Why Norbert Hofer lost
After Brexit and Donald Trump, the European Union was getting ready for Austria’s first anti-establishment president. But then Norbert Hofer was narrowly defeated. Why? Because he failed to mobilize young men. Of course there is more to this. Because it’s a really long story.
Would you like to go back to a major decision and do it all over again? How about the last presidential election? If you would have known what will happen, would you learn from your mistakes and give it another try? That’s the question every Austrian had to ask himself this year. Three times. Contrary to the US American system, a candidate has to get the majority of the popular vote for becoming the president of Austria. And there are no lost third party votes in Austria. Every vote counts. So what happens when none of the candidates has more than 50% of the popular vote? Then Austrians have to vote again, in a second round with only the two most popular candidates.
Ironically, the second round only included third party candidates this year. Both the SPÖ (socialist) and ÖVP (conservative) candidate got eliminated with 11% of the votes each. Much like in the US, all of Austria’s post-war presidents had come from one of the two major parties. Only this year, both of them got thrown out of the competition in an anti-establishment landslide. And to everybody’s surprise, the FPÖ (Freedom Party Austria) candidate Norbert Hofer already collected 35% of the popular vote in the first round. To reach a solid third of the votes in an election with six candidates is already a very good result. His best rival Alexander van der Bellen only got 21%. And van der Bellen’s Grüne (Greens) party never gets more than 15% in Austrian general elections. The FPÖ has already managed to reach double that amount in several national and regional elections. So the second round of Austria’s presidential election was eminently winnable for Norbert Hofer. But he still lost.
Hofer only needed to collect an additional 15% to get over the magical 50% threshold. These 15% could have come from a number of sources. He might have persuaded some of Alexander van der Bellen’s voters to change their mind. Or mobilize some of the Austrians who chose not to vote at all in the first round. The prospect of getting an anti-establishment candidate into office for the first time in 70 years might have motivated a lot of citizens to come back from the sidelines and cast their vote in favor of the Freedom Party candidate. In addition, he should have been able to get roughly half of the votes that were cast for the four candidates eliminated in the first round. With Norbert Hofer on the right and Alexander van der Bellen on the left, only candidates on both ends of the political spectrum were left for the second round. Centrist voters would have to support a pronounced leftist like van der Bellen or a pronounced right wing candidate like Hofer. Only a fraction of these centrist voters would have been enough to push Hofer over the finish line. And yet, he still lost.
Faced with the prospect of being thoroughly uprooted by the electorate, Austria’s political establishment ganged up for preventing the first Freedom Party president. A coalition of two ruling parties, two opposition parties, most of the media and almost all of Austria’s European Union partners launched a unified campaign against Norbert Hofer. Some voiced their concerns in a more or less polite way. A lot of them simply accused the Freedom Party candidate of being a fascist secretly plotting to turn Austria into a dictatorship. That did not work out. Austrians can be quite stubborn when it comes to resisting foreign pressure. And 70 years after the end of world war two, German guilt has grown old. Hofer was also the perfect man for deflecting these kinds of slander. With his calm style and moderate positions, he ploughed through the attacks as if he had been doing nothing else for his whole life. The attacks backfired. People started liking Hofer. Austrians got used to the idea that he might actually be their president. But in the end, he still lost.
The second round was a very close call. The two candidates were exactly tied, with each of them reaching 50% of the votes. After including all of the absentee ballots, van der Bellen was less than half a percent over 50%. Even only very minor irregularities in the election could have changed this result one way or another. So the Freedom Party challenged it in Austria’s supreme court. And to everybody’s surprise, the supreme court declared the second round invalid. Nobody actually provided evidence for massive voter fraud. Compared with the US, the Austrian system is very tamper proof. There is no electronic voting in Austria, everything is paper-based. There are no voting machines, voters always use a simple pen for marking their choice. Voter registration is a non-issue, because Austrians have to always register their address anyway, whether they intend to participate in any election or not. The entire election is under strict federal control, with consistent and stringent rules that are applied uniformly across Austria. Not much can go wrong. But the constitutional court wanted to make a point. Elections are rarely this close and therefore rarely challenged. The court had a unique opportunity of coming up with a laundry list of improvements for the election process. And that’s what it did. It declared the second round null and void. Not because any fraud was detected. But because not all conceivable steps were taken for preventing fraud.
