Think the Trump train is running out of steam? Well, with the midterms coming up, we need to accept an uncomfortable truth—that Trump does three important things better than his rivals.
There is a good chance the GOP will retain control of Congress following the midterm elections held on Tuesday the 6th of November. If the Grand Old Party does win majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, it will be due to the president and the fact Donald Trump is the most effective political campaigner since John F. Kennedy.
There are three dimensions to Trump’s campaign strategy:
- Trump understands the media echo-system better than any politician alive and knows how to manipulate its cycle and pattern of behavior to full effect.
- Trump deciphers the electoral “rules of the game,” identifies those activities most likely to generate a political dividend, or those the absence of which have ruined previous campaigns, and then applies himself doggedly to these and only these activities.
- Trump instinctively knows that political messages must be limited, simple, declarative, emotional, and consistent.
Manipulating the Media
From the moment Trump announced his candidacy for president in June of 2015, he consumed all the political oxygen in the room. We can only speculate if Trump knew in advance the effect that saying “(the Mexicans are) bringing drugs; they’re bringing crime; they’re rapists” would have on the Republican primary season he soon obliterated. However, there is no doubt once he saw its effect, Trump refined this tactic and employed it relentlessly and ruthlessly.
The Trump method is to time perfectly the delivery of a statement, equal part horrific and equal part defensible. “Horrific” in the sense that its mere existence triggers a visceral and vociferous reaction; “defensible” in so far as a plausible defense can be mounted. Instantly, the media turns apoplectic, asserting the utterance is a “dog whistle” to the least desirable parts of the electorate. Wall-to-wall coverage ensues, offering a smorgasbord of pundits rotating through a pinwheel of complexions. The media fetishizes the lack of tone with pornographic delight, squeals about the absence of probity, decency, and manners, and bemoans the overturning, erasure, and erosion of democratic norms.
Note, when it’s wall-to-wall Trump, it’s nothing-to-nothing anyone else. That’s the point. Trump has learned something the media is incapable or unwilling to see. His outrages “disappear” his political opponents. The media cycle is a zero-sum game. If CNN is talking about Trump, CNN is not talking about Democratic policies, prescriptions, ideals, or advantages.
Case in point: Trump declaring he is a nationalist during a rally in Houston, Texas, on the night of Monday the 22nd of October. This one word set off a firestorm of “negative” media coverage, the likes of which ultimately redounds to Trump’s benefit. The following day, not a single MSNBC, CNN, ABC, or NBC “hourly show” avoided discussing the outrage, or missed convening a panel to revel in its impermissibility. Watch CNN’s Don Lemon for a sense of the reaction:
Lemon begins by saying how important the upcoming midterms are, then proceeds to spend the remainder of his show talking about Trump while presenting nothing substantive whatsoever about the Democrats.
This is tragic, since (the U.S. being a non-mandatory voting environment) voters need a reason to get out of the house on Tuesday morning, go for a drive, wait in line at a polling station for over an hour, and punch that ballot behind the little curtain. People vote affirmatively. They vote to affirm a candidate, affirm a policy, or to affirm the denial of a candidate. Now, one might argue that the media is providing fodder for the third motivation: getting people out of their armchairs to deny Trump. In reality, in non-mandatory voting domains, “protest” voting behavior is far less prevalent and nonetheless requires the voter to believe the alternative is worth voting for. As we saw in 2016, people that didn’t like Trump and didn’t like Hillary Clinton stayed home. By gorging themselves on Trump-rage, the media offers little positive inducement for people to vote for the Democrats. Hating Trump simply isn’t enough. Therefore, Trump’s method of media domination has a “depressing effect” on turnout.
The current U.S. electorate is constituted: 26% Republicans (GOP); 27% Democrats (DEM); 44% Independents (IND). Everyone always forgets about the Independents. They ought not.
Trump’s statement, “I’m a nationalist,” equal parts horrific and defensible, invariably makes Democrats vote Democrat, Republicans vote Republican, but it also has the effect of giving Republicans a slight edge with Independents. The statement’s defensibility generates this electoral dividend. The average unaligned, non-partisan, non-tribal voter is permitted to think: “All Trump meant was he loves America and wants to put America first. America is a nation. It’s our nation …. He’s a nationalist … that’s not so bad. I kind of get what he’s saying …. And you know what, I want to put America first too. Maybe I’m a nationalist.”
Watch Trump explain:
On the other hand, there’s little reason for an Independent to vote Democrat. It was common during the 2016 general election—and has been in the two years since—to hear non-aligned voters say, “The Democrats don’t really stand for anything. They don’t have any policies or any new ideas. All they do is complain and march and wail about things not going their way.”
Watch this typical critique of the Democrats:
The truth of this critique notwithstanding, who can blame an Independent voter for thinking this way? Given the media doesn’t offer their audience much affirmative motivation to vote Democrat—at least not while Trump is saying he’s a nationalist—Independent voters commonly think this way. And that’s the rub.
This is not to say that no Independents vote Democrat. They do. Critically, however, the media’s Trump-rage obsession means more Independents vote Republican. In the final analysis, voters know what the GOP stands for—even if it’s antithetical to particular moral principles—but they struggle to articulate a coherent Democratic platform. By way of example, consider the latest polling from the 48th Congressional district in California. The Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher is fighting off a tenacious challenge from Democrat Harley Rouda. The race is tight, with Rohrabacher ahead by only 2 on aggregate.
Q1-2: Who would you vote for?
GOP DEM IND
Dana Rohrabacher 93% 2% 48%
Harley Rouda 7% 97% 47%
Based on these responses, it appears a complete toss-up. The GOP and DEM preferences wash each other out while the IND preferences aren’t decisive. Further down the poll, however, we see evidence of the effect Trump’s media manipulation has on the general view Independents have of the Democratic Party.
Q10. Would you rather see the Republicans or the Democrats in control of Congress, or doesn’t this matter to you?
Doesn’t matter 14%
In the California 48th, Republicans hold a +7 lead over Democrats with Independent voters. On Election Day—when turnout is everything—this will make all the difference.
Trump’s manipulation of the media through manufactured and deliberate outrages is one reason he’s the most effective political campaigner for two generations. As a technique, it’s diabolical. Trump and his agenda dominate the airwaves, saturate the newsprint, and thus extinguish his opponent’s opportunity to advance a positive message to the electorate. Provided Trump’s statement is ostensibly defensible, the routine media dog-pile, designed to shame the electorate away from voting for him, merely has the effect of further entrenching partisans, without offering a positive inducement to unaligned voters.