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The EU Referendum: Not for the Faint-Hearted

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By Gerry Gunster and Ben Goddard, senior partner and chairman, Goddard Global

Prime Minister David Cameron's call for an "in-or-out" referendum is fascinating for those of us - mostly Americans - who study and practice the science and art of "ballot measure" campaigns. Americans routinely vote on hundreds of state and local referenda each election cycle, settling and resettling debates on issues ranging from tax policy to alcohol regulations to how governments are selected. But a world power deciding such a monumental, non-retractable, international issue as EU membership in one swift referendum is somewhat unusual and trepidatious - even to the ballot issue happy cousins on this side of the pond.

The initiative and referenda process was created in America by the Progressive Movement in the late 19th Century. As new states were carved out of a huge continent the Progressives believed "direct democracy" would help curb the power of the railroad, timber and mining interests who held sway over the economy west of the Mississippi. For decades that strategy worked - until all manner of special interests realized they could use the tool as well. For the past hundred years such campaigns have grown more complicated and expensive.

"Pandora is out of the box," may turn out to be a better description than the Independent Party's claim that "the genie is out of the bottle". Having worked on hundreds of ballot issue and advocacy campaigns we know one thing for certain - when the dust settles from this fight politics in the UK will have changed forever.

Referenda are neither for the faint-hearted nor for the inexperienced. Like most EU issues, this debate will be contentious and emotionally charged. There will be charges and counter-charges, fear tactics, negative messages, conspiracy theories, misleading polls, half truths and full lies. But experience teaches us that those succeed in defining the terms will win the debate. Doing that requires the use of sophisticated research, targeted communications and organization of a broad-based coalition capable of taking the winning messages to the street.

A referendum campaign is much different than a campaign for political office. A referendum cannot talk. There are no carefully photo-shopped family pictures, no family dog, no personalities to like or dislike. A referendum will not shake your hand or kiss your baby.

A successful referendum campaign must be based on a very simple truth: Everyone votes their own self interest. The side that speaks to the self interest of a majority who vote on election day is the side that will win. It takes sophisticated research to determine how your side can best appeal to the self-interest of the most voters - messaging that creates a bond between your cause and a majority of voters.

One of the most common mistakes campaigns face is "the trap of the false consensus." Those who feel the strongest about an issue tend to wind up in charge of the campaign. They also tend to believe their own arguments. Only a commitment to using good research and sticking to a consistent message is a sure path to victory, as we have demonstrated in over 95% of the campaigns we've been involved in and helped lead over the past four decades.

A final point - "Yes" , votes are more difficult to win than "No" votes. For over 100 years the "Yes" side of the campaign has failed 60% of the time. That statistic generally holds true worldwide. That is because proponents of "Yes" votes must convince the public that a problem exists, that it is their problem, and that the problem is so acute that they must take action. Finally, the public must be convinced that the specific proposed solution that will appear on the ballot is the right answer to the problem and should be adopted.

That is a lot to ask of voters.

A "No" vote, on the other hand, just has to convince a majority of voters that the proposed solution does not solve the problem. "Right problem, wrong solution" is a common theme in successful "No" campaigns.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of EU membership, you must concede that Britain's political landscape is about to change radically. Cameron's use of a referendum at this magnitude will give the public yet another taste of having the power to make decisions directly on the ballot.

It is the magnitude of this referendum and the coming firestorm that makes for such an interesting and exciting campaign.

Gerry Gunster is a principal partner of Goddard Global in the UK and Goddard Gunster in the US, a firm widely considered to have pioneered modern advocacy.

Ben Goddard is Chairman of Goddard Global and the founding partner of Goddard Gunster.