False Equivalence and Dallying Democrats
All strategies are plans of action with strategic priorities; however, they must respond to unforeseen events as they develop. Donald Trump executed his plan to the limits of his ability, while the failures of the Clinton campaign included an inability to identify the issues, a lack of focus, and an incoherent strategic response to the credible threat of the Trump campaign. The inadequate responses to the changing campaign environment, ultimately, were the downfall of the aspirations of Clinton and the Democrats.
Questioning Trump´s capabilities to lead either a business or a government was a hallmark of the response from his opponents. This action, however, did not bring his downfall. His unfitness to serve would have, under most circumstances, resulted in losing not only the primary but also the general election. Trump not only survived; he thrived despite his liability. In this outcome lays the story of Trump´s success.
A Numbers Game. The difference between Bernie Sanders and Trump during the primaries had a little to do with money, and a lot to do with having one powerful adversary or many little ones. Trump´s ability to stay in the primary was because his twitter barrage focused on one opponent at a time. Trump’s strategy of fighting isolated battles worked because the other candidates and the Republicans never coalesced around a single candidate. Whether this was the group or individual hubris by the Republican establishment is irrelevant, Trump´s response to the challenge enabled him to stay in the primaries and eventually win.
In contrast, the Democratic regime already had preselected their chosen candidate, primaries notwithstanding. Bernie was fighting a similar battle as an outsider; however, he was only one person against a powerful and established adversary. Bernie could not pick off any other competitors because they did not exist. The miracle of Bernie´s campaign was that he persevered for so long against a focused foe that understood how to respond to a specific threat. While Bernie supporters sought to change the establishment as did Trump´s supporters, Bernie’s opponent was to entrenched to overcome.
Failing to Respond. While some will call Trump´s victory a lesson in strategy, time will most likely show that their downfall was a lack of a coherent strategic response by Clinton and the Democrats to the threat of Trump. The target was white, rural Rust-Belt America for Trump´s campaign and they focused on it exclusively. Combined with the divisive Democratic primaries that repelled some Bernie supporters, the lack of a more focused response from the Clinton campaign is tough to rationalize after the fact, even more so given what they did do might have worked against them.
This outcome is the tragedy for Clinton and the Democrats: it was most likely avoidable even if they initially failed in their identification of the issues and developing a focused strategy to address them. A proper evaluation of Trump´s campaign options and the development of a credible response would likely have achieved the outcome that the polls indicated.
A Distinction Without A Difference. The weaknesses of candidate Trump were well enumerated. Minimizing his liability could occur in two ways: offer convincing rebuttals or create a false equivalence. The inability of Trump to stay on any message necessitated that the campaign focus their efforts on reducing the turnout for Clinton from idealistic white liberals, young woman, and African Americans.
There is little doubt that Trump leveraged the system to his benefit. Whether it is the tax code, influencing politicians, working with less reputable foreign governments, or even exploiting charitable foundations, Trump´s ability to work the system is one of his self-proclaimed best traits. Trump was, to say the least, a serial flouter of the tradition of disclosure: he hid his tax returns, his prior investment dealings, and even his foundation charitable benefits.
Clinton, in contrast, fought to remove doubts of her idealism, her treatment of women, and African Americans. The campaign offensive included showing Clinton as having conflicts of interest and influence peddling that minimized her to the young idealists. The Trump campaign highlighted her use of an outside email, her foundation´s business dealings, or her treatment of women. Whether these were valid points were irrelevant: the voter only had to perceive that both were conflicted. This helped reduce voter enthusiasm for Clinton and thus reduced voter turnout.
Strategy Risk. The critical failure of the Clinton Campaign was the inability to credibly respond to the threat from Trump´s campaign of false equivalence between the actions of Trump and Clinton. This strategy gave the voter ability to ignore Trump´s deficiencies and focus on what mattered to them: the promise of change to their economic plight.
As the election results showed, it did not require a significant proportion of the electorate to believe Trump´s campaign rhetoric. Only 1 in 200 voters swung the Rust Belt states that delivered victory. Trump had one message and one path to success: he just needed to minimize his weakness by projecting them onto Clinton. When the game changes, the strategy must adapt and respond accordingly. That the Clinton campaign was unable to respond to Trump´s tactics strategically was their final, and most costly, failure.
This is the third article in a three-part series on the 2016 US Presidential election.