Trump’s “brilliant” campaign strategy? Clinton’s “mistakes”? I don’t buy it.
I’m really tired of hearing Democrats say how Clinton made mistakes, failed, and lost the campaign to someone who should have been easily defeated. They have few specifics about exactly what she did so terribly. Worse, they mysteriously posit that Trump was smarter or more strategic than we thought, a genius that pulled off a masterful Rust Belt coup. I think the root of this claim is the common notion that results of a process or a decision prove the wisdom of it, as in “the proof is in the pudding.” Trump won — therefore, we underestimated his cunning and abilities.
But is this true? Is it possible that sometimes a contestant with a poor strategy wins, and one with a sensible strategy loses? If a drunken gambler bets on even odds that he can pull the Ace of Clubs out of a shuffled deck, and wins… does this prove his brilliance? Were the pollsters who said Trump had a 15–29 percent chance of winning “wrong”? By this logic, if I tell you the odds of rolling a two with a six-sided die are 1/6, and you roll a two — I must have failed math.
Go back in time and assume that you are a 2016 campaign manager and care only about your candidate winning — you have no ethical qualms about Donald Trump’s behavior, comments, or values. Even knowing what we know now, would you advise your candidate to run a campaign as did he? Do you believe Trump’s victory was the most likely outcome? Or is it possible that Trump won not because of his campaign, but in spite of it?
I believe that is precisely what happened: a highly unlikely outcome occurred due to a perfect storm of conditions. Here’s eight of them:
(1) The New Media: Social media continues to evolve and has made the purchase of expensive television time far less important than it previously was. The millions that Jeb Bush spent in traditional television advertising had a far smaller impact than it would have in previous years and was crushed by the bizarre behavior of Trump that compelled cable news to give him free non-stop coverage. Trump was originally polling 2% when he announced in June 2015, but we all voyeuristically watched him as if waiting for him to crash his race car. What campaign manager would have ever advised that the path to victory would be a constant stream of childish, rude, name-calling insults to almost everyone in the country?
Overwhelmingly, coverage of Trump was about polls and the state of the campaign. During the primary season only about 8% of news stories were about his character, and about 3% were about his qualifications to be president. So although 83% of the reports about his character were negative, there were far more “horserace” reports, which heavily favored him and added to his momentum.
(2) The Erosion of Party Control: During the last century, there has been slow but continual democratization of what was previously the party elite’s control over the nomination process. I’m referring to primaries rather than caucuses, binding primaries that restrict party conventions, open primaries which allow crossover voting, later registration that is more forgiving to new voters, and other measures. Now an “outside candidate” can get support not only from the party faithful, but also from others, including relatively apathetic individuals who have not voted previously but are mobilized by that candidate’s campaign. Thus, a man of questionable party identity can take over a party. Although it is fair to say that the GOP bears a lot of responsibility for allowing Trump to grow unmolested in its garden throughout the Obama administration, Democrats should take note to not allow something similar to happen to their party as well.
Update: Since I published this article the Democrats have further democratized the nomination process in August 2018. See my article: “Won’t Anyone Stand Up for the Superdelegates?
(3) Gerrymandered Polarization: Gerrymandering means unfairly drawing electoral districts in order to advantage individuals, interests, or parties. This allows favored candidates to win more seats than they would ordinarily deserve if the results mirrored their percentage of the voting population. Of course, gerrymandering is as old as the republic. But what is different now is the advent of computer programs, sophisticated polling, more accurate information and census data, and increasingly predictable partisan voting, all of which allows parties to perfect the art. By “perfect,” I mean that legislatures can draw districts that are completely “safe” for their favored party and candidates.
Fewer and fewer districts are now competitive (e.g., roughly 10–11% of the U.S. House), so increasingly incumbent office-holders worry only being “primaried,” i.e., being challenged by a fellow party member in the primaries. This challenger is usually a Republican who is further to the right or a Democrat who is further to the left, because party activists who vote in primaries are more ideological. This creates the climate for further polarization between the parties and rewards candidates like Trump who are more extreme during the primary season. Many of the Republicans who are now accommodating Trump condemned in him the harshest of terms earlier.
(4) Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen: In previous elections, lower-ranking candidates normally withdrew MUCH earlier. Historically, as the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary start looming, the media focuses on and anoints the front runners, limiting the race to perhaps 3–5 viable candidates (who can still collect campaign contributions). The only reason so many Republicans lingered in 2016 is because they all [reasonably so] thought there was absolutely no way in hell Trump could win. Several of his opponents, especially Ted Cruz, appeased him at every turn, angling to inherit his supporters when Trump “inevitably” dropped out. Being a front-runner in a field of eighteen candidates gave Trump undeserved momentum and prevented an effective Never-Trump candidate from emerging until it was too late.
(5) Jihad vs. McWorld: Trump’s rhetoric was bolstered by a growing world-wide reaction against globalism, trade, and immigration. It is essentially a tribal or nationalistic reaction to an interdependent world of free-flowing goods, services, workers, and ideas. Trade, mass communications, newer technologies, and urban diversity are breaking down traditional values, identity, and jobs. “Jihad” (traditionalism) is counterattacking against “McWorld” (modernism). We have only to consider what is happening in the European Union to know that this is not only about the Middle East. This reaction was an especially powerful part of Trump’s appeal.
(6) Clinton’s Battle Scars: There is simply no way to be active in the political spotlight all one’s life and be respected by all. This is probably why candidates who are relatively unknown and new to the game often do well.
During the Democratic convention, 8% of all coverage (17% of CNN’s) was about Clinton’s e-mail issue. Voters heard the constant drumbeat about her private email server, the Clinton Foundation, and Benghazi — over and over. Unfair or not, these stories stuck to her like superglue. The voters caught all three of those fastballs, but were knocked over in a daze by the hundreds of balls thrown at them by the Trump campaign. Every day there was an incredible new story about unimaginable events, scandals and revelations, embarrassing behaviors, laughable moments, and completely bizarre comments. Consequently, the shotgun effect of this non-stop stream of fastballs hurled at voters made it difficult for them to catch any of them.
Even so, Clinton was still more popular than Trump throughout the campaign. Let’s not forget that she won 2.86 million more popular votes than Trump. Oh, wait, I forgot about the 3–5 million illegal voters which is coincidentally just enough to make him the winner.
(7) Post-Factual Politics: As the line between professional news (carefully edited, fact-checked, responsible journalism) and unprofessional news (social media, blogging, “citizen reporters,” satire and comedy, fake news, etc.) gets more hazy, so has our agreement on the facts. I spent about three hours on the Internet watching Trump supporters talking at various rallies, and although I’m sure some of it was selective and unrepresentative — it was pretty shocking to observe what they thought were facts and evidence. Their obvious distrust of speaking with professional reporters (and often their unwillingness and hostility) probably also partly explains why they were under-polled. We will never know to what degree misleading and unprofessional media influenced the election, but we do know that foreign governments created many of the divisive and false stories that heavily influenced opinion. And we do know that the top stories on Twitter and Facebook were false, and that this disinformation weighed far more heavily against Clinton than Trump.
(8) Circumstantial Events: And then there were the numerous circumstantial surprises, including the FBI investigations, Russian hacking of DNC accounts, and Trump’s structural advantage in the Electoral College. Clinton’s poll numbers especially took a hit after the FBI’s October Surprise announcement of a renewed e-mail review.
The Perfect Storm: These conditions brewed a perfect storm that sank Hillary Clinton. It was highly unlikely, and without any one of the above conditions, it might not have happened. Yet after the election, a lot of Democratic hand-wringing was limited to blaming her for not spending enough time with “working-class Whites” in Wisconsin, her use of the term “deplorables,” and other feeble attempts to second-guess. Pundits lauded Trump’s “successful strategy,” some pretending that unlike Clinton, they saw it coming. Some even claimed Trump’s campaign was “brilliant.” Seriously?
I’m obviously in the minority, but I suspect Trump just had simple dumb luck. Who would have thought evangelicals would support a man like him, for example? Again, we often confuse outcome with probability.
The inherent danger in this confusion is in thinking that somehow the Democratic Party is doomed unless it changes radically and reinvents itself. A critical self-examination is always useful, but that does not necessitate change for change’s sake or fighting the previous war.
Donald Trump’s “genius” reminds me of that of Chauncey Gardiner, the character played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 film “Being There.” You might disagree with that, because Chauncey (actually a soft-spoken and unsophisticated gardener named Chance) had an unassuming personality that was exactly the opposite of Donald Trump’s.
But what reminded me of Chauncey were his simple comments that others assumed to be proverbial, representing much more deep and profound ideas. Other characters read into them what they wanted to believe and by the end of the movie Chauncey was being promoted to be the next president.