'Brexit' Campaigners Put Their Faith in U.S. Data Wranglers

BRITAIN-POLITICS-EU-REFERENDUM

U.S. political strategist Gerry Gunster, left.

Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images
  • Leave.EU hires experts on identifying and targeting voters
  • History suggests undecided voters will vote to stay in EU

One of the campaigns to get Britain out of the European Union is putting its faith in a team of U.S. data experts to win over voters.

Leave.EU, the group linked to Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party, has hired Gerry Gunster, the president of Washington-based political consulting firm Goddard Gunster, and Brittany Kaiser of New York and London-based Cambridge Analytica to devise a strategy for persuading voters to back a “Brexit.” Gunster’s expertise is referendums, especially state-wide votes in the U.S. Kaiser’s is voter analysis.

Most polls have put backers of remaining in the EU slightly ahead of those seeking to leave, with just under a fifth of voters undecided. History suggests the “don’t knows” will break in favor of staying in, the position likely to be backed by Prime Minister David Cameron as well as the opposition Labour Party. The latest poll, carried out by Survation and commissioned by Leave.EU, showed 42 percent would vote to stay in the bloc, with 40 percent opting to leave and 18 percent undecided.

“Most people vote for the status quo,” Gunster said in an interview at an event in London Wednesday where he was introduced to the press. “We’re going to have to give them a reason to say: ‘I’m comfortable about leaving the EU.”’

Mixed Record

British politics has had a mixed record with hired guns from across the Atlantic. David Axelrod was unable to do for Labour in May’s general election what he’d done for Barack Obama. On the other side of the fight, another former Obama staffer, Jim Messina, had more success, helping Cameron’s Conservatives to target voters with messages that pulled them into his camp.

It’s that kind of work that Leave.EU is aiming for its recruits to replicate: identifying different voter groups and working out what will get them on board.

“We’re trying to understand swing voters, the finer nuances of what it is they care about,” Kaiser said. “If you hit a young person with a message about border security, they might never open your e-mail again. But if you tell them a person from Spain may come and take their job, that might get them.”

Kaiser said the first stage of the work will be interviews with close to half a million Britons to provide the data for the profiles. She said she’s untroubled by recent polling disasters, including the failure to predict the result of the general election.

‘Doesn’t Matter’

“For me, polling doesn’t actually matter,” Kaiser said. “It asks people what their opinions are. It doesn’t tell you how to change them.”

One thing that might change voters’ views is an official analysis that the Treasury is conducting of the benefits and costs of EU membership to the British economy, as well as the risks for the nation if the bloc isn’t reformed. A similar exercise in the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum led to complaints of bias from the Scottish National Party.

Businesses have also been urged to add their voice to the debate in the run-up to the referendum, with Stuart Rose, the leader of Britain Stronger in Europe, the campaign to keep the U.K. in the 28-nation bloc, urging companies to speak out about Britain’s position in the EU.

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‘Vital Voice’

In a letter to 3,000 FTSE-350 company directors, the former chief executive officer of Marks & Spencer Plc said businesses “can and must be a vital voice in this debate.”

“We should all play a role in communicating the significance of the single market,” he wrote, according to a text of the letter. “For our part we will make a positive case for Europe, but whatever side you are on I urge you and your boards to speak out and play a role in this national discussion.”

Survation surveyed 1,546 people online for its EU poll on Monday and Tuesday. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.

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