Yes He Can? Here's How Trump Could Win
Maybe, just maybe, some of the normal rules of American politics are relevant to the utterly abnormal, wildly unruly 2016 presidential campaign cycle. Perhaps logic -- particularly the elemental logic of political advertising, messaging and branding -- applies to The Donald & Hillary Show after all.
In other words, what's been happening recently -- Hillary Clinton's lead over Donald Trump narrowing (FiveThirtyEight had her chance of winning dipping to 69.5% as of Sept. 8) -- is happening for a reason.
Let's start with the advertising. In fact, let's start with one particular ad released by the Clinton campaign a couple weeks ago in the form of an online video. Because it says a lot about how the Clinton campaign regards the art of political persuasion right now.
Titled "Donald Trump's Immigration Ink Blot," it consists of nothing but animation and typography combined with audio clips of Trump underscored by a plaintive, unsettling instrumental track. We see an ever-morphing black inkblot that's obviously meant to suggest that a Rorschach test is being administered to the Donald -- a telling visual that connects with one of the subtexts of the presidential campaign advanced by Democrats (and more than a few Republicans): Hillary is the sane candidate, and Donald is the, uh, not-sane one.
The specific message here is that Trump's declarations about the immigration issue, presented via sound bites, are crazy and disturbing, despite his recent attempts at "softening" his rhetoric. We hear Trump speak -- "You're going to have a deportation force," "I will build a great, great wall," etc. -- and then, near the end of the video, superimposed over the last bit of the morphing inkblot, is this message in stark type: "These are his plans. They need no interpretation."
It's arty and weird and visually striking -- and it's also all wrong as a piece of persuasive political advertising.
There are lots of people, millions of people, who like the sound of those sound bites, who like the idea of some sort of wall, who like the idea of a deportation force. And these people have already demonstrated time and time again that they have no problem with Donald Trump's ever-shifting rhetoric as long as he continues to signal that he's going to be a lot harsher overall on illegal immigrants than Hillary Clinton would be.
Trump voters aren't looking for complete consistency from the man, but they are looking for a generally consistent attitude -- of toughness. And besides, in the view of Trump fans, isn't calling Trump crazy for staking out these positions the same as calling his supporters crazy? It reeks of condescension. (Maybe under a Clinton administration, Obamacare 2.0 -- or Clintoncare or whatever you wanna call it -- will mandate Rorschach tests for everybody?)
The Clinton campaign has also recently been doubling down on airing a TV ad called "Role Models," which it introduced in July. You've surely seen it by now; it's the one that shows little kids watching TV (no parents in sight) quietly witnessing Donald Trump saying mean, sexist, demeaning things, followed by a typographic message on the screen: "Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?"
Wait, when their parents aren't around, children change the channel to CNN or Fox News? Who knew?!
Even if you accept the premise that Our Innocent Children are learning how to be Big Meanies by watching Donald Trump on TV, it's no secret to grown-ups everywhere that politics was a rough-and-tumble business long before Trump decided to join the fray; it's always been an arena for adults, not kids. Trump just made things, you know, rougher-and-tumble-ier. Because that's what he does. His trademark bluntness and outspokenness and insult-comic rudeness are, to his fans, good qualities.
What the Clinton campaign seems to forget is that Donald Trump announced his candidacy a long time ago (June 16, 2015) and he's said hundreds of outrageous things since then, and we're all used to it by now. We're inoculated to it. Spending money to try to crank up the outrage machine over Outrageous Donald is probably not going to move the needle at this point. And, again, there's a condescension factor at play (are you saying I'm a bad parent if I support Donald Trump?!).
Contrast Clinton's arty psychoanalysis video and her suffer-the-little-children ad with one of the TV commercials Trump has been running recently. More polished than previous Trump TV commercials from the primary season, "Two Americas: Immigration," as the ad is titled, contrasts "Hillary Clinton's America" (underscored by somber music and scary scenes of refugees and immigrants) and "Donald Trump's America" (underscored by upbeat music and scenes of happy families). "In Hillary Clinton's America," the voice-over says, "the system stays rigged against Americans. Syrian refugees flood in. Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay, collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line...." In contrast, "Donald Trump's America is secure. Terrorists and dangerous criminals kept out. The border secure. Our families safe...."
It's a simple, traditional spot. It's political ad paint-by-numbers to the point that it was quickly followed by another one just like it, again contrasting Hillary Clinton's America and Donald Trump's America, but this time regarding the economy. "In Hillary Clinton's America, the middle class gets crushed, spending goes up, taxes go up, hundreds of thousands of jobs disappear. It's more of the same, but worse," the announcer says. "In Donald Trump's America, working families get tax relief, millions of new jobs created, wages go up, small businesses thrive. The American dream, achievable. Change that makes America great again."
It's so simple, isn't it? Wonks, and the Clinton campaign, can make fun all they want of Donald Trump's detail-free messaging, but this is still a campaign, not an administration, and message discipline in campaigns is about simplicity. Dead-simple, repetitive simplicity.
It turns out that a little old-fashioned message discipline might go a long way for Trump. Clinton's message discipline, meanwhile, has lately seemed to be, basically, Trump equals the apocalypse. And I'm your only hope. And Sorry (kinda) about that private email server.
Back in July, I went to Cleveland to cover the Republican National Convention and then Philadelphia to cover the Democratic National Convention. One memory that stands out from those trips is a conversation I had on a shuttle bus with a local Philly Democrat and Hillary fan. "Why do we keep making all these unforced errors?!" she said to me, exasperated. "We should be miles ahead of Trump!" The unforced error of that particular moment was the leak of Democratic National Committee emails that showed the organization's bias against Bernie Sanders and led to the resignation of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the eve of the convention.
Trump's unforced errors -- like when he says something just a bit too asshole-ish -- have a way of reinforcing his brand values in the eyes of his supporters. (He's a straight shooter! He's unfiltered! Donald's just being Donald!) Clinton's unforced errors, on the other hand, have a way of undermining her brand values in the eyes of her supporters -- while reinforcing, for everyone else, Trump's assessment of her as corrupt.
When more of the drip, drip, drip of news about Clinton's use of a private email server at the State Department came out last week -- the fact that over four years Clinton used 13 different mobile phones -- even Stephen Colbert, late-night TV's most persistent (and hilarious) Trump takedown artist, had a few words for the former secretary of state: "Thirteen cellphones! Madam Secretary, tell the truth: Are you a crack dealer? 'Cause I can't figure out why else you would need 13 phones."
Lordy, Lordy, Lordy. The optics here are just inescapable.
Twenty-four years ago in a New York Times op-ed titled "Clinton: The Teflon Candidate," Haley Barbour, who had served as political director for the Reagan White House, wrote about how criticism just didn't seem to stick to Bill Clinton, the smooth operator from Arkansas. (During Reagan's first term, then-Congresswoman Pat Schroeder had called Reagan the "Teflon President.") "While every recent Democratic Presidential hopeful has made liberal use of the charge that Republicans rely on dirty tricks during campaigns," Barbour wrote, "none mastered it as early or as well as Bill Clinton. At the first whiff of criticism or even a recitation of facts from his record, the Clinton camp immediately went on the attack, accusing the Republicans of dirty tricks. If unflattering stories cropped up in the press, the Democrats decried the low road taken by Bush-Quayle 'operatives.' Day after day, they sounded the refrain. The Clinton people have crowed about the effectiveness of this strategy, and it has worked."
Hillary Clinton, though -- oh jeez. Who needs dirty tricks or Trump-Pence operatives when Hillary's career catalog of unforced errors keeps on popping up Whac-A-Mole-style?
In Philadelphia during her acceptance speech, Clinton said, "It's true: I sweat the details of policy" -- and yes, that does seem true; we know that about her. That's one of the cornerstones of her political brand. And precisely because Clinton has branded herself the experienced, knowledgeable, detail-oriented candidate, her stiff, lawyerly answers about her past unforced errors come off as evasions. She scowls and shrinks when her integrity is questioned.
As for Trump, when his integrity is questioned, well, he's not only mastered the nonchalant fuck-you brush-off, but has lately also been adding I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I-ism to his repertoire. (Exhibit A: "Hillary Clinton is a bigot." --Donald Trump)
As for his policy details? Details, schmetails. Donald Trump has been selling himself to the American people as the big-picture guy, not the details guy. Which is why Trump feels entirely comfortable saying something like, "I have a substantial chance of winning -- make America great again. If I win, I don't want to broadcast to the enemy what my plan is." (That was his answer to a question about how he'd defeat ISIS at last week's Commander-in-Chief Forum, hosted by NBC News and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.)
There are plenty of political commentators who are predicting that he won't be able to get away with that kind of evasion and bluster in his coming debates against Clinton -- but they're forgetting that evasion and bluster worked pretty well for him during the primary debates.
At the same time, there are those who earnestly wish that Donald Trump's past would be subjected to the same scrutiny as Clinton's. And maybe something will gain momentum and actually stick over the next eight weeks -- like that $25,000 check he wrote in 2013 to support Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's reelection bid just as she was deciding not to investigate Trump University. Stay tuned (but I wouldn't count on it).
Shortly after installing Steve Bannon as his new campaign CEO in August, Trump tweeted, "They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!" He's clearly hoping for a Brexit-style outcome -- a last-minute surge of voting that defies the polls -- but he's also counting on a boost from a Brexit-style subtext. The subtext, that is, of massive blocks of white, working-class voters in America's heartland who are just as pissed off as their U.K. counterparts.
As Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post wrote in piece titled "The remarkable parallels between the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump," the touchpoints common to Brexitists and Trumpists include "Immigration is out of control" and "Political leaders and institutions are clueless and corrupt."
Can Hillary Clinton hope to sway voters who feel that way down to the core of their very being? To the contrary, lately she's probably been unwittingly encouraging undecideds to regard her as one of the "clueless and corrupt." Donald Trump has Hillary Clinton right where he wants her -- for the moment, at least.
Every Friday at AdAge.com/campaigntrail, Ad Age has been tracking the TV and radio ad spending of the Trump campaign together with the PACs that support him, versus Clinton and the PACs that support her. Our current assessment is that Trump's still behind Clinton by more than $100 million in booked ad spending leading up to election day, which raises the specter that he's conserving cash for an October all-out attack-ad blowout against "Crooked Hillary."
Because, why wouldn't he? Clinton is giving Trump all the ammunition he needs. Those ads, like Hillary's Donald-is-a-big-crazy-meanie ads, are going to write themselves.
- - -
UPDATE: This story, which appears in the Sept. 12 issue of Advertising Age, was finalized on the morning of Friday, Sept. 9. Hillary Clinton gave a speech Friday evening before a group of wealthy donors in which she referred to the "deplorables" among Donald Trump's supporters. She has since partially walked back the comment while the Trump campaign has rushed out a TV ad condemning Clinton for "viciously demonizing hard-working people like you."
Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.