In the modern, post-Buckley v. Valeo history of presidential campaigns, there has never been an ad war as lopsided as Clinton v. Trump. The Democratic nominee, who followed a Clinton/Bush/Obama strategy of piling money early and using it to nuke the opponent from orbit, has outspent Donald Trump 5-1. On a recent reporting trip to Ohio, I saw half a dozen Clinton ads, and none for Trump.
That trip coincided with polls that showed Trump, for the first time in months, inching ahead of Clinton in Ohio. One theory I’d like to advance: Her ad strategy is boring, uninspiring, and ignores the traditional Democratic argument for a general election.
Yes, fine, every campaign that’s winning is a flock of geniuses, every campaign that’s losing is a confederacy of dunces. Clinton is not actually losing — in every predictive model, based on current polls, she is winning narrowly. Part of the current Democratic panic is a sense that any Democrat should be pummeling Trump by 20 points; go ask a Bernie Sanders fan how he’d be doing right now.
That’s just it, though — the sense that Americans really want to reject Donald Trump pervades the Clinton ad strategy, to the expense of issues that Clinton, like every Democrat, stands well to win on. The ad I saw the most in Ohio was “unfit,” in which clips of Republicans warning that Trump must not be president are played back to back.
This ad prompts two questions: Who cares, and who is Richard Hanna? (He is a retiring Republican congressman from upstate New York.) While this circle of shame is meant to tell Republicans that Trump is not who they want, really. But Mitt Romney’s unprecedented criticism of Trump did not stop Trump from winning the Republican nomination — a contest, I will point out, that was decided by extremely active Republican voters. If you think this stuff is compelling, you either work for Clinton’s campaign, or you are Evan McMullin.
But a lot of Clinton ads are like this. Importantly, they are also celebrated by the media, which — let’s be honest — is composed of people with a higher average income and education level than most of Americans. After Rachel Maddow found the star of the classic “Confessions of a Republican” ad, the Clinton campaign had him re-enact his 1964 spot denouncing Barry Goldwater.
Another spot that was celebrated by commentators, “role models,” features several children slightly too young to star in “Stranger Things” watching a TV that shows Trump joking about protesters being “carried out on a stretcher,” insisting that Mexico is sending “rapists,” and imitating a disabled reporter.
In “Sacrifice,” an ad even more celebrated for its punch (and again, if Clinton does win, this ad will go down in history as a classic), a group of veterans and military parents watch with disappointment as Trump jokes about John McCain’s Hanoi Hilton years and says he’s sacrificed as much as the parents of a dead soldier.
Trump has never dug out of the basement created by his earlier gaffes. He is still running, in most states, slightly weaker than Mitt Romney was in 2012. Yet he’s lapping Clinton in support from members of the military. He is also leading Clinton, in some polls, on who voters trust to handle the economy. While Clinton tries to shame voters out of supporting Trump, there’s not much being said to voters who’ve internalized his message: Hey, I pop off sometimes, but I’m fighting for you.
It’s worth revisiting the negative ads President Obama’s campaign was running at this point in 2012. Four years ago this week, it released a hit on the Romney-Ryan ticket for favoring the voucherization of Medicare.
As far as I can tell, the Clinton campaign has never run an ad pointing out that Ryan, now the Speaker of the House, expects a President Donald Trump to sign a plan like this if he becomes president. Another ad released this week four years ago attacked Romney for opposing (please stay awake) tariffs that protected the tire industry from Chinese competition.
Again, to my knowledge, the Clinton campaign has never thrown a similar attack at Trump. True, he’s upended normal Republican politics by saying he’d slap taxes or tariffs with impunity if companies threatened American jobs. But the only Clinton whack on the issue I’ve seen is a spot in which Trump sits on David Letterman’s couch and struggles to explain why his ties are made in China.
In a parallel universe, where Clinton’s campaign ran a negative ad campaign closer to the one run against Romney, it’s possible the polls would still be close. In that parallel universe, a smug Washington Post reporter might be asking why the Clinton campaign didn’t use the hours upon hours of Trump gaffes instead.
Maybe. I would hope that this totally hypothetical reporter consider a larger problem with the messaging of 2016. Ross Douthat puts it pretty well: Trump, a master of the media, has completely flummoxed liberals (and many conservatives) who think he’s doing things that should repel voters. If you consume most late-night comedy, you’re likely to be someone who thrills when John Oliver (and before him Jon Stewart) “eviscerates” or “demolishes” Trump. It’s just self-evident to anyone who watches these shows that Trump has made himself unelectable.
“Within the liberal tent, they have dramatically raised expectations for just how far left our politics can move, while insulating many liberals from the harsh realities of political disagreement in a sprawling, 300-plus million person republic,” writes Douthat. “Among millennials, especially, there’s a growing constituency for whom right-wing ideas are so alien or triggering, left-wing orthodoxy so pervasive and unquestioned, that supporting a candidate like Hillary Clinton looks like a needless form of compromise.”
I’d go a little further, though, and give the liberals some credit. The second-biggest story of the 2016 election was the political success of Bernie Sanders. He ran no negative ads at all; the closest he came was a wink-winking ad that suggested “some” politicians get huge paydays for speeches on Wall Street, then moved on to the “rigged political system.”
Democrats could not believe their luck when Trump won the nomination, but I wonder if they misidentified the kind of luck. It wasn’t just that Trump was toxically unpopular. Trump theoretically neutralized some of the problems Clinton had in the race against Sanders — the idea that she was hopelessly out of touch, too close to powerful interests. Had Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won the nomination, voters might have spent the summer hearing about how Clinton thought she was “dead broke” when she hit the speaking circuit. Trump can’t do that, and — to remarkably little backlash — he’s reneged on his pledge to self-fund his campaign by holding fundraisers, begging for small donations, and counting on air cover from super PACs. Clinton’s not as able to Sanders to attack Trump on trade, but she has plenty of openings on economics.
Yet over the summer, she didn’t seem to take them. As Clinton’s spokeswoman Jennifier Palmieri told my colleague Phil Rucