LONDON (Reuters) - Most Britons have never heard of Gerry Gunster, yet the 48-year-old American could play a major role in whether they vote to leave the European Union at a membership referendum due by the end of 2017.
A referendum veteran, he has been hired by the Leave.EU ‘out’ group to mastermind its campaign to persuade Britons they are better off without the European Union. The advocacy firm he heads, Goddard Gunster, says it has a 90 percent success rate.
For the man behind Leave.EU, millionaire businessman Arron Banks, Gunster’s expertise will give the ‘out campaign’ more than a fighting chance against those lobbying to stay in the 28-member bloc.
“This is an historic vote,” Gunster told Reuters by telephone from Washington, where he is based. “This is a campaign that is challenging ... but I also feel very positive.”
Although Prime Minister David Cameron has not yet set a date for the referendum, focusing instead on his plan to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the bloc, those who want to see ‘Brexit’ no matter what are mobilizing.
While Leave.EU turns to the United States to boost its chances, another ‘out campaign’ launched this week, bringing together some of the biggest names in British business to argue that the United Kingdom must reclaim its sovereignty.
With the financial firepower of several billionaires, ‘Vote Leave’ says Cameron is unlikely to persuade other EU leaders to support the kind of reform that it believes Britain needs.
Those campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU are also readying their arguments, with the ‘In Campaign’ launching on Monday in London.
Polls show the gap between Britons who want to remain in the EU and those who back leaving is narrow.
Gunster acknowledges that it is generally easier to get people to vote for what they know.
“It is going to be a tricky one,” he said. “You need to not only show people that there is a problem, you need to explain to them that there is a solution to that problem.”
“This is unprecedented and I think like most referendum campaigns, they are volatile and I think it is just way too early to say whether or not people are OK with the status quo.”
Under his company’s slogan: ‘Get used to winning’, Gunster has successfully campaigned against sugary drink taxes and plastic bottle deposits in several U.S. states, and helped block then New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks.
Gunster, who declined to say how much his firm is being paid for its role in this campaign, believes the side that best succeeds in appealing to voters’ emotions will be the one that wins.
“You have got to get into that emotional side of a person ... Everybody has some self-interest,” he said.
“For a voter that self-interest usually means family, community, pocketbook, wallet and, am I safe? Ultimately people make those decisions based upon whether or not ... voting on this particular issue will protect those basic principles.”
With referendums a more common affair in the United States, most of his firm’s experience is on the other side of the Atlantic, but it has been involved in international campaigns.
Ben Goddard, who has now retired but has worked with Gunster for 16 years and continues to provide him with advice, advised then Russian President Boris Yeltsin on his 1990s referendums on economic and political reform.
While Gunster acknowledges he will need to make sure he has a good understanding of the British electorate, he says there are key elements to his method that work across the board, starting with qualitative and quantitative research.
Social media will also play a role, helping spread the message “organically”, he said. Leave.EU has more than 150,000 people liking its Facebook page and nearly 16,000 followers on Twitter.
“It is all about alliance building. A referendum campaign, unlike a candidate campaign, is won by people and having a broad base of supporters from all kinds of backgrounds.”
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Elizabeth Piper, Sonya Hepinstall and Guy Faulconbridge