Which gave both candidates the unique opportunity of learning from their mistakes and doing it all over again. They both had several months to analyze the result, react to the strategy of their opponents and adapt their own campaigns accordingly. Most of the unknowns in election campaigns were known this time around. There were only two candidates, everybody knew who would support them, everybody knew how they would run their campaign and everybody knew how the electorate would react to these campaigns. Van der Bellen knew that simply accusing Hofer of being a Nazi would not guarantee a success. Hofer knew that being nice and waiting for stray votes won’t push him over the finish line. They both how first round votes would convert into second round votes. They knew knew how centrist voters will vote. And most importantly, they knew which part of the electorate would not vote at all. Van der Bellen was able to mobilize some left-leaning urban voters who would not have voted for the Green party but simply wanted to prevent Hofer. Hofer did not manage to mobilize enough center-right voters to compensate for that. Everybody knew what happened. Hofer still had a solid lead in his core support over van der Bellen. He simply needed to mobilize a little bit more dormant anti-establishment votes to win. And this extra push appeared to arrive just in time.
Just after Austria’s original second round, the Brexit camp won the British referendum. At first it looked like Brexit might generate a lot of problems for the UK. But then most of these worries vanished and pushing back the political establishment appeared to be a very viable option. That should have given Hofer some extra support. And then, Donald Trump won the American presidency. Any fears of international isolation following a Hofer victory appeared more and more unreasonable. Why should post-Brexit UK or Trump America have any problem with president Hofer? If anything, Austria might improve it’s relations with some Western powers while at the same time improving it’s relations with the East, most notably Russia. Hofer did not appear to represent any real risk any more. The anti-Hofer camp was running out of ammunition. They desperately tried to fabricate a new perceived risk by claiming that Hofer wanted to push for Öxit, the Austrian exit from the EU. As opposed to the UK, Austria’s economy is too tightly linked with EU partners and the common EU currency for any cold Austrian EU exit to work. Austrians don’t support even playing with the idea of cutting our ties with Germany and the other EU partners. Hofer avoided to fall into the Öxit trap and rejected the claim that he would be pushing for leaving the EU. There was no rational reason for fearing a Hofer presidency any more, international developments were giving the Hofer camp an additional push and Hofer successfully avoided any major blunders. When the second round was repeated, he should have won. But he lost.
As a side not to Austria’s longest election campaign ever, the rerun of the second round actually had to be restarted as well. Just before the rerun was about to go ahead, people realized that there was a manufacturing problem with absentee ballots. Just having been schooled by the constitutional court, the government did not want to take any more risks and pushed back the rerun in order to fix the faulty ballots. In total, Austria had four dates for it’s presidential election this year. One date for the first round in April, then the original second round in May which was declared invalid, the original date for the rerun of the second round in October and then the final date for the rerun in December. Austria does not have any primaries, but Hofer and van der Bellen were nevertheless campaigning non-stop for a complete year. Both candidates had to launch their campaigns four times in total. When the rerun was postponed from October to December, fresh campaign posters were already hanging throughout Austria. Again. They both had learned from the original second round in May and adapted their campaigns. They could both see how their opponents had modified their campaigns. When the election was postponed to December, they could do it all over again. Before the final decision was made, Norbert Hofer knew what Alexander Bellen would say. He knew how van der Bellen and his anti-Hofer alliance would campaign. He knew how van der Bellen would modify his campaign after the invalid result in May. Norbert Hofer knew that he only needed very few votes to win. He had complete knowledge of the other candidate and his strategy and he had an extra push in mobilization from international events. He just needed to cash in on his strategic advantage. But then he failed to do that.
Norbert Hofer’s loss is not the result of any personal shortcomings. He never gave up. He never stopped campaigning. He worked around the clock, always stayed calm and focused. His party was willing and able to provide the necessary funds for his campaign. Four times. Hofer and his team certainly had more than enough determination and more than enough resolve. And their opponent was definitely beatable. Hofer is in his 40s, van der Bellen in his 70s. Hofer represents a new generation in Austrian politics, van der Bellen represents the old post-war regime. At times, van der Bellen appeared to simply lose any motivation of campaigning. He did not remember some facts or names and gave the impression that he was simply tired of it all. Van der Bellen is smart and educated, but not really a fighter and he never presented any kind of political vision. This was a change election and van der Bellen was not the candidate of change. He was a third party candidate however, but so was Hofer. They were both unusual candidates, and Hofer clearly had more massive core support. Hofer also clearly was more determined to win. Beating van der Bellen was certainly doable. So the Freedom Party decided to avoid taking any risk in order cash in on their success. Which is precisely why they lost.
