Text Analytics Reveals Potential French Election Upset
Text Analytics Poll Shows Le Pen Positioned to “Trump” Macron
To Americans following the French Presidential Election taking place in less than a week, it might appear as though recent history is repeating itself. And in many ways, it is.
Late last week we ran a Text Analytics Poll™ in France, and the results of our analysis bear a striking resemblance to those of an identical poll we ran in the US just a couple of days prior to the November 8 presidential election.
You may recall that in November, just a day before the US Presidential Election, we posted on this blog results from a Text Analytics Poll™ indicating that Hillary Clinton had a major positioning problem that could cost her the election, in contrast to conventional pollsters’ predictions that had almost universally and, it turns out, incorrectly forecast her winning by a sizable Electoral College margin.
Well, as was the case in our US poll, actual comment data from French respondents in their own words indicates a much, much closer race between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen than the 60/40 split pollsters have thus far predicted.
In fact, as of Sunday night when we closed this poll—exactly one week before the May 7 runoff election—Marine Le Pen looked a lot like Donald Trump.
About this Text Analytics Poll™
For this French election Text Analytics Poll™, we replicated our November US election poll, taking a French general population sample of 3,000, splitting it in half randomly, and asking each half the same single question, substituting only the candidate’s name:
“Without looking, off the top of your mind, what issues does [insert candidate name] stand for?”
We then machine-translated the responses and analyzed them using the patented OdinText software platform, which identified and quantified potentially important themes/ideas/topics in people’s comments and also qualified and quantified the emotions expressed in those comments.
We use this approach because we’ve found time and again that conventional quantitative survey questions—the sort used in political polls—are usually not terrific predictors of actual behavior.
We know that consumers (and, yes, voters) are generally not rational decision-makers; people rely on emotions and heuristics to make most of our decisions. Ergo, if I really want to understand what will drive actual behavior, the surest way to find out is by allowing you to tell me unaided, in your own words, off the top of your head. Oftentimes, we can accomplish this with one, well-designed question!
French Election Outsider vs. Reformer
Much as we saw in the US race, the French electorate appears to be in a decidedly anti-establishment mood. So it’s no surprise under the circumstances that both of the final contenders in the French presidential runoff could accurately be described as “outsiders,” but what voters may really be after is a reformer.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both considered outsiders and reformers, although unlike Trump, who successfully hijacked the Republican nomination, Sanders failed to pull off a similar grassroots coup in the Democratic primary. As a result, US voters were faced with a choice between a reformer/outsider and an establishment candidate.
Le Pen has been a member of the French Parliament for more than a decade and she held elected office at the regional level before that. She’s also the scion of a famous political family and, more importantly, the former president of a prominent, albeit right wing, political party, the National Front (FN). Le Pen’s relative “outsider” status stems from the fact that the FN has historically promoted a nationalist agenda and was until recently viewed as outside of the political mainstream (and outside the two major coalitions that have alternated between control of the French government for the last 30-plus years).
Emmanuel Macron, too, is a relative outsider. He’s a former Minister of the Economy and founded the “En Marche”(“Forward!”) political movement in 2016, but he has never held elected office and, as of our poll, remains something of a mystery to potential French voters save for the fact that it’s well known that he made a fortune in investment banking.
Whatever you think of her politics, Le Pen clearly qualifies as a reformer, whereas Macron, while an outsider, appears to have a positioning problem around reform. Let’s take a closer look…
It’s All About Brand Positioning… Again
Whether you’re a corporation or a candidate for office, properly positioning your brand in the mind of your target is arguably the single most important part of the marketing process.
As I noted, our US poll back in November strongly suggested that Hillary Clinton was in more trouble than any of the other polling data to that point had indicated, and the problem was one of positioning relative to the competition.
– The #1 most popular response for Hillary Clinton involved the perception of dishonesty/corruption.
– The #1 and #2 most popular responses for Donald Trump related to platform (immigration, followed by pro-USA/America First), followed thirdly by perceived racism/hatemongering.
Again, I’ll emphasize that these responses were not selected from a list of possible choices, but top-of-mind and unaided from voters in their own words.
What the comment data revealed was that Donald Trump’s campaign messaging was very focused around a two issues—immigration and protectionism—and had been effective in galvanizing voters to whom these positions appealed; Hillary Clinton’s messaging was relatively scattered across a variety of issues, and therefor diluted, which made it difficult for voters to identify her with a key issue they could rally around.
And while an alarmingly high proportion of responses to our question were for both candidates emotionally-charged character attacks, the negative emotional disposition toward Hillary Clinton was actually higher than for Donald Trump. In other words, the dislike among people who disliked Hillary Clinton outweighed the dislike among people who disliked Donald Trump. This probably had little to do with Trump campaign messaging—although they certainly capitalized on it—and was more a reflection of the fact that Hillary Clinton had been highly visible and active in national politics for decades and was already positioned in the minds of voters.
How does this relate to what we see in the French Election data?
The chart below depicts responses from the French to our single question after being analyzed by OdinText and sorted by prevalence of topics/themes (coded red for Macron and blue for Le Pen).
