How WSR Succeeded Where Baba Was Let Down

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Congratulations once again to H.E Dr. William Samoei Ruto on being elected and sworn in as the 5th President of the Republic of Kenya.

Now that the election process is over, I think this is the opportune time to put down my thoughts on where and how I think Dr. William Samoei Ruto succeeded despite being an underdog. I hope my thoughts will give us a different angle in our reflections.

Let me start by reiterating a fact: elections and campaigns are a vortex of risks that require honest, accurate, and timely reading of historical, current, and emerging issues to be able to prescribe effective strategies. Any misreading of the political landscape will result in strategies that do not work leading to losses in elections. Unfortunately, it is the candidate that bears the most pain in the event of a loss.

I believe the Kenya Kwanza team had a better reading of the pulse of the country’s political heartbeat, had a better campaign plan, and executed the plan with discipline despite having to overcome numerous political headwinds along the way. On the other hand, it is my humble submission that Azimio failed to recognize that every election is different even if the candidate is the same and therefore approaching an election as they have always done in the past doesn’t work. Here are my six reasons why WSR won the election.

  1. WSR had a Stronger Message That Stirred Hearts of Kenyans

A campaign message is the foundation of a campaign. Political campaigns are communication processes. A campaign message is the heart and sets the rhythm and tone of a campaign. Campaigns are about a message that: differentiates you from your competitors; goes to the heart of the voter and moves them to get emotionally involved in the campaign and turn out and vote. An effective campaign message provides a reason for the voter to choose your candidacy over your opponent.

The 2022 election was framed as Democratic Reforms Vs Economic Reforms for Azimio and Kenya Kwanza respectively. While both issues are important, I am persuaded that an accurate reading of the issues that affect Kenyans would have put the high cost of living and poverty as the main pain points for Kenyans. This is why the Kenya Kwanza Message of Bottom Up resonated very well with a majority of Kenyans. In an election, people choose solutions not just leaders, and therefore the leaders with the most relevant and practical solution to their needs win their hearts and votes.

Elections are not about decisions but rather about choices. In a political contest, the choice is based on ideas. The more compelling an idea is the more likely it is to carry the day. And the just concluded election was no different. Azimio presented a choice of unity (Azimio la Umoja) and reform. They argued that the county needed to reform its fundamental fabric to move forward. The reforms were to be for institutions and the law to provide the foundation for equitable distribution of resources and prosperity for all Kenyans. For Kenya Kwanza, the choice presented was that of economic empowerment of Kenyans at the bottom of the pyramid through the now famous Bottom-Up model.

Political communication is not about convincing voters but about appealing to their sensibilities. The message that moves a voter to act is the one that connects with their subconscious emotional brain. Psychologists tell us that as human beings, 95% of our decisions are made by the subconscious emotional brain, and even the 5% made by the conscious brain are influenced by the subconscious brain where emotions are stored.

To appeal to a voter, the message needs to break through the Reticular Activating System (RAS), which is a system that sits at the root of the brain and acts as a sieve determining what gets attention or not. RAS decides what to take to the attention of your brain based on your goals (what your needs are), your belief system, and what is out of the ordinary.

A basic low-level reading of the mood in the country leading to the elections was that cost of living and poverty were the biggest pain points facing Kenyans. Juxtaposed against the two main campaign messages, you begin to see why the bottom-up message resonated with a majority of Kenyans. Our brains value feelings more than facts. Feelings always win over logic. In a country where parents were struggling to put food on the table, it is easy to see why the Kenya Kwanza Message was more effective as it was anchored on survival, the strongest biological driver of action. The logical message of oneness, institutional, social, and democratic reforms were not going to make the emotional connection needed to guarantee votes.

2. WSR: The Stronger Personal Brand That Connected Emotionally

Brands are not just products or services, they are a path to satisfy our needs and sensibilities, a means to social acceptance, and provide mental shortcuts to consumption decision-making.- Kela

The endpoint of campaigns is the voting process. The voting decision boils down to what people feel and think about the candidate, and how they feel about what they have heard. Branding plays an important role in helping candidates emotionally connect with voters and helps voters in deciding on whom to vote for.

At the core of good political branding is the ability to trigger favorable emotions and behavior patterns through stories, songs, pictures, symbols, characters, and other linguistic devices. The reality is our emotions influence our thinking much more than our thinking influences our emotions.

In my assessment of the two leading brands: Brand Baba and Brand WSR, I am quickly drawn to the psychological management of brand WSR. In branding him as the chief hustler, the WSR campaign team managed to make him one of the hustlers. By nature, we are group animals and are built for social hierarchies in which group members want to be like their leaders. No wonder WSR was thought of highly as the leader of the hustler nation. To be like a father, ‘Baba’, didn’t have a strong pull as it didn’t talk to the pain that voters felt every day.

The choice of a wheelbarrow as the party symbol, while it looks cheap to the elites, was genius in my opinion. The wheelbarrow was a constant reminder of their daily struggle and galvanized their resolve in the hustler movement. I can’t easily remember the party symbol for Azimio la Umoja.

Being attacked every day and frustrated by the ‘system’ branded him a victim, something that our brains can’t ignore. Our brains connect faster with victims because of our human ability to empathize. Think about how easily you like and root for victims in movies. In addition, in addressing the attacks on himself, WSR would always use ‘We are being attacked or “they don’t want you to rise.” As a result, psychologically, an attack on WSR was an attack on the hustlers and that galvanized the hustler nation even more.

Because of reciprocal altruism, as human beings, we are hard-wired for reciprocation. Psychologically, we feel obliged to repay in kind whenever possible for what another person has done or provided for us. Over the years leading to the election, WSR was big on charity much to the discomfort of his competitors. He was captured on numerous occasions giving donations in church, on the campaign trail, to groups at Karen. This was an emotional gold investment at the ‘Favor Bank’ that he easily cashed on to good effect on election day.

3. Azimio was Too Slow off the Blocks on Campaign Strategy

The most effective campaign is one that knows its voters, has the right message for the voter and is disciplined in executing its strategy. A campaign at the level of presidential candidature is a nightmare of operation and communication efficiency. There is no honor in becoming number two in an election. Unfortunately, only one strategy wins in an election. I opine that for a presidential campaign time and timing are critical success factors.

When comparing the two leading candidates in the last concluded election, WSR started his campaigns much earlier which gave him a head start over RAO who started a bit late. With a clear strategy of connecting with voters at the grassroots, WSR was able to appeal to and win over even the most hardened voters because of the numerous voter contact opportunities. I was once told that WSR visited one County within the GEMA nation more than 20 times in the last 4years. By leaving it too late Baba allowed WSR to appeal to and solidify his base of die-hards- the youth and Christians. How could Baba undo the emotional connection achieved with 20 visits with just a handful of visits? Impossible. Our emotions are our drivers for tastes and preferences, and loyalty and determine what and who we engage with in life.

I want to theorize that the Azimio team left it too late because they were slow in developing their campaign plan. You can build a house using a ‘Fundi’ or you can build it using an architect. With a ‘Fundi’, you will certainly waste a lot of resources, and time and definitely won’t be satisfied with the end product. It is the same for political campaigns without a written plan- they end in a loss.

Effective presidential campaigns need the advantage of time. The Campaign Secretariat ought to be set up quite early 1.5-2yrs before the election to deliver a win on election day. A campaign secretariat is the brain of the campaign while the candidate is the heart of the campaign. This distinction means a secretariat should run the campaign while the candidate runs for office. If the brain doesn’t function well, how can the heart be effective?

The CEO of the ODM secretariat was appointed in January 2022, seven months before the election. In an election where election dates are known, time becomes one of the most important campaign resources together with the candidate’s time. Though the WSR secretariat was set up informally much earlier, it was fully constituted and professionally operationalized 1 year before the election.

4. The Underdog Dictated the Tempo of the Match.

In football matches, underdogs have surprised the favorites so many times. The favorites always make the same mistake of assuming the match will be a walkover because of their perceived superior quality and strength. They become complacent. On the other hand, the underdog has everything to fight for including reputation. As the game progresses, the underdog gains more confidence with every minute that the favorites don’t score. Out of the blue, the underdog delivers a sucker punch with a goal against the run of play and defends that one goal with all they have got until the game is over.

This is exactly what happened with WSR. He was the underdog. He started early and gained more confidence as the campaigns went on. By the time Baba was realizing the game is at the 80minute and tried to bring into the game all his experience and might, the underdog defended his lead to the very end.  The Azimio team had more resources, the so-called system, and experience but they tried to come back into the game very late. The outcome of a loss was inevitable.

5.WSR’s Effective GOTV Strategy Carried the Day

Perhaps the biggest failure of the Azimio team was their failure to turn out its strongholds on voting day.

Elections usually follow three distinct stages: Awareness, Persuasion/Appeal, and Get Out The Vote (GOTV) stages. New candidates, must go through those stages in that order because human beings don’t trust strangers. So, voters must know you first before they evaluate or compare you with your opponents and eventually turn out and vote for you.  Seasoned politicians can ignore the first stage because over time they have built a name for themselves.

Hence for an Enigma like Baba, even persuasion is not a stage that would take much of his time. Some ODM diehards will often ask, “If you say you are campaigning for baba, what exactly are you telling people? You can only remind baba’s supporters to come out and vote for him.” To a large extent, this is true because Baba has a larger-than-life personality. There is no doubt about what he stands for and what he wants to do for this country.

Get Out The Vote (GOTV) was the most critical stage for Baba. A lot of resources ought to have been allocated to this stage. But Azimio failed here miserably. They assumed people would just turn out and vote. It is never enough that people know you as a candidate and are persuaded to vote for you, you must push them off the cliff to wake up, sacrifice their time, queue for hours and vote for you.  I strongly feel this is where Kenya Kwanza won this election. Kenya Kwanza mobilized their base, the swing counties to vote for it while Azimio prayed and hoped for the win.

6. Election Day Management Success.

Like everything else in life, long-term efforts are judged by a one-day event. Take an example of National examinations, after many years of swotting and sweating in class, a one-day examination decides whether you emerge victorious or not. Similarly, all the campaign efforts are judged by the results on election day. But too many things can go wrong on election day just like on examination day. Hence it becomes important that there is a clear strategy for the day.

The GOTV strategy must include the protection of votes, evidence collection should an election petition be an option after the election. Part of election day management includes recruitment, training, deployment, and management of agents on election day. By failing to have a clear plan for agents and not having agents in many polling stations across the country, Azimio left a lot to chance and nature does not reward laziness.

As part of their strategy of ensuring they had many people monitoring and protecting their votes, Kenya Kwanza communicated very early on that their party won’t have agents at polling stations thereby allowing candidates to field their own agents. In essence, Kenya kwanza had many agents in every polling station and despite the communique, the agents were well coordinated with clear reporting lines to the secretariat and the national tallying center. Like the proverbial saying, “When a king has good counselors, his reign is peaceful.” I wonder did Baba have good counselors to have a happy ending to his campaign?

Conclusion

The Kenya Kwanza win is a reminder to strategists that a good strategy is better than wealth, that there is wisdom in starting our endeavors early because he who wakes and rises at the first cry of the songbird collects the best fruit of the night, and that it is important to believe in and commit to a cause.

H.E WSR’s determination and resilience are important lessons in the pursuit of our dreams. Indeed, as the Yoruba say, an anthill that is destined to become a giant will ultimately become one, no matter how many times it is destroyed by elephants.

My advice to Kenyans is that in an electioneering process, it is very much in order to make a stand, to believe in an idea, to believe in your candidate, to support your candidate of choice to the best of your ability but while at it DO NOT abuse your opponents and their supporters for whoever leaves excrement behind will return to find flies. As former Uasin Gishu Governor, Jackson Mandagor would say, “weka siasa kwa lungs, ukipumua inatoka.”

They say on a dead tree there are no monkeys. Baba is not done and dusted as there are Seven (7) Million Kenyans who still believe in him. I am not qualified in any way to even tie Baba’s shoe laces so I will not offer him any advice. But I know his supporters will always look to him for inspiration and guidance. His contributions to the country have kept the embers of the fight for democracy alive and can never be dimmed in our hearts and future generations will be told about Baba. Just like a bird does not change its feathers because the weather is bad I know Baba will remain BABA.

Kela Adulu is a branding and communication strategist who specializes in building emotionally connected personal and business brands.

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