Before the final rerun was completed, nobody could predict what would happen. Both candidates were tied in the polls. Both candidates stayed on message. Both candidates continued their campaigns to the very end. The result appeared to be wide open. But when the actual numbers came in, the result was not wide open at all. Norbert Hofer was thoroughly defeated. And the numbers also immediately made clear why he lost. In absolute numbers, Hofer more or less held his support from the original second round. But van der Bellen gained significant additional support throughout Austria. Where did these additional votes come from? The invalid election in May obviously convinced the electorate that their vote does indeed count. Not because the election was declared invalid. But because the result was depending on very few votes. When they got the chance to actually influence an election with their individual vote, some additional part of the electorate got mobilized. And then there were voters which simply did not exist before. After all the delays, the government decided to change the election law and include more citizens. Several thousand additional children of more than 16 years of age suddenly were eligible to vote. Young people typically have more anti-establishment voters, so the Freedom Party supported this change. But then they failed to offer anything to these young voters. That’s where they lost the presidency.
To be more precise, it’s not children over 16 which tipped the scales for van der Bellen. It’s women under 30 which gave him a huge lead and men under 30 which failed to balance this lead. As in almost every Western country, young women favor the left and young men favor the right. In Austria, this imbalance is somewhat more extreme. According to exit polls, young women typically give left leaning candidates a two thirds majority. Young men often also give right leaning candidates a two thirds majority. But very often, the right is much more successful with middle aged male voters and to a certain degree also middle aged women. Young men can be mobilized for the right, but this support is fragile and has to be earned again in every election. Norbert Hofer did not offer anything to young men. That’s how he lost. He still had a small lead in young men, within the margin or error in exit polls. But compared with the overwhelming female support for van der Bellen, that’s a crushing defeat with the young. And a serious mistake by the Hofer campaign. So why did he fail to get this support?
The Hofer campaign knew that they had a very good chance of winning. So they first of all tried to avoid making any mistakes. Which they translated into staying away from most controversial topics. For the last decade, the Freedom Party has made a clear distinction between political issues they will use for mobilizing their base and political issues they will use for broadening their base. Their number one mobilization topic was immigration. When the refugee crisis exploded, Freedom Party support also exploded. When other players tried to play down the crisis, the Freedom Party worked hard on linking every single political issue to immigration. From crime to employment, every conceivable political question had an immigration answer for the Freedom Party. They knew that they would lose some votes with this approach. But they were willing to accept this loss in the broader interest of gaining support with their core base. In order to avoid alienating too much of the electorate, they skilfully avoided taking any strong position on any other topic. Including any topic that might drive away female voters.
For decades, the Freedom Party had primarily male support. This is most likely due to the fact that women generally favor mass immigration while men don’t. So the Freedom Party was always moderately anti-feminist. But in order to have a realistic shot at heading the national government, they decided to avoid any topic that could alienate female voters. When the refugee crisis broke last year, women suddenly started voting for the Freedom Party in large numbers. The perceived imminent collapse of public order was too much for many women which might otherwise have preferred more centrist parties. At this point, the strategy of avoiding any controversy on gender issues while at the same time pushing for controversy on the topic of immigration seemed to work. Not saying anything about gender seemed to be the right way of keeping male voters while gaining female voters. So Norbert Hofer simply continued this strategy. Which might have worked out. But it did not, because the overall situation had changed.
As opposed to the US, the Austrian political establishment managed to react to their anti-establishment challenger with some smart changes. While the US Democrats simply stayed stuck in their ideological ivory tower, the Austrian coalition government correctly analyzed their situation and reacted accordingly. They did not wait for the Freedom Party to take over but went ahead and did a complete turn on immigration on their own. At first, the Austrian reaction appeared to be chaotic. But then some kind of collective learning process took place and Austria led the way in containing the chaos caused by Germany. As a result, the refugee crisis basically was contained by a series of steps orchestrated by Austria and its government. In a way, the Freedom Party had won the political fight before they even got the chance to translate this into a national election result.
When Hofer stormed ahead in the first round in spring, the memory of last year’s chaos was still fresh and people did not yet trust that things are really under control. The crisis might have come back in full force in summer and people did not want to take any more risks. But the government appeared to have gotten the message and some key government players had been exchanged. In spring, Norbert Hofer could still use the refugee crisis as the main mobilizing force for his campaign. So he did not need any other mobilization strategy and rather avoided doing or saying anything controversial. But by December, it was clear that the Austrian and EU border was holding. By December, Hofer would have needed something else for getting more centrist or skeptical voters. Just being anti-establishment was not enough to win. He would have needed some message for energizing young voters. But he decided to avoid saying anything controversial. And then he simply ran out of steam.
Since they all had to do the election campaign four times in a row, everybody saw this coming. Everybody knew that the election would be decided on mobilization alone. Van der Bellen might have run out of steam as well. The anti-fascist message was clearly wearing off and just being against Hofer might not have been enough for voting for van der Bellen at some point. But in spite of his age and in spite of his apparent lack of energy, van der Bellen had a hidden reserve for mobilizing extra support: His Green Party base is highly ideological and their leftist agenda is deeply ingrained in the education system. Young people are pre-programmed for supporting leftist politics. All the Greens had to do was trigger this support. Particularly with young women. At the evening of the final rerun, it was clear that van der Bellen was sailing to victory on a wave of ideologically charged young women. An old Austrian man won precisely the kind of support Hillary Clinton was aiming for. Because once the refugee crisis seemed to be less urgent, female voters quickly went back to their habit of voting for the feminist candidate. And male voters had no particular reason to vote for the other guy. Norbert Hofer had tried to emulate Donald Trump’s success by resorting to a more aggressive style of discussion towards the end of his campaign. But he failed to understand that it was not the tone, but the content of Trump’s message which made him succeed. Trump flat out refused to play the game of political correctness and he openly broke with the feminist mainstream of the last 50 years. Donald Trump actively built up a new coalition, a new political Right. His tone was just the icing on the cake. When faced with the need of mobilizing more voters, Norbert Hofer started emulating Trump’s tone, but failed to emulate Trump’s skill for building a movement.
If there were one single step representing the strategic mistakes in the final stages of Hofer’s campaign, it was a small piece of text on his last campaign posters: “So help me God”. Historically, the Freedom Party was the party of agnostics and humanists. Deeply religious Christians were supporting the ÖVP, which had Christian values at the base of it’s program. When Hofer suddenly put God on his posters, everybody knew that he wanted to convince centrist conservatives to vote for him rather than for a Marxist atheist like Alexander van der Bellen. The Hofer campaign tried to mobilize Christians and for this goal they were willing to risk doing something unusual and controversial. This was the wrong strategy because it relied on an outdated understanding of the distinction between Left and Right. In the past, the Austrian Left was largely Atheist and the Right was Christian. That is no longer true. The left has included Muslims and true Atheists are gravitating towards the Right. The Hofer camp tried to win the presidency by polarizing Left and Right. They ended up confusing their own camp instead. This is a major blunder and it shows that the Freedom Party does not even understand their own success. Their support was not growing because the old Right is having a comeback. Their support was growing because there is a new Right now. This new Right includes Atheists, Christians, Humanists, anti-Feminists, Gays, Libertarians, Nationalists and so on. The new Right is a collection of everybody who has a stake in preserving Western civilization. The new Right is held together by the threat of Islam and by the delusions of the new Left which aims at destroying Western civilization. This new Right has carried the Freedom Party to its current success in the polls. Campaigning against Atheists is completely missing the point of why people are voting for the Freedom Party in the first place. The Hofer campaign had lost its primary topic and tried replacing it with something truly outdated. They did not even understand their defeat when it was looking them straight into the eye.
Today, Norbert Hofer’s campaign manager repeated his attacks on the ÖVP leadership. Herbert Kickl bluntly blamed the head of the conservative party for having caused Hofer’s defeat. Even after the election, Kickl thinks that trying to get some of the 11% which voted for the conservative candidate in the first round would have somehow been enough to win. Clearly, the Hofer campaign was thinking in terms of future coalitions between political parties as opposed in terms of individual voters and their worldviews. After decades of being accused of being too populist, the Freedom Party has forgotten how to read public sentiment properly. The old game of Christian Conservatives versus Atheist Marxists is over for most of the electorate. And the Freedom Party did not get the memo yet. When the political establishment managed to defuse the refugee crisis, the Hofer camp did not know how to keep their support energized. But van der Bellen just kept going. As the former head of the Green Party, van der Bellen had absolutely no reservations on playing along the feminist themes of the Green Party. And young women voted for him, because he promised to conserve their feminists perks. Young women perceive the FPÖ as being anti-feminist, but in fact the FPÖ has nothing to offer to young men. So in the end, young men were split while young women voted for van der Bellen. The Hofer camp tried to fight in an ideological conflict of the past while avoiding the ideological conflicts of the present. They will have to find some courage and face the present or someone will take their place sooner than they think.