First, it’s important to note that there are inherently fewer issues with which politicians can differentiate themselves in French politics than there are in US politics. For example, issues like abortion, education, healthcare, gun ownership, etc., in France are not hotly contested as they are in the States.
In France—like most European countries in the post-Brexit era—political debate centers primarily around economics internally and in relation to other countries (i.e. the EU), security, and, importantly, immigration.
Here, Le Pen’s positioning is unmistakable, as she was frequently associated with immigration, which works in her favor among those who view immigration as a problem. The issue is tied to security, as well, and given the 2015 Paris attacks, the heightened fear about terrorism coupled with domestic economic concerns could lead voters who might have been historically more sympathetic to pro-immigration platforms to actually vote for Le Pen.
That said, like Hillary Clinton, Marine Le Pen is well known to the French, and already positioned in their eyes. Although she has taken steps to soften the perception, respondents to our poll most frequently said she stands for racism/hate/xenophobia, which does not bode well for her candidacy in socially liberal France.
Macron, by contrast, remains a relative enigma to the French people. Almost twice as many French people said they aren’t sure what Macron stands for compared to Le Pen. In fact, Macron is not tied to any standout platform or issue of importance to the French, whereas Le Pen is positioned as a reformer on immigration to an electorate that, again, is not enamored with the status quo.
Moreover, respondents most frequently associated Macron with “liberalism,” followed by capitalism, which are nearly the same. Indeed, I put liberalism in quotes here to make a very important distinction that might have otherwise been lost on Americans who are not familiar with French politics: Liberalism in France actually refers to economic liberalism favoring free markets—almost the opposite of how the term is used in US politics!
Neither liberalism nor capitalism are necessarily assets in terms of positioning in French politics, particularly for a wealthy investment banker at a time when job security is a major concern among voters. Macron has campaigned as a centrist, stating emphatically that ideologically he is neither left nor right, but our data suggests that he is positioned in the minds of the French as something of a neo-conservative and perhaps an elite. Indeed, the Le Pen campaign has been feeding this positioning and tying it to fears about globalization undermining the economic security of the French people.
We do see in the data that Le Pen’s positioning of Macron as a capitalist “sell-out” and instrument of status quo globalists has achieved some success, but it may be too little too late. While 7.8% of the French in our poll view Macron as capitalist/money man, nearly twice as many describe Le Pen as a hatemongering racist (15.3%).
Ironically, we noted in our US poll that Donald Trump was also described as a racist by more than 10% of Americans just days before the election; however, more than 12% of Americans said that Hillary Clinton was dishonest/“crooked.”
The combined chart below shows how both the French and the American candidates appeared in the eyes of respondents from their respective countries. (Again, note that “liberal” for Macron does not mean fiscal or socially liberal as it does in the context of US politics, but refers to free-market economic liberalism.)
This upcoming election is actually runoff, and the opponents have basically two weeks to position one another. To this point, the job of defining one’s opponent was much trickier because there were five candidates in the race. In US politics, obviously, candidates have a lot more time to cement positioning against a single opponent.
But French campaign strategists are accustomed to operating within this short timeline. The Macron campaign has enjoyed an advantage in that negative positioning around Le Pen was already firmly in place, whereas Macron was relatively unknown. Conversely, the Le Pen campaign now has a huge opportunity to negatively position Macron as an instrument of global bankers and the status quo and to sway voters with a message of protectionism and security at a time when both have high appeal.
The wild card here is the EU. An EU “Frexit” is generally accepted to be less appealing among the majority of French, and although Le Pen has been softening her rhetoric, she is known to strongly favor leaving the EU. Macron, however, is most assuredly opposed to a Frexit, and the data show that respondents understand this difference.
Much like we saw in the US election results foreshadowed by our own polling data, a victory in this election may not so much amount to an endorsement of one candidate as a rejection of the status quo. And of the two candidates, Le Pen is better positioned as the reformer. She could yet ride a wave of populism that Macron is not equipped to tap into.
In short, do not be surprised if Marine Le Pen pulls off a Trump-style upset in the French Presidential Election. The data strongly suggest she is positioned to do so!
*Note: n=3,000 responses were collected via Google Surveys 4/24-4/30 2017. Google Surveys allow researchers to reach a validated French General Population Representative sample by intercepting people attempting to access high-quality online content or who have downloaded the Google Opinion Rewards mobile app. Results are +/- 2.51% accurate at the 95% confidence interval.
About Tom H. C. Anderson
Tom H. C. Anderson is the founder and managing partner of OdinText, a venture-backed firm based in Stamford, CT whose eponymous, patented SAS platform is used by Fortune 500 companies like Disney, Coca-Cola and Shell Oil to mine insights from complex, unstructured and mixed data. A recognized authority and pioneer in the field of text analytics with more than two decades of experience in market research, Anderson is the recipient of numerous awards for innovation from industry associations such as CASRO, ESOMAR and the ARF. He was named one of the “Four under 40” market research leaders by the American Marketing Association in 2010. He tweets under the handle @tomhcanderson.