For seventeen months, I’ve heard how all the rules of politics have been thrown out the window. Polling, pundits and poobahs no longer rule. Now it’s the Age of Trump, where 4D chess is played between tweetstorms and threats of violence (or actual violence), they said.
But I’m ever more convinced it’s not really true. Montana, and the upcoming Georgia special elections have restored my confidence that nothing under the political sun has really changed.
We’re just measuring things wrong because we’re asking the wrong questions. The rules of politics still apply. If you’re a bad candidate running a poor campaign, you will lose. If you run against the popular will on “we care” issues of the electorate, you will lose. If nobody knows who you are and you let your opponent define you, you will lose.
If you don’t connect with voters in some meaningful way, you will lose. Whether that’s knocking on doors, going on television, sending mail pieces, or appearing in the media, a candidate has to get the word out, and stay on (some kind of) message.
What I’ve learned from Trump is that his message is Trump. Donald Trump sold and continues to sell himself, and he never stops selling. Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate who ran an insular, smug, and overall bad campaign. She couldn’t beat a candidate with more defects than a “Rolex” bought from a street vendor in Times Square.
I’ve been involved with running losing campaigns because the candidate wouldn’t listen to sound advice. Go out and knock on doors, listen to the internal polling, choose a message and stick to it. No, no and no. Even with lots of name recognition, the result is inevitable…they lose.
The media is attempting to paint a picture that big outside GOP money won the race for Greg Gianforte. A lot of outside money was spent on Ryan Zincke’s former seat–it set a record with about $12 million combined inside and outside money spent. But that didn’t win the race for Gianforte. Plenty of money was spent on Democrat Rob Quist, who decidedly lost.
Quist lost because he was not a viable candidate. He was the love child of Arlo Guthrie and Bernie Sanders–a socialist folk singer who appealed to the country liberals up in Big Sky. But he wasn’t going to win with that. In fact, without all the outside money, Quist would have lost even bigger.
He could have been helped by Gianforte’s terrible mauling of reporter Ben Jacobs, but two-thirds of the vote was locked in by mail before Election Day. It’s unclear even if the mail-in vote wasn’t a factor that Gianforte would have lost. Quist was just a non-viable candidate.
In Georgia, another record is about to be set for spending on a Congressional seat. Karen Handel is behind by about 7 points in the polls. Her Democrat opponent, Jon Ossoff, is a nobody supported by millions of Democrat dollars from outside. He should not be ahead, never mind outside the margin of error.
Handel has lost every race she’s run since she was Georgia Secretary of State. For this race, in her own home district, where she’s lived for 25 years, she has kept the same crew that lost her bid for governor, and for the U.S. Senate. They are making the same mistakes they made before. She’s running a poor campaign, which is unfortunate because she’s the better candidate. Not listening to advice, not connecting with voters will lose you the race.
So nothing has changed. It’s not about the outside money. It’s about about the violent Age of Trump. Trump ran a campaign only Trump could run. He was a unique black swan candidate, with 40 years experience selling himself, an incredible relationship with the media (for good or bad), and unsurpassed name recognition. He won because he ran against a terrible candidate who ran a terrible campaign.
Greg Gianforte won because he was a better candidate than Rob Quist, and he ran a fairly good campaign, beating his 2016 bid for governor numbers by 5 to 6 percent in most precincts. If Jon Ossoff wins in Georgia, it’s because he connected with younger voters and had a better message, and ran a more effective campaign than Karen Handel.
Handel may still win, and I hope she does. But ignoring the laws of politics, believing that the Age of Trump has changed everything, is a recipe for losing.