Inside ODM’s perpetual campaign strategy

Saturday February 11 2017

Raila Odinga, party leader of the Orange Democratic Movement, in Kajiado on February 1, 2017. PHOTO | EMMANUEL WANSON

Raila Odinga, party leader of the Orange Democratic Movement, in Kajiado on February 1, 2017. PHOTO | EMMANUEL WANSON 

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As the month-long voter registration campaign that kicked off on January 16 comes to a close, the ruling Jubilee party appears to be maintaining its “tyranny of numbers”. But this time round, Jubilee’s growing “tyranny of numbers” runs against the headwinds of a well-oiled and coordinated permanent campaign machine Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) strategists have honed over the last four years.

Judging by lessons from the Brexit in Europe, the Trump phenomenon in America and Ghana’s recent presidential election, Jubilee will need more than numbers to win the 2017 General Election – or to defend its victory against likely claims of rigging in 2017.

When does campaigning end and governing begin? The answer to this question, based on the experience under President Barack Obama and now Donald Trump, is that a permanent campaign model, also known as a “perpetual campaign”, has blurred the timelines between the two phases.

Although outnumbered and outgunned in the March, 2013 election, since April, 2014 former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s ODM has used this strategy to dominate the skies of Kenya’s political battleground, keeping Jubilee constantly on a defensive stance.

The sharpest arrow in ODM’s quiver is its adoption four years ago of what experts call “permanent campaign” or “perpetual campaign” model. This political strategy is part of the state-of-the-art imports from America’s political battlegrounds.


Here, the American public opinion pollster, Patrick Caddell, then serving as a pollster for President Jimmy Carter in 1976, popularised the perpetual campaign theory of political science in Washington’s corridors of power.

Caddell made the cogent thesis, articulated in a strategy paper to President Carter titled: “Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy”, that effective governing with public approval “requires a continuing political campaign”.

This model saw the old-style patronage within a rigid party structure give way to computer driven polling, media and doses of sexed up data. This model was adopted by President Lyndon Johnson and pushed to a perfection under Bill Clinton. Writing in his controversial memoirs What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception (2008),

Scott McClellan, a former White House Press Secretary for George W. Bush, argued that the Bush administration White House operated on a “permanent campaign” mentality, convinced that policy decisions were inextricably interwoven with politics.

The perpetual campaign model delivered the November 2016 election for President Donald Trump. The “never-ending-campaign” model, which blurs the line between campaign time and governing time, will fortify his besieged presidency.

Since its gallant entry into Kenya in the aftermath of Raila Odinga’s extended visit to the United States in early 2014, the “never-ending-campaign” model has become an indelible feature of the country’s power politics.


Since then, ODM, armed with this new model of political competition, has walked the political space like a colossus, running rings on the Jubilee government, whose communicators and strategists have pretty much stuck to the outdated campaign-to-governing-to-campaign cycle of doing political business.

In the last four years, ODM’s strategists have effectively jettisoned the divide between a short “campaign time” at the end of an electoral cycle and a long “governing period” between elections that traditionally characterised the management of politics.

Used against a governing party, the perpetual campaign strategy means perpetual paralysis. In this regard, ODM’s permanent campaign strategy has performed wonders for what emerged in 2013 as a weak and decimated opposition.

It has made minced meat of Jubilee’s visible achievements in the development arena (including the standard gauge railway, replacing any success in the public psyche with a horrific narrative of a government irredeemably mired in corruption, wastefulness and courting Kanu-era tyranny.

And on the trope of “massive theft of public resources”, months to the August polls ODM is adroitly using its permanent campaign machine to weave, step by step, a devastating narrative of “a stolen election” long before the first ballot is cast.


As a game-changer and a trident weapon against an enemy, ODM’s perpetual campaign strategy has successfully experimented on three interlinked facets of the permanent campaign theory.

First, ODM’s permanent campaign is media-driven. With its Cord principals out of power and out of the requisite largesse or resources to run the traditional patronage system or convene rallies across the nation, they resorted to controlling daily media cycles as a cheaper, sustainable and perhaps more effective alternative. ODM has literally won all the daily news cycles since 2014. Its strategy is aided by the rise of modern technology of computer driven and cost-effective social media platforms.

Second, the Opposition’s permanent campaign model is hoisted on the theory of a data-heavy campaign. Although the campaign is cast as research-driven, by and large this model has depended on intelligently cooked-up data often from doubtful sources. But its success in making quick political gains and to permanently keep the government in a defensive mode especially over corruption has been monumental. This has forced the government’s campaign to be reactive, and to provide evidence to deny or counter propaganda.


Thirdly, ODM’s perpetual campaign is based on no vision of its own, but criticising the government. The permanent campaign model itself is not based on one issue. Rather, it opportunistically latches on every “mistake” or failure by the government to dominate daily news cycles.

Between 2013 and 2017, Kenya’s opposition has played on disenchantment with government reforms in the media sector, insecurity, terrorist attacks and corruption to effectively bolster a public perception of a failed government unable to protect. It has also depicted the government’s lead projects as corrupted, badly conceived and wasteful.

From the results of the ongoing registration, Jubilee may have the numbers to return Mr Kenyatta to power. But counting on a crude tyranny of numbers to win the 2017 election is courting defeat.

Prof Peter Kagwanja is chief executive, Africa Policy Institute.