In 2016, the Democrats sought a third consecutive term in the White House, amid mediocre economic growth, and solid — but unspectacular — levels of public approval for the party’s sitting president.
The odds were against them.
Election forecasting models that ignore the idiosyncratic effects of candidates — and rely strictly on the “fundamentals” of macroeconomic indicators, poll numbers, and other patterns in the electorate’s past behavior — predicted that the GOP would win the presidency. One model commissioned by Vox estimated that the Republican candidate would capture 50.9 percent of the popular vote.
Then, the Democratic Party picked a standard-bearer who was:
• The subject of an active FBI investigation.
• A favorite target of right-wing media and GOP opposition researchers for nearly three decades.
• A policy wonk who, in her own estimation, was not an especially gifted orator or retail politician, and whose approval rating dipped underwater almost immediately after her campaign was launched.
• A longtime friend of Wall Street who spent the run-up to her campaign giving closed-door speeches to widely reviled financial firms for exorbitant sums of money.
• A woman who had been caricatured for years as a radical, “man-hating” feminist, and who, therefore, was likely to have an even more difficult time overcoming the electorate’s sexism than the median female Democratic politician.
And the Republican nominee ended up winning 2.8 million fewer votes than she did, anyway.
All of which is to say: There is little reason to believe that Donald Trump won the 2016 election on the strength of his campaign tactics. Rather, despite benefiting from favorable background conditions — and an exceptionally vulnerable opponent — the Republican nominee found a way to garner a mere 46 percent of the vote, and thus, relied on exquisite luck to eke out an Electoral College victory via an 80,000-ballot margin across three states.
Democratic operatives know all this. When they see a cable news anchor praising Donald Trump’s political acumen, many will recite the aforementioned facts in retweetable indignation. And yet, they nevertheless seem to believe that Trump’s narcissistic compulsion to create attention-galvanizing controversies (and/or to substitute bad insult comedy for message discipline) is a mode of politicking so effective, Democrats must strive to avoid direct confrontation with the sitting president in 2020.
Or so a new Daily Beast report titled “Democrats See a Path to Victory in 2020: Ignore Trump” would suggest:
A week out from a midterm election that saw the Democratic Party gain the majority in the House of Representatives, two Senate seats in the Southwest, and governorships across the nation, candidates, party officials, and the party’s largest super PAC took away a clear message going into 2020: Focusing time and attention on President Trump and the activities of the White House alone is not going to cut it.
“To succeed in 2020, a Democrat will need to have the skill and discipline to deftly pivot from Trump’s BS to the issues that matter,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, told The Daily Beast. “If you are trying to get retweets and social engagement, you are going to optimize for all things Trump and in doing so, you are playing his game.”
It’s a necessary word of caution from operatives who are keenly aware of Trump’s ubiquity given the mainstream media’s fascination with every twist and turn of his presidency. They point to cable news segments devoted to the latest palace intrigue and stories that have already been written about the nicknames the president is crafting for prospective opponents and a core base of supporters that delight in him taking on fights.
…“No one has survived it,” Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for Clinton’s campaign, said of using Trump’s tactics against him. “There is evidence it doesn’t work. And I think among the reasons why Democratic candidates had some success and won is that they largely stayed away from him. Look at [Montana Senator Jon] Tester. Trump went to Montana four times and [Tester] never engaged him and he won.”
Many of the premises advanced in these passages are perfectly sound. The 2020 Democratic nominee should certainly have an affirmative message, inspiring policy vision, compelling persona, and preference for winning votes over retweets (although this seems like a needlessly long way of saying, “The 2020 Democratic nominee should not be Michael Avenatti”). And cable news certainly does provide Trump with an extraordinary amount of free media, even for a sitting president.
But why Democrats should fear the prospect of Trump dominating media coverage of the 2020 race — and/or why they should strive to speak about the president whom they are trying to oust as little as possible in 2020 — is hard to understand.
Generally speaking, when Trump uses insulting nicknames (or other outrageous statements) to keep the spotlight on himself, his approval rating falls. As the political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck write in their book on the 2016 election, Identity Crisis:
Trump’s dominance of news coverage was clear. He received more coverage than Clinton almost every day between June 1 and Election Day, including 63 percent of cable news mentions and 69 percent of solo-headlined stories…But Trump’s ability to generate headlines made it worse for him, not better. Apart from the period around the party’s conventions, the correlation between Trump’s advantage in news coverage and his standing in the polls was negative: the more Trump dominated the news, the worse he did in polls.
This pattern has repeated itself throughout Trump’s first two years in the White House. While the president’s approval rating has remained relatively stable, it has consistently improved during the least interesting (and/or incendiary) moments of his tenure.
Trump’s “core base of supporters” might “delight in him taking on fights” — but then, they’d probably delight in him yanking out their teeth to pocket the gold fillings. Few outside the president’s base find his cantankerous tweets compelling — and his base, by itself, isn’t anywhere near big enough to keep him in the White House.
It is true that Hillary Clinton “did not survive” Trump’s withering attacks. But while she boasted strong approval numbers as secretary of State, Clinton’s favorability was already underwater by the summer of 2015 — when Trump’s presidential campaign was still a joke that The Simpsons had already told. Further, as outlined above, there is little reason to assume that Clinton lost because she tried to use “Trump’s tactics against him,” rather than because background conditions favored the GOP, and she had many peculiar liabilities as a candidate (many of them unfair).
Conventional wisdom, pre-2016, held that an effective way to destroy a politician was to paint him or her as corrupt and scandal-plagued. In fact, this line of attack was considered so powerful, the GOP would often fabricate scandals with which to taint their opponents. And nothing that happened in 2016 contradicted the idea that associating one’s rival with corruption and scandal is an effective political tactic: Through relentless, negative messaging, the GOP convinced a majority of the public that Hillary Clinton’s use of private email server — and (fictional) role in abetting “Benghazi” — reflected the candidate’s personal dishonesty and corruption. Meanwhile, Clinton’s attacks on Trump helped render the GOP nominee the most unpopular major party candidate in the history of opinion polling by November 8, 2016.
Since that date, Trump has provided his opponents with a cornucopia of first-rate corruption scandals, which the Democratic House majority will spend the next two years exposing and promoting. There is little basis for believing that the 2020 Democratic nominee should strive to “ignore” this material — and forgo full-throated attacks on the incumbent president — so as to prevent Trump’s unhinged counterattacks from dominating cable news coverage.
All this said, there is reason to think that Clinton’s 2016 messaging was too narrowly focused on attacking Trump’s character. Rather than tying her opponent to the GOP’s deeply unpopular fiscal and social policies, the Democratic nominee emphasized the nonideological case against the mogul’s fitness for high office — assuring voters that Trump wasn’t a normal Republican in the process. In fact, Clinton spent much of her general-election campaign arguing that Ronald Reagan would never vote for her opponent: At the Democratic National Convention, a series of speakers — including Barack Obama — argued that the patron saint of the conservative movement would recoil at Trump’s authoritarian ethos; at a September press conference, the Democratic nominee suggested that the Gipper would be incensed to see the Republican nominee praise Vladimir Putin while disparaging the American president; and one of her super-PAC’s final campaign ads actually cast Reagan’s ghost as a Clinton surrogate.
The point of all this nostalgia for the man who killed off the New Deal consensus was, ostensibly, to help moderate, suburban Republicans reconcile themselves to voting for the Democratic nominee. And this appeared to work reasonably well — in the states where Hillary Clinton did not need it to. Meanwhile, Clinton’s attempts to distance Trump from the GOP might have actually helped him with white working-class voters who had a taste for welfare chauvinism, but none for Paul Ryan’s austerity budgets or Mike Pence’s sexual mores.
Fortunately, the results of the 2018 midterms suggest that Democrats need not choose between savaging the GOP’s economic policies and painting the suburbs blue. In many affluent, historically Republican districts, Democratic candidates ousted GOP incumbents while campaigning for universal health care and against supply-side tax cuts. Meanwhile, this same “bread-and-butter” message ostensibly helped the party regain some ground with white, non-college educated voters in many Rust Belt states.
Thus, Democratic operatives are probably right to think that Clinton’s Trump-centric 2016 message played into the mogul’s hands — but only because the specific Trump-centric message she decided to broadcast reinforced the demagogue’s own branding as an unconventional Republican.
We have evidence that painting Trump as an anomalous usurper of the GOP’s proud tradition is not an optimal campaign message for the Democratic Party. But we have none to suggest that a 2020 campaign focused on defining Trump as a kleptocratic con man — who auctioned off his policy agenda to the GOP donor class’s highest bidders — would be ineffective. Democratic operatives shouldn’t let their traumatic (and thus, distorted) memories of 2016 lead them to think otherwise.