on staying close to its base and wanting to do politics differently. Since then NEOS has won seats in the Austrian and European Parliaments, and with its latest win in Vienna, is also represented in that city’s legislature. NEOS has pioneered a fresh image including creative ways of organizing election stands. In Vienna it has taken up the fight against corruption, a topic it has won considerable ownership of. NEOS is currently working to consolidate its structures and ensure that it is in fighting form for the next elections.

It’s also about funds

In order to run professional campaigns, parties normally also have to rely on a measure of fundraising. Fundraising can both entail crowdfunding, but also larger donations. For liberal parties it is important that any donations received are accepted in a way transparent to the voter. NEOS has made good experiences with crowdfunding as a way to bring in its members in a fun fundraiser. Fund-raising can also be used to garner media attention around your campaign message, something NEOS succeeded with when they made a virtual puzzle featuring the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, H.C. Strache. The public could buy pieces of the puzzle to “remove Strache”.

Working with data

Perhaps the main take-away from the two workshops was learning how to work with data collection and analysis to understand the needs and profile of your potential voter. UK LibDems data expert Jake Holland taught participants how gathering data at every corner and filtering it into analytical software allows you to create a layered communication campaign. Being able to tailor which message is filtered to which voter means you can inform voters of the issues relevant to them. Just as for students focusing on higher education makes sense, for pensioners looking at pension system reform might be the most relevant message.

A party thrives on membership and volunteers

Parties thrive on a large and inclusive membership. In many cases it is an important way of funding party-activities, but more importantly, members form the backbone of any party and it is through them that ideas flow. To attract members, Annika Arras from the Reform Party in Estonia, explained their party membership drives. They use fun campaigns which make it clear what would-be members could gain from membership. She emphasized the importance of the party’s top politicians spending time with the rank and file of the party and how parties remain relevant when they offer a broad number of activities for different membership groups. In the case of the Reform Party, they offer everything from Film to Senior Clubs within the party. All this helps nurture the party base. By excelling at base participation, D66 and NEOS have found that giving each member a vote and, by bringing members in at early stages in policy formulation, shows their members that being a part of the party gives you influence over the direction of your country.

Most party campaign volunteers are also members, although not all. Coming to terms with this and finding ways to reward and promote those who do good volunteer work is crucial for any political party. NEOS is one party which is experimenting with bringing in non-members as volunteers for specific issues, and in times of overall membership decline for political parties, finding ways to involve non-members as volunteers is central. Vili Rosanda from the Istrian party IDS stressed that he used a reward system where volunteers who did good were praised, while the party would make extra efforts to improve the work of those who performed below expectations. D66 gives volunteers a great deal of autonomy and through this autonomy volunteers are empowered and as a result perform better than if they were managed at a more detailed level. In short, both for members and for volunteers it is important to take them seriously, give them a voice, praise those who make an effort and provide them lots of tangible reasons why getting involved has something in it for them too.

The way forward

Due to the intimate and interactive setting of this workshop series, we were able to offer an ideal forum for those running campaigns. This was a space where they could hold frank and direct talks on what works and what does not. The European Liberal Forum was instrumental in bringing representatives from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands together for this and we look forward to continuing the cooperation in 2016.


Håvard Sandvik, European Affairs Manager, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom