As Donald Trump cruised toward the GOP nomination this summer, my mind latched onto a (kind of gross) movie quote: “this town needs an enema!”
Jack Nicholson’s laugh line as the Joker speaks to a truth about how we choose the people who govern us: the modern American political campaign has become full of, well… crap.
Whether you think he’s a joker or a superhero—Trump himself openly embraced this line of thinking with his “drain the swamp” tagline.
Voters felt it. Donald Trump sensed it. By contrast, Hillary Clinton charged forward with the latest and greatest in modern conventional campaigning—a move that alienated voters.
If you’re looking for arguments about which candidate is right or wrong on the issues, or a comprehensive analysis of why Trump won, look elsewhere.
This analysis is meant to explore one narrow, but important, part of the race: the way issues are formed into a choice for voters to make.
The political world has a problem it has yet to fully confront-- modern campaigns have built a buffer between the candidate and the voters.
CLINTON WAS THE ‘FOCUS GROUP CANDIDATE’
For all the hyperbolic charges levied against Clinton by Trump, one was spot on: Hillary Clinton was the focus group candidate.
Amid the drama, this basic difference between Clinton and Trump barely registered as a blip.
But Saturday Night Live nailed it early on when Kate McKinnon took the podium for the show’s mock Democratic primary debate.
“I think you’re really going to like the Hillary Clinton that my team has created for this debate,” McKinnon deadpanned as she took the lectern. “She’s warm, but strong. Flawed, yet perfect.”
Voters aren’t stupid.
They sense inauthenticity—and that’s the problem with the style of campaign that decides in advance that one week shall be all about issue X and the next week about issue Y.
But it’s so tempting for political operatives. “Our testing shows issue Y really resonates with suburban women in swing states!!!”
Voters aren’t waiting for word from on high to be told what issue to care about or how to think about a candidate.
They’ve been starving for candidates who will just be real, which Trump did effectively. He even offered a theory that there are two Donald Trumps— a public one and a private one-- leaving room for voters to adopt the Trump they liked best.
A LEADER IS IN CHARGE
2016 voters sensed Clinton was the figurehead of a giant machine working on autopilot to push her over the finish line.
They sensed something different about Trump: he built a machine, but he was damned if he was letting go of its steering wheel no matter how many people warned him he was headed for a crash.
Trump may be a car wreck, but at least his car is pointed in right direction. Hillary is a drunk-driver going the wrong way on the freeway.— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) November 4, 2016
It was plain to see that Trump remained in charge of his operation in a process designed to choose a leader.
Voters didn’t feel that about Clinton—and Trump made sure they knew that, too.
I had the chance to ask Clinton about this contrast: running a traditional campaign against a radically different style of candidate.
“I guess I would somewhat disagree with that,” Clinton said. “I am not going to engage in the kind of behavior that you see from Donald Trump.”
Clinton’s answer focused on the content of Trump’s statements, but not the context— that he was convincing people of both his authority and his authenticity.
When I asked Trump about his campaign style, he replied that voters are “tired of the stupidity, and that’s all it is.”
It appears he was onto something.
HARNESSING A MOVEMENT
I’m not suggesting that merely presenting as authentic is enough to win the Presidency.
I am suggesting that future candidates would do well to make it clear that when voters hear them speak—they are actually hearing them speak.
The buffer created by campaigns isn’t just about managing the candidates, it’s also about managing voters.
Trump nurtured a movement. He fed it, watched it grow, and harnessed it.
By contrast, Clinton managed to stamp out the movement on her side of the aisle. Bernie Sanders was the Democrats’ Donald Trump, but his party’s leadership actively worked to stop him.
In fairness, the GOP establishment made similar efforts to discourage a Trump nomination.
But we know the end result. Democrats killed the movement that rose from their base. Republicans did not.
We’ll never know what a Sanders-Trump general election would have looked like, but I bet Sanders thinks he had a real shot at winning it.
THE MEDIA ARE MORE MIDDLEMEN
Electoral politics needs middlemen. There’s simply too much to communicate and too little time.
We in the news media are middlemen, too. And Trump deftly mastered the media.
He aggressively sought talk time, which modern campaigns tend to view as a liability.
The conventional wisdom teaches that unscripted Q&A time with nosy journalists should be granted sparingly, for fear of accidentally saying something “off-message” and creating a PR problem.
While Clinton got attention for the time between her press conferences, Trump didn’t worry much about the risk of talking with reporters.
He made it plain to see he wanted to talk to voters as much as he could. If he went off-message, he could always shoot the proverbial messenger.
And he had a point. Most in the media didn’t believe he could win.
“The media covers politics like sports,” as my colleague Chris Vanderveen put it. And Trump was the team almost certain to lose—all the polls and forecasts we’ve come to rely on told us so.
But they missed one thing: the candidate is the number one asset of a campaign.
Clinton’s campaign was built around protecting their candidate from attacks. Trump’s was about putting their candidate in front of as many people as often as possible.
The Clinton camp bet everything that it would win if Trump was front and center-- and lost.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
The American people clearly feel disconnected from the people seeking to represent them.
All of us who work somewhere in the political process would do well to think about whether we are standing in the way of authenticity.
The voters get one shot to pick a person to govern them—and they want to feel like they know what they’re getting. There are a lot of smart, well-intentioned people working to facilitate that.
But anyone involved in the American political system (candidates, campaign managers, news reporters, pundits, pollsters, and more) would be well served to think about cleaning out the clutter that’s crept in between the candidates and the people.
Or they can risk having it cleaned out for them, in exactly the manner Jack Nicholson’s Joker prescribed.