DENVER, Colorado: The world got trumped and was stunned by midnight of November 8th. Who would have thought that the founder of Western democracy would be slumped and plastered to the ground because of the unbelievable victory of Donald J. Trump who bested the first woman president-to-be, Hillary R. Clinton. And trumped, trampled and stunned all watchers across time zones.
How could Clinton be defeated when all polls showed her winning? When she had the support of her party after the convention? When she had strong and solid surrogates (imagine President Obama and First Lady Michelle, Vice President Biden, the former president Bill Clinton, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Hollywood celebrities and the Bush family who expressed support) stumping for her. Hillary was prepared, had the 30 years’ experience, pedigreed, with the right issues, a seasoned team with big data. And more importantly, she had done this in 2004 against Obama. Did she choke because of Comey? Was there a meltdown at the endgame? Was the campaign so badly run that they were blindsided in “spectator states” (states that are bypassed and sidelined during presidential campaigns) they never thought would go red? Was her team too focused on the issues thrown against her that they forgot they had a campaign to win?
Before the International Association of Political Consultants’ 49th World Conference in Denver, experts and specialists all over the globe dissected and analyzed what went wrong in the Clinton campaign and what the Trump team did correctly, resulting in the biggest political disruption this side of the Atlantic. Christopher Hofinger, a political consultant from Austria, talked of strategies of nationalist-populist movements. He classified Trump as a populist or what was packaged as a populist. Austria being a country that has been dealing with populism for the past three decades, Hofinger narrated how political disruptions are everywhere because of populism. And message-framing has been the way to go to alter the narrative and promote a winning conversation with those in the margins.
Then, it used to be “we the people” but today it is now framed as “we are representing the ‘true people’.” “We can’t get along” highlights the fact that differences among socio-economic classes are growing and becoming more insurmountable, thereby creating a condition where existential threats abound leading to more violence because no one is paying attention to the needs of the voters. When violence is introduced, narrative becomes emotional and voters look up and try to understand if the speaker is one of them, or one with them. Elites (political and economic) have no empathy with the people. Things are getting worse and worse creating a situation where elites are no longer legitimate sources of solution and populist candidates appear to have the clearest answers (build a wall; bring to jail). Answers are crafted in provocative tones intertwined by design to campaign narratives. Traditional media are against populist candidates but they can’t ignore them. But populist candidates would often say, “if you want the whole truth, check our site.” And it is here when Facebook becomes the echo chamber of populism. FB bypasses traditional media and removes the filter giving the voter the choice to decide what kind of information they would want to get and what they would want to believe in.
What did Trump do to secure such a victory? First, Clinton had a bad campaign: messaging was too establishment, too elitist, too urbane. She was silent for months when attacked. There was no unifying response protocols in issues levied against her. Organizationally, Hillary had 487 field offices while Trump had 207 field offices only. In TVC placements, Hillary outnumbered Trump 3 to 1. In a year of radical politics defined in varying hues by Sanders and Trump, Clinton decided to stay in safe zones,zones that she knows well. Even the internal polls of Trump showed him “with only 7.8 percent chance of winning.” Second, the Trump team correctly interpreted things. There was deep contempt for political establishments on both sides of the aisle. Much worse with the Democrats since they have been in power for eight years under Obama and a Hillary victory would mean the same thing for the next four years. Two weeks before Election Day, President Obama increased the premiums of Obamacare. Then came the Comey offensive a week after.
Amidst such terrain, Trump was therefore packaged as a populist, leader of a populist uprising and an entrepreneur (not big business). Trump was the symbolic restoration of true American capitalism (American Dream) with the tag, “Making America Great Again.” Mad was a means to show his empathy to the ordinary Joes.
In search of a plausible path to victory, Trump’s team drilled data on older white voters who were returning ballots early (not typical behavior among Republicans). For them this was proof of either enthusiasm or as an incipient trend in their favor. Further, they knew that the Rust Belt was primed since it had not voted Republican since the 1980s. The Rust Belt used to be the industrial heartland of America. The Rust Belt straddles “the upper North-Eastern United States, the Great Lakes, and the Midwest States, referring to economic decline, population loss, and urban decay due to the shrinking of its once-powerful industrial sector.” Florida became the path since rural votes spiked to 10 percent higher than its optimistic scenario. Whether the spike was due to persuasion or turnout is something still being carefully analyzed.
The Trump modeling had: “older, whiter, more rural, more populist and mad at what they perceived to be an overclass of entitled elites.” In the last three weeks, Trump increased the heat, brought more anger in the narrative. Trump’s team had 93/100 scenarios losing but the surge on economic issues was palpable. The last movements saw Trump visiting the fringes of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin more than Hillary. In fact, Hillary was never in Wisconsin. Trump is the first Republican to win in the three states since 1988. By the eve of EDay, the models of Trump predicted 30 percent likelihood of winning. The disenfranchised new Republicans are “younger, less likely to live in urban centers and care for three major issues: law and order, immigration and wages.” The Trump formula was composed of three variables: class, location and economic opposition. Trump went for electoral votes only and not popular votes.
The aphorism, “campaign in poetry, govern in prose” will be a jarring experiment beginning December 19 when the Electoral College will meet to cast their votes. Already, Maryland officially became the first state to “approve a plan to give its electoral votes for president to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the candidate chosen by state voters.”The measure would award Maryland’s 10 electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. The plan would only take effect if states representing a majority of the nation’s 538 electoral votes decide to make the same change. Framed as a “kick-off insurrection” among spectator states, the effort is viewed as an attempt to “reawaken politics in every part of the country.”
In all, it all boiled down to three states with 46 electoral votes: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In six states (the three mentioned plus New Hampshire, Minnesota and Florida), the winner led by a margin of less than 2 percent. Without the three states, Clinton got 18 states plus Washington D.C., or a total of 222 electoral votes. Trump got 26 states with 227 electoral votes.
In 2000, the winner of the national popular vote did not secure the Electoral College. Democrat Al Gore won the most votes, a half million more than his Republican opponent George W. Bush, but lost the presidency in the Electoral College by four votes. In 2016, Hillary will end up having a 1.5 to 2 million lead against Trump when California is counted, and still not be president.
As the Axelrod Rule would remind all campaigners, strategists and consultants, “you are smart as you look when you win and never as dumb as you look when you lose.”