Trump’s Victory Proves Campaign Rules Still Apply
Last Saturday I took a train from Washington, DC to Philadelphia for a post-election panel at Wharton Business School’s Whitney Young Memorial Conference, put on by the schools African American students. In town a little early, a few panelists let Yelp help find a place for lunch near the University of Pennsylvania.
Tiffany Cross, editor of the Beat DC (which I help edit), looked at me across a table filled with plates of lettuce dripping in too much salad dressing. “What did this election teach you about the voters?”
I’ve been in the media and politics business for over 20 years and it happens all the time. Important questions are often asked over mediocre salads.
Political pundits have to Monday morning quarterback, but sometimes it sucks. I know too well the pain of losing to enjoy picking over the shortcomings of a campaign filled with friends. My heart goes out to Hillary Clinton and her staff, but if Democrats are to win again being honest about our mistakes is critical.
This year’s presidential election results surprised me and just about every other media and political professional not on the Trump payroll, but they shouldn’t have. The campaign rules I learned working for Bill Clinton in the 1990s were being violated from the beginning.
Campaigns are not rewards for good behavior. They are about the future, not the past. They are about voters, not candidates. And when people want change, don’t sell them “more of the same.”
This campaign was about Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary resume more than it was about her vision for the voter’s future.
It started with “Ready for Hillary” and continued with “I’m with Her.” For months the only sign on the podium at a Hillary Clinton rally was “HillaryClinton.com.” The underlying message was about the candidate, not the voters. “Stronger Together” was a better attempt but it was still about a process, not a destination.
Early on, I saw a picture of a wall in the Clinton campaign headquarters with the words “HILLARY FOR…” emblazoned on it. Campaign workers posted dozens of sticky notes with issues they cared about after the ellipses.
The wall of stickies made me nervous. The Bill Clinton 1992 campaign was about “the economy, stupid (and don’t forget health care).” In 1996, he promised a “Bridge to the 21st Century.” Obama’s first presidential was about hope and change. For voters, a campaign about everything is a campaign about nothing in particular.
Even President Obama’s energy at the end of the race was about the past. He exhorted progressives, people who want to change the world, that they should vote to preserve past gains, in essence a conservative argument. Democrats were campaigning on fear to voters looking for hope. I closed my eyes and believed anti-Trump sentiment would save us.
Meanwhile Trump never wavered from an aspirational vision, mixed with xenophobic blame. He promised to “Make America Great Again” and blamed immigrants and China for our problems. At first he was the only one wearing that cheap goofy hat. By Election Day those hats were everywhere. People chanted, “Build the Wall” at every campaign stop. He had won the message war.
I put my faith in the Clinton campaign’s vaunted ground game and the ridiculousness of the very idea of a Donald Trump presidency. It turned out the ground game was overhyped, more data-driven than people powered. Hillary won the popular vote based on a surge in coastal liberal enclaves, but irregular, drop-off voting Millennials and economically distressed members of the working class in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin didn’t seal the Electoral College deal. Maybe they wanted something more about their aspirations than Hillary’s qualifications or protecting Barack Obama’s legacy.
The idea of Donald Trump as president turned out not to be as ridiculous as I thought either. He was a disrupter; the guy would overturn the apple cart.
No question about it, Hillary Clinton was the most qualified Democrat to run for president in my lifetime. I looked forward to girls and boys in America growing up with a woman as our national leader. She would govern us well, manage our relationships effectively and keep the country moving forward toward a more inclusive Democracy.
And that was the problem.
For the fifth time in six elections, people wanted change. They wanted the establishment apple cart to be overturned and Clinton was selling stability.
What did I learn about the voters this year? I learned that the rules still apply.
**This piece has been edited for typos and grammar.