Time Magazine serves up a fascinating look at Donald Trump’s evolving campaign strategy, in which Trump and his top advisers leave little doubt that they think they can win mainly by dominating the media environment, in a way that will smash all the old rules of politics.
The piece recaps several recent episodes in which Trump was able to suck up all the media oxygen simply by being himself, and details some frustration in the Clinton camp with the same. But the Clinton team thinks that this dynamic doesn’t necessarily work in Trump’s favor, because much of that media attention is negative, such as when his attacks on a Mexican-American judge exploded across days of critical coverage. All that media focus is only deepening his hole with key general election constituencies. Besides, Clinton is breaking through at key moments, such as when she delivered her recent speech dismantling Trump as dangerously unprepared for the presidency, in part by drawing a sharp contrast between the two candidates’ policy preparedness, or lack of it.
No matter, says Team Trump:
“Hillary’s campaign is crazy,” [Trump] continued. “I look at her staffing, and I mean she’s got the United States government there.” He even mocks her focus on putting out so many policy proposals, a longtime tradition for major party nominees. “She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day. Nothing’s ever going to happen. It’s just a waste of paper.” (The Clinton campaign counts that paper as a point of pride: 73,645 words of policy and counting.)…
“My voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care,” Trump says. “They know you’re going to do a good job once you’re there.”…
Trump and [senior adviser Cory] Lewandowski believe they can succeed simply by replicating the media domination that lifted the campaign to a primary victory.
The idea is that Trump won the GOP primaries by putting on a great show, and now Trump and his advisers are explicitly betting this will work in the general election, mostly fueled by his ability to dominate the media — and policy is just an afterthought to that far more important factor.
Of course, Republicans are not betting it all on free media attention. As the Time piece details, a range of Republican-aligned Super PACs are springing up to spend money on ads. But the Trump team really does appear to be leaving much of this conventional campaign stuff to other people — in addition to Super PACs running ads, the Republican National Committee is racing to build an organization for him. Meanwhile, Trump, who can’t be bothered with the unglamorous side of politics, will focus on working the press to tremendous effect, dominating Clinton through sheer media omnipresence.
But is Trump right that in the general election, this media dominance will matter more than anything else, while the specifics of his — or Clinton’s — policy proposals won’t?
I think this will turn out to be wrong. And the reason for this turns on the very thing that Trump cites, rightly, as the factor that enabled him to get as far as he has.
Trump did win the GOP primaries largely through media dominance. But this dominance was not created solely by his crazy antics and penchant for insulting everyone, though those things did matter. It was also created by his actual policy positions. Trump demonstrated an uncanny gift for commanding media attention by — yup — talking about policy, or, more accurately, by proposing policy positions that were so outsize and outlandish that they cut through the clutter and actually were heard by a lot of Republican voters. I’m talking mainly about his call for mass deportations; his vow to build a wall on the Mexican border; and his vow to temporarily ban the entry of Muslims into the U.S.
Now, however, it is the attention-grabbing nature of those proposals that will make it harder for Trump in the general election. The problem for Trump lies in two factors: Their garishness, and their emotional clarity. These things helped him in the primary. But those factors may now be poised to work directly against him.
“Trump has taken positions that resonate strongly with a majority of Republican primary voters,” political scientist Alan Abramowitz tells me. “But in the general election, a large majority of voters disagree with those positions. They also will help to unify Democrats in opposition to Trump. A huge majority of Sanders supporters will strongly disagree with what Trump has proposed.”
Abramowitz adds that the outsize nature of Trump’s proposals will make it particularly hard for him to escape them later in the eyes of swing voters. “Trump has taken some very clear positions,” Abramowitz says. “They are beyond extreme positions — they reveal someone who is running on a campaign of hate.”
Trump may try to soften these positions. But he hasn’t yet — if anything, he’s doubled down on all of the most controversial ones. And in any case, it may already be too late. For a taste of what is to come in this regard, just watch this digital ad from the pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA:
Note that Trump’s voice is so recognizable that there is no need to even show him speaking — the simple voiceover of Trump vowing mass deportations is enough, and they graphically illustrate the actual consequences of his mere rhetorical abuse of Mexican immigrants.
It is incredibly easy to understand Trump’s proposals — they tell a powerful emotional story. In other words, the very thing that enabled Trump to succeed in the primaries — his ability to hatch wild schemes that cut through the noise and commanded media attention for him — will now work against him.