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Dominic Cummings in his own words
14 Sep, 2019

Practical campaigning

London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg has re-read Dominic Cummings’ blogs on the referendum and provided the annotated extracts below. Earlier blogs looked at Cummings’ views of the purpose of Brexit and campaigning strategy; this blog looks his views on practical campaigning. A fourth blog looks at the implications for our campaigning


Dominic Cummings' blogs

It is worth looking at his blogs about the referendum. There are 33 of them, each quite lengthy.  If you only wish to read one, then #21 (January 2017) is the key (and very long) review of the referendum campaign


Lessons for us

We should have started the Remain campaign on 24 June 2016. Cummings was holding focus groups in 2014 and recruiting key workers in the summer of 2015.

He calls for hiring physicists as they have the quantitative skills and rigorous mindset that can deal with problems. Good job that we have ScientistsforEU and #ProjectHope (social media campaign – you can donate) on our side!

He was clear that a campaign had to disregard party loyalties. In 2016 that meant Conservative Party; in 2020 it might mean Labour. The campaign had to deal with in-fighting, rivalry with UKIP/ Farage and hostility from some grassroots groups more concerned with their own independence. We need to ensure that transparent governance is in place to prevent and handle the inevitable conflicts

He was keen on effectively supporting the grassroots base. Data collection and analysis using good software were key both for national and local campaigns as well as for social media. The campaign relied on Facebook. "Twitter was not a very important medium for spreading our message outside a small number of very motivated/interested people"

Most voters do not tune in until three months before polling day and many not until three weeks before. So messages were rigorously tested in advance for effectiveness. Then spending and activity were heavily prioritised into the final stages of the campaign and onto regions and age groups that were thought to be the swing voters.

Since Turkey and £350m had been shown by micro-analysis to work well with all demographics there was no micro-targeting of the actual advertising campaign.

Messages needed to be few, simple and clear. They should appeal not so much to emotions as to perceived moral stance. One of the most successful messages was a leaflet setting out THE FACTS in ostensibly neutral terms, with barely any source identification on it. That met a hunger from voters for trustworthy information. We should try to find ways of meeting that hunger in honest ways.

Farage was found to be deeply off-putting to middle class voters; but Boris Johnson worked well with them. We can assume that we will again be facing a Farage-Johnson double act. Hoping that they will attack each other is not a strategy.

Ethics was not a strong point: If campaign finance rules meant that there had to be a choice, then "Obviously we did" "the right thing for the campaign and risk[ed] being judged to have broken the law"  (January 2017)

Cummings holds that it is impossible to predict what small element of political debate will land with the public. The Australian points-based system for immigration had been coming up in focus groups for years before it reached media and political coverage. Farage picked it up from focus groups. 

"Take back control" was an evolution of the slogan used in the keep-the-£ campaign. Essentially Cummings listened to what voters said. 


Cummings' lessons for how to campaign

Start early

Cummings was very clear on the need to start early with the campaign "Building this organisation should have started years ago." "Such a thing cannot be done in a few weeks. It will be a huge challenge to do it effectively in perhaps just 10-18 months." In July 2015 he was recruiting for the campaign. His priorities were: researchers, web designers and digital media, advertising and creative design.


Whom to hire

On the characteristics of personnel: "hire physicists. It works and the real prize is not the technology but a culture of making decisions in a rational way and systematically avoiding normal ways of fooling yourself as much as possible." (October 2016)


Disregard political party interests

He was clear about the need for a campaign to ignore calls to support Conservative Party unity: "A serious NO campaign that can set out the issues properly must be organised without regard to any party interests, though with sensitivity to different party loyalties." (July 2015)


The campaign needs to support the grassroots

"This campaign needs to build distributed networks fast in all sorts of ways that have not been done in UK politics. It cannot be a traditional centralised campaign in which supposed wisdom flows from the centre to the edges of the network. " (July 2015)

He reckoned his data system was useful for the grassroots ground campaign: "Data flowed in on the ground and was then analysed by the data science team and integrated with all the other data streaming in. Data models helped us target the ground campaign resources and in turn data from the ground campaign helped test and refine the models in a learning cycle – i.e. VICS was not only useful to the ground campaign but also helped improve the models used for other things." (October 2016)

"By the last 10 weeks we had over 12,000 people doing things every week (we had many more volunteers than this but the 12,000 were regularly active). When Farage came to see me for the last time (as always fixated only on his role in the debates and not the actual campaign which he was sure was lost) he said that he had 7,000 activists who actually did anything. He was stunned when I said that we had over 12,000. I think Farage et al believe their own spin on this subject and were deluded not lying. (Obviously there was a lot of overlap between these two figures.) These volunteers delivered about 70 million leaflets out of a total ~125 million that were delivered one way or another." (October 2016)



On campaign communications, "The NO campaign will need to make arguments that we know are comprehensible and effective. This requires huge discipline, simplification, and focus." "Everything will need to be pared down to a few fundamental objectives such as: neutralising fear of NO, explaining the gains from regaining control, explaining the costs and dangers of continuing to give away control, and developing a feeling in the country that NO would not just be good for us but good for the world. It will also require avoiding language that confuses. For example, the word ‘sovereignty’ is for many people ‘something to do with the queen’. Stop using it." (July 2015)

Cummings does not quite see emotions as the key so much as perceived moral values: "It is a mistake to think that the better educated are ‘more rational’ in their political analysis; often they are less rational and more affected by fashion than the un-educated. They also run influential cultural institutions. Much of the techniques of Soviet propaganda (which became the basis for most of modern PR such as the celebrity letterhead) rely on one principle – how to overwhelm reason and humans’ capacity for objective analysis by creating a moral picture such that people send little moral signals to each other by their actions "  "history, ideas, arguments etc count for very little against feelings, and they often count least among the well-educated." But he was equal-opportunities in his view that people of all classes were incompetent decision-makers: "I should add that there are two strong emotions on the NO side, regarding immigration and contempt for political elites, which also can lead to faulty reasoning." (August 2018)

You have to reach people who are not interested in politics  "This was the point of our £50 million prize for predicting the results of the European football championships, which gathered data from people who usually ignore politics"  (October 2016)

"The two most effective leaflets in focus groups were a) The Facts and b) for some people an aggressive version of The Facts. The former came from an experiment. We heard people say in focus groups repeatedly ‘it’s all so confusing, who can you trust, if only someone would give us the facts’. Our data science team also found some interesting experiments using unbranded leaflets so we developed a leaflet that was extremely plain, had no logo or branding, and was headlined THE FACTS. It was less argumentative than normal political leaflets. It presented things in a more neutral tone and we applied some lessons from experiments that had good data and methodology to tweak the wording in subtle ways. It proved more effective across all groups than anything else we’d tried." (January 2017)


Data analysis

Cummings saw the importance of data analysis, digital advertising and effective software (the Vote Leave software was made available for free download after the campaign). "In the official 10 week campaign we served about one billion targeted digital adverts, mostly via Facebook and strongly weighted to the period around postal voting and the last 10 days of the campaign. We ran many different versions of ads, tested them, dropped the less effective and reinforced the most effective in a constant iterative process. We combined this feedback with polls (conventional and unconventional) and focus groups to get an overall sense of what was getting through"  (October 2016)


Understanding how platforms like Facebook work

"PS. Do not believe the rubbish peddled by Farage and the leave.EU team about social media. E.g. a) They boasted publicly that they paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for over half a million Facebook ‘Likes’ without realising that b) Facebook’s algorithms no longer optimised news feeds for Likes (it is optimised for paid advertising). Leave.EU wasted hundreds of thousands just as many big companies spent millions building armies of Likes that were rendered largely irrelevant by Facebook’s algorithmic changes. This is just one of their blunders. Vote Leave put our money into targeted paid adverts, not buying Likes to spin stories to gullible hacks, MPs, and donors. Media organisations should have someone on the political staff who is a specialist in data or have a route to talk to their organisation’s own data science teams to help spot snake oil merchants." (October 2016)


Cummings' 2017 review of the 2016 campaign

Why Leave won

He is nervous of the single "big why" explanation: life is full of branching potential histories, not just the one that happened. He attributes the result in large part to the campaign (well he would, wouldn't he), pointing to the Remain lead until early 2016. But he also says "Campaigns can ride big waves but they almost never make them." by which he means that the big factors that had caused anti-EU attitudes to harden (financial crises, Euro crisis, immigration crisis) were necessary to the success of the campaign. It meant that the Leave campaign could position itself on the side of the 99%.  (January 2017)

"The closest approximation to the truth that we can get is that Leave won because of a combination of 1) three big, powerful forces with global impact: the immigration crisis, the financial crisis, and the euro crisis which created conditions in which the referendum could be competitive; 2) Vote Leave implemented some unrecognised simplicities in its operations that focused attention more effectively than the other side on a simple and psychologically compelling story, thus taking advantage of those three big forces; and 3) Cameron and Osborne operated with a flawed model of what constitutes effective political action and had bad judgement about key people (particularly his chief of staff and director of communications) therefore they made critical errors. Even if (1) and (2) had played out the same, I think that if that duo had made one of a few crucial decisions differently they would very likely have won."  (January 2017)

The hard Remain vote remained constant. But after February 2016 (the conclusion of Cameron's renegotiation of terms of membership) there was a shift to Leave partly from "I would like Brexit but cannot afford it" and mainly from "don't know".  (January 2017)

He could point to mistakes of the IN campaign: prominence of Cameron/ Osborne, failure to heed focus groups,  "No10 tried to turn the whole complex issue into a question about whether the economy would grow a little bit slower over the next few years – a trivial issue relative to the significance of the overall question. ".    (January 2017)


Rigorous focus and prioritisation

"Many metrics show a growth of about an order of magnitude and more between the start and end of the 10 week campaign. This should be a warning to people who talk about ‘the power of a campaign’ to change people’s minds. Most people ignore almost everything until the last few weeks before an election. People paid little attention to the renegotiation and did not really start tuning in until the last 3 months and many millions only tuned in over the last 3 weeks. Much of the spread of messages therefore comes mainly because attention is ‘artificially’ switched on, not because the messages are particularly brilliant or interesting (usually in politics they are not). Even given this artificial spurt of attention you can see that the vast majority pay much more close attention to football and the entertainment industry than to politics even a month before ‘the most important vote in 40 years’. This lack of attention means that to communicate anything to millions of people you need a) extreme focus and simplification and b) to think extremely hard about what people really i) care about and ii) know about and are likely to be able to understand. Campaigns can ride waves but they rarely make them. Our success did not come from creating a wave but from riding powerful waves as I have explained."  (January 2017)

"Conclusion: We squeezed every part of our £7m ‘controlled’ budget to enable us to focus as much as possible on digital marketing. We focused most of this money on the last 10 days and on about 9 million ‘persuadables’ - not our core voters - identified by the data science team from a variety of sources with a variety of methods some very simple and some very sophisticated. That group was on the receiving end of a barrage of £350m/NHS/Turkey mostly in a small time window. Contrary to some assumptions, we did not do ‘microtargeting’ by message - i.e. breaking everybody down into small groups and delivering many different messages. We did break the electorate down into small groups for analysis by using new tools not on the market but we discovered that essentially all relevant demographics responded best to £350m/NHS. So, while we did what you might call ‘micro- analysis’ we did not do ‘micro-messaging’, at least not in the conventional use of the term."  (January 2017)

"The vast majority of all these short videos, as with the ads generally, hammered the same messages: 350m / NHS / Turkey. Most of the money was spent on persuading a group of about 9 million people defined as: between 35-55, outside London and Scotland, excluding UKIP supporters and associated characteristics, and some other criteria." (January 2017)


Image and infighting

Having Boris Johnson enabled the campaign to reduce Farage's BBC appearances, which in turn brought in more middle class votes. "Farage put off millions of (middle class in particular) voters who wanted to leave the EU but who were very clear in market research that a major obstacle to voting Leave was ‘I don’t want to vote for Farage, I’m not like that’. He also put off many prominent business people from supporting us. Over and over they would say ‘I agree with you the EU is a disaster and we should get out but I just cannot be on the same side as a guy who makes comments about people with HIV’." He regarded Farage's "we want our country back" as divisive, as opposed to the unifying call for support for the NHS  (January 2017)

The campaign had to overcome infighting, rivalry with UKIP and tense relations with grassroots bodies more concerned with their own independence.  (January 2017)



A separate blog in January 2017 gives some numbers for the campaign, including how the money was spent, numbers of people and the scale of leafleting and social media work




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