A wise man once said “All Tweets leave from D.C.” Or maybe it was “All roads lead to Rome?” Something like that, anyway.
In an age where rural America is revolting against the established order, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Senate hopefuls everywhere have continued to craft their messages in glass walled conference rooms in the shadow of the Capitol while the pulse of the people beats in diners and dive bars in towns you’ve never heard of.
Washington D.C. is not like the rest of the country. Like many other major cities, it exists on an island of blue among a sea of red. But in addition to being relatively liberal, it is also an intellectual capital for members of both parties.
All of the law firms, consulting firms, policy shops, political agencies that occupy the thirteen story buildings across Washington require college degrees and enough internships to ensure you’re broke as a mere conversation starter, so rarely will you find yourself on the Metro next to someone still knocking manure off his Stars and Bars emblazoned boots.
It is why Marco Rubio and John Kasich each took ~35% of the vote to Donald Trump’s 13% in D.C.’s primary. They were the establishment choices, seen as smart, sensible, and capable of being president. But, it also is emblematic of how far removed D.C. is from the rest of the country considering Rubio and Kasich each only won one other state.
Former Speaker Tip O’Neill is famous for saying that “all politics is local.” Yet, many national campaigns feature talking points fashioned in broad strokes discussing general platitudes that have been focused grouped by a $500 an hour paid consultant. Obama is often critiqued as being out of touch because during visits to the Rust Belt he still touts the return of the auto industry and 75 consecutive months of job growth, but fails to realize that none of those metrics matter much when the fridge at home is still empty.
In March, I traveled to Topeka, Kansas, for the Democratic Caucus. There, I grabbed a clipboard and walked through neighborhoods and apartment complexes, knocking on doors to gauge interest in the political process. The conversations I had there would have never occurred on Connecticut Avenue.
One young man, dressed in an American flag t-shirt and blue jeans, went from polite to vitriolic at the mere mention of Hillary Clinton. “Man, f*ck that bitch. She belongs in jail! Can I vote for handcuffs?” he exclaimed, quickly slamming the door in my face. Keep in mind, this is months before Trump would first declare “lock her up” as a policy position.
Then last week in Bradenton, Florida, a women spent a considerable amount of time expressing dismay at everything Donald Trump has ever done. When it was implied that meant she would be voting for Clinton she stopped and said “Oh no, I could never do that. She has had people killed and paid off the media to cover it up.”
These anecdotes are exactly why every time a crowd on a D.C. rooftop has predicted a Trump demise he has instead proven resilient. Trump isn’t speaking to avid readers of Roll Call, he is speaking to the person who glances at CNN as he flips between Duck Dynasty and the Steelers game.
Running national campaigns from Washington is how Republicans failed to stop Trump in the first place. Rubio, Kasich, Cruz, and Bush all ran campaigns with a D.C. mindset. “Focus on policy, decorum, and talking points and everything will turn out okay, right?” Wrong.
Time and time again, polling from red states showed that traditional branding wasn’t working and yet the political class refused to believe it. Conservative lifers like George Will, along with every veteran of the Bush Administration predicted the end of Trump every single time he said something outrageous, not realizing that rebellion was exactly what made him stronger.
Politics may affect everyone, but it isn’t for everyone. If you’re reading this, you’re probably into politics and will do your homework if you read a headline that says “Hillary Is A Serial Killer.” But there are plenty of people who were raised conservative in parts of the country where they may never travel to D.C. to see the Capitol in person. The prevailing opinion in those communities is that D.C. residents are
bringing drugs, bringing crime, they’re rapists crooks and liars and gosh-darnit, Hillary very well may be a serial killer.
This is not to say that future campaigns should stoop down to the lowest denominator, but there does need to be a counterbalance to running a campaign targeted at people who understand how the sausage is made versus people who vote with their gut.
This is what Obama understood and why he was so successful. In 2008, he ran on “hope” which is in no way a policy position. Looking back on his candidacy it is this message that stands out, not his policy positions. Sure, he mentioned how people need healthcare, but during the campaign that was about the idea of healthcare, not the nuts and bolts of how it gets passed. Even now Clinton’s campaign keeps saying she has “detailed policy proposals” on her website. People are as likely to click on those as they are to get into a windowless, rusted, Chevy van with a cardboard sign saying “free massages” taped to the door.
Most Americans probably couldn’t come within 50% correctness of detailing the process of how a bill becomes a law and would stare blankly if you told them that most bills that pass the Senate start moving with the “Rule 14 process.” Detailing a policy is good if you’re pitching yourself to an editorial board or to a union leadership. But when speaking to the average 2016 voter, all they want to know is how their life is going to get better.
This is why Trump still maintains his 40% floor despite being a horrifying mashup of Richard Nixon and Anthony Weiner. Like a talking doll with a pull string, he just continually repeats that he alone can fix anything and everything. Trade? He can fix it. ISIS? Dead. Common Core? Wharton. Nickleback? Banished.
Even though he’s more full of shit than trash can in a dog park, he knows his story and he’s sticking to it. At some basic level he understands the “all politics is local” mantra and tells people what they want to hear in every situation. He may never be able to deliver, but in the short term it works.
It is still too early to tell if the nationalist pillars of Trumpism will survive this election to permanently soil our politics, but the disgust with insider baseball is likely here to stay (especially during a Clinton presidency). As such, campaign gurus would be wise to start crafting their message on cocktail napkins in bars in Roanoke, Lawrence, and Evansville instead of on whiteboards in Chicago, Washington, and Boston.
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