On June 24, 2016, Britain woke up to the news that Brexit would become a reality. As the shocking result set-in, politicians and analysts scrambled to decipher the full ramifications of the vote to exit the EU. Global stock markets plummeted and the pound fell to a near 30-year-low. All eyes turned to Britain in an effort to understand how this vote could have transpired, while experts grappled to understand the economic, social and political implications. It was certainly expected to be a close vote. The end result, however, stunned not only the British—but people around the world.
The ensuing days have seen Britain go through a roller coaster of upheavals, creating an unprecedented political vacuum and air of uncertainty. Though it remains to be seen how and when Britain will exit from the EU, it is certainly clear that the Remain campaign was an extraordinary failure. Given the surprising vote result, many are drawing parallels to the upcoming U.S. election. Indeed, the Remain campaign’s shortcomings bear many lessons for those across the pond.
First and foremost, the Remain campaign’s messaging and tactics did not resonate with voters, particularly those already disenchanted by Europe. Secondly, it failed to articulate a clear, concise and meaningful case for voters to stay within the EU. Instead of making a simple argument for remaining in the EU, the campaign centered its persuasion around a series of complicated points that were not understood by voters. By focusing solely on the economic reasons for staying in the EU, the campaign also lost the opportunity to promote Britain’s social, political and cultural ties to Europe. Remain did not adequately connect or create a vision of Britain as intrinsically tied to the Europe. Thirdly, it did not properly convey the significant economic risks of leaving—for, above all, the Remain campaign underestimated the sentiment of voters who feel disfranchised and disconnected from Europe.
The Leave campaign, on the other hand, pushed out a simple but strong case for exiting the EU. The effort effectively deployed its leadership, infusing energy and charisma into the campaign. The Leave side also focused on issues such as immigration, igniting emotions, and inciting voters into action. Failing to recognize the potency of the immigration argument and its impact in motivating voters, the Remain campaign did not adequately counter the xenophobic rhetoric. Additionally, the Remain campaign leadership, already facing public scrutiny, did not inspire confidence in voters. The resulting combination of lackluster messaging and uninspiring leadership did little to bolster the campaign’s resonance.
From afar, there are striking similarities between voter sentiment felt in the U.K. prior to the vote and the anti-establishment issues raised during the U.S. primary election. As the U.S. presidential race draws closer, Brexit lessons serve as a valuable reminder not to underestimate the electorate or overlook particularly angry voters. The anti-immigrant, xenophobic vitriol expressed in the campaign thus far is a powerful motivator that could have significant impact at the ballot box this November. If politicians, analysts and ordinary Americans do not want to be stunned on November 9, they must heed these lessons learned to separate rhetoric from reality.