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“Doing It Wrong”: Stop Attacking Donald Trump’s Politics; Attack His Character Instead

Some Republicans, at least, are starting to cotton up to the idea that if you don’t want someone to win, maybe you attack him. Marco Rubio has begun attacking Donald Trump on the stump. It’s a pretty timid jab, but a significant one for the very message-disciplined candidate who has tried to run a positive campaign.

The problem is that he’s been doing it wrong. Conservatives have insisted on attacking Trump on policy, and in one direction: charging him for not being right-wing enough.

In what may be the most frustrating news to come out of a very infuriating election cycle, Politico describes the reasons why the GOP’s mega-donors and heavy hitters are afraid of launching a wave of attack ads. Only 4 percent of the $238 million in advertising spent by big-money groups so far has targeted Trump. One reason is sheer cowardice (they’re afraid Trump might hit back). But another reason is that previous ads didn’t work.

But these ads are practically designed not to work, because they only reinforce Trump’s message. The ads either decry Trump for being politically incorrect, or describe him as not a traditional conservative. Both things are precisely his appeal, and both boil down to “He’s not one of the guys you hate.” The ads are saying: “All those reasons you like Trump? They’re really true!”

The reason why Trump shouldn’t be president, fundamentally, is not his position (or lack thereof) on this or that issue. Trump doesn’t care about the border wall or ObamaCare (whatever his position on it is this week). The reason Trump shouldn’t be president is because he’s probably a sociopath.

So this is what the attack ads should focus on. The ads should focus on what people like about him, and invert it. As Ross Douthat put it in a column last month:

So don’t tell people that he doesn’t know the difference between Kurds and the Quds Force. (They don’t either!) Tell people that he isn’t the incredible self-made genius that he plays on TV. Tell them about all the money he inherited from his daddy. Tell them about the bailouts that saved him from ruin. Tell them about all his cratered companies. Then find people who suffered from those fiascos — workers laid off following his bankruptcies, homeowners who bought through Trump Mortgage, people who ponied up for sham degrees from Trump University. (…) If you want to persuade his voters that his “New York values” are a problem for them, put his alleged dealings with the Mafia on the table. [The New York Times]

Would these ads work? Well, they just might work enough to puncture his aura of inevitability and maybe, just maybe, keep his ceiling low enough to allow a non-Trump candidate to break through. They sure as heck would work better than doing nothing.

If not now, we’ll find out how well they work once Trump has the nomination locked up and Hillary Clinton starts airing them.

 

By: Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The Week, February 26, 2016

March 1, 2016 Posted by | Campaign Advertising, Conservatives, Donald Trump | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Authentic Candidates Suck”: What’s Really Behind This Peculiar And Counterproductive Media Obsession With ‘Authenticity’

We’re hearing a lot this week about authenticity, as in Joe Biden has it and Hillary Clinton does not (Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, maybe a little too much of it). Except that in fact, the reason that authenticity is in the news is that these long-held and superficial media assumptions about Biden and Clinton have been challenged this week by the revelation in Politico that the vice president leaked a story about son Beau’s deathbed wish himself. The Biden camp did not deny that a conversation may have taken place but did deny that any such theoretical conversation that might have happened was intended as a trial balloon that used paternal grief as a launching pad to a candidacy.

Here’s the quick catch-up, if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Back in August Maureen Dowd of the Times wrote this column about how Biden might run for president because it was Beau Biden’s dying wish that his father challenge Hillary Clinton. Dowd, appearing to paraphrase her source, wrote that Beau argued to his father that “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.” She revealed nothing at the time about her sourcing. Everyone assumed it came from somewhere inside Biden world, but quite possibly without his knowledge, from someone who wanted to see him run.

But from Biden himself? To America’s most prominent Hillary-hating columnist? It has not seemed, to a number of observers of the situation, like a very “authentic” thing to do, for this man who gets so many points from the media for his authenticity.

I raise the episode not to assess Biden on the authenticity scale, but to argue that authenticity is overrated in the first place. I hate authenticity. Authenticity sucks. It’s a substitute for critical thought and actual argument, and the political media harp far too much on it.

Here is my theory about why they do. Political reporters (not columnists) feel the need to be objective, and of course properly so. They’re not supposed to be seen as taking sides. As such, they have to refrain from passing judgments on candidates’ ideological positions. To do that—to decide that Bernie Sanders’s stance on monetary policy is better than Marco Rubio’s—would constitute bias. And that’s the biggest no-no you can commit in the straight-news reporter game.

Yet, reporters are human beings (mostly!), and human beings have a natural need and urge to pass judgments—to make some kind of moral order out of the chaos that swirls around us. And since they can’t do it on the basis of ideology, then they have to do it on the basis of something else. And that something else is sincerity. So for the political reporter it doesn’t matter so much what so-and-so believes. What matters is that he believes it, and conveys that he believes it, with sincerity.

I can’t tell you the number of straight-news reporters who’ve said to me over the years something like: Yes, OK, Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham or whoever may be a little out there, but you know what? At least he really means it. What you see with him is what you get. To which I would rejoin, well, that’s fine, but so what; all that means to me is that when he starts World War III or resegregates our school system via his court appointments or gives the 1 percent another whopping-big tax cut, he’ll be doing so sincerely. But this (as I knew going in) was always a loser of an argument to an objective reporter, because they divorce themselves emotionally from the whole idea of outcomes.

And this is how political journalists end up assessing politicians with such a preponderant emphasis on their authenticity. They aren’t allowed to make subjective ideological judgments, so they make them on the basis of personality. It’s why they dwell excessively on matters like explaining to you which candidate you’d rather have a beer with. That was one great scam, by the way, back in 2000—persuading the American public that they’d all rather have a beer with the candidate (Dubya) who didn’t drink beer!

So. Back to Biden and Clinton. I have eyes and ears and I can readily see why Biden comes across as more authentic. Of course a lot of this has to do with gender, because the gestures and habits that create the impression of authenticity—the glad-hand, the backslap, the knowing wink—are gestures that code male. But not all of it has to do with gender. There is no doubt that Clinton is a bit stiff in public and is stand-off-ish with journalists, and of course we did just see an example of her reversing field on a major issue (the TPP).

She also completely and utterly lacks the Defuse Gene—the ability to make a budding scandal melt away with a quip that carries just the right balance of self-deprecation (i.e., acceptance of some responsibility for the mess) and needed perspective-keeping (i.e., what I’m accused of here isn’t so awful in the grand scheme of things). Instead she seems always to have had the Detonate Gene—her handling of these things has almost always made them worse.

But I don’t care whether she’s authentic. In fact, I don’t care whether any of them is authentic. I just care what they do. I’d much rather have a president who inauthentically raises the minimum wage and passes paid family leave than one who authentically eliminates the federal minimum wage and does what the Chamber of Commerce tells him to do on all such matters.

Now I recognize that I’m an extreme case. But I do think—and let’s end on this quasi-hopeful note—that the American people are somewhere in between the two extremes of me on the one hand and objective reporters on the other. Americans care about authenticity, but not as much as reporters do, and not nearly as much as reporters think they do. And they do care about positions.

They care a lot about positions, actually. No, they’re not sitting there combing through issue books and thinking about what the optimal payroll tax formula might be. But the voting public—the nonvoting portion of the public is another matter—has a pretty decent sense of what parties and candidates stand for. And these things still matter to most people, and it’s my job—and yours if you’re with me—to make them matter more. The cult of authenticity must be smashed.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, October 10, 2015

October 11, 2015 Posted by | Authenticity, Political Media, Political Reporters | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“President Trump? Not Just A Joke, A Bad Joke”: American Voters Will Catch On Eventually

I am getting hit on Twitter for forecasting Donald Trump’s demise a couple months ago in this space. As he has risen in the polls and dominated the news media since the Fox News debate, I have been told what an idiot I am to have underestimated The Donald. Even my wonderful cousins, who have lived in Italy for over 40 years, warn me that if former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi can do it over there, Trump may be able to get elected over here.

First of all, it is important to point out that Trump has galvanized support from a disaffected electorate for his blunt talk, in-your-face attitude and refusal to talk and act like a traditional politician. That is enough to scare the pants off Republicans, especially the country club set. “Could he really get the nomination?” they ask. Second, his supporters are getting increasingly passionate and involved and attending his speaking events in ever larger numbers. And third, he is dominating the news cycle. One reporter told me that they turned off the cameras when he started to speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier in the year; now, they are carrying his press conferences live.

My colleague Bill Press made the point about the news media in a column: “As long as he brings them top ratings, they’ll give him all the time he wants. CNN’s Brian Stelter compared coverage given GOP candidates by CBS, NBC and ABC between Aug. 7 and Aug. 21. On the evening news, Trump talk consumed 36 minutes, 30 seconds. Jeb Bush came in a distant second with 9 minutes and 22 seconds. Marco Rubio, 1 minute, 35 seconds. And poor Lindsey Graham, only one second.”

Now, there is no doubt that outrageous talk, bluster and playing P.T. Barnum result in serious ink. But, as many columnists have pointed out, that does not make him a serious candidate. Nevertheless, it may not matter in the short term.

He may win a large number of primary and caucus states. Could he get the nomination? I doubt it. It’s not impossible, though. But, after all, when practically all the candidates drop out, and we are left with Donald Trump, any member of the Republican Party would jump at the opportunity to be the Trump-alternative.

There is one interesting question, however. If Trump can draw 24 million people to watch a debate in the summer on Fox News, what does that say about his ability to bring people into the system who are not traditional participants in the early stages of nominating a president? Could he flood the states in the winter and spring with new voters? Unclear.

But, at the end of the day, the American people will get the joke: Donald Trump is not emotionally or substantively fit to be president of the United States. He may run a company, but he can’t run the country. He may be appealing as a protest figure, as the “I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this any more” character, Peter Finch, in the film “Network.” But, ultimately, we are electing a president, we are not participating in a game show or dealing in reality TV or watching “Entertainment Tonight.”

Issues matter, plans for the country matter, ability to govern matters – and none of those things are strengths of Donald Trump. He is first and foremost a man with a tremendous ego that needs to be fed, not a man of serious ideas or well thought out positions that go beyond sound bites. His bluster and unvarnished rhetoric have gotten him farther than I would have thought but, at the end of the day, the American people will not buy what he is selling.

The scary thing for the Republican Party is whether its voters will get the joke. Will he ruin the party’s chances in 2016? Will he be their nominee or decide to run as a third party candidate? Regardless, Donald Trump is not good news for the Republican Party or the country, for that matter.

 

By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, August 31, 2015

September 1, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Election 2016, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“No Trust Issues”: Don’t Believe Those Who Say Hillary Clinton Can’t Win Because Voters Find Her Untrustworthy

Is it true, as some pundits claim, that Hillary Clinton is a fundamentally flawed candidate, one whose presidential aspirations are potentially doomed by her lack of likeability and, especially, high levels of voter mistrust?

Consider the following results from this nationwide survey of voters. When asked, only 41 percent of those polled find Clinton “honest and trustworthy,” while fully 54 percent do not. Among those who do not find Clinton trustworthy, fully 67 percent say they are voting for Clinton’s opponent. The results seem to support the contention of political pundits that a candidate who is so widely mistrusted is unlikely to win the presidency. As one analyst puts it, “If you don’t fundamentally trust someone or believe they are, at root, honest then how would you justify putting the controls of the country in their hands for at least four years?”

How indeed? Except that this data comes from 1996 presidential election exit poll – the one taken on the day of the election. That was the election, you will recall, in which the deeply mistrusted candidate Bill Clinton handily defeated his opponent and man of sterling character, World War II veteran Bob Dole, 49.2 percent to 40.7 percent. Nor are the 1996 results a fluke.

As I have discussed previously, studies by political scientists have revealed weak correlation between candidate traits and presidential election outcomes. For example, Morris Fiorina, Sam Abrams and Jeremy Pope compared the public’s evaluation of presidential candidates’ personal qualities (separate from policy stances or experience) based on American National Election Studies surveys with election results in the period 1952-2000. Their conclusion? As Fiorina summarized in this op ed piece: “Over all, in the 13 elections between 1952 and 2000, Republican candidates won four of the six in which they had higher personal ratings than the Democrats, while Democratic candidates lost four of the seven elections in which they had higher ratings than the Republicans. Not much evidence of a big likability effect here.”

This is not to say that a candidate’s personal qualities have no bearing on the vote. All things being equal, it is probably better to be trusted than mistrusted. And candidate character traits may matter more to some voters, such as independents, than to strong partisans. But when it comes to presidential elections, all things are decidedly not equal.

Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996 because, according to the exit polls, 58 percent of poll respondents cited issues as more important than a candidates’ character when it came to deciding their vote, and among this group Clinton beat Dole overwhelmingly, 69 percent  to 20 percent. More generally, when presidential scholars put together their forecasts of the presidential popular vote, they focus exclusively on fundamental factors such as the state of the economy, whether the country is at war, and how long the incumbent party has controlled the White House. Question of candidate character, whether trustworthiness or likeability or any other personal attribute, do not figure into their models. The reason is that we find little evidence that they are determinative. Voters may have viewed Bill Clinton as untrustworthy, but in a time of peace and economic prosperity, most chose in the end to reward the incumbent with a second term in office, his personal peccadillos notwithstanding.

Despite these findings, this won’t stop pundits from incorrectly insisting that, “Candidates matter in close campaigns. That goes double for a presidential race which tends to be more dependent on personality and likability than on any sort of policy prescriptions [italics added].” Yes, I understand that it is August – a very slow news month. The president is on vacation. Congress is out of session. The next Republican debate isn’t until Sept. 15. Pundits – already naturally predisposed to create the perception of a race where none may exist – are deeply fearful that Clinton, who is trouncing the Democratic field by most metrics, will win this nomination without a real fight. And so why not during a slow news period pounce on the latest polls (never mind that they are not very predictive this early in the contest) to find evidence that Clinton’s “lead” is less than we might think and that she is in fact a deeply flawed candidate. So flawed, in fact, that she might as well bow out now! Cue the horse race!

Alas, simply trotting out one more stale variation about the significance of the “beer test” to make the case that Clinton is potentially doomed does not make the reference any more true this election cycle. To a certain extent the same goes for the constant emphasis on Clinton’s relatively high unfavorable ratings. While there’s some evidence that the favorable/unfavorable ratio is correlated with election outcomes, it’s unclear whether these ratings help determine voters’ support for or against a candidate, or are a reflection of that support. In any case, it is far too early in the campaign to put much stock in these numbers.

The bottom line? It may be that “Hillary just isn’t a very good candidate.” But it’s more likely that some pundits just aren’t very good political analysts.

 

By: Matthew Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog, U. S. News and World Report, August

August 26, 2015 Posted by | Election 2016, Hillary Clinton, Media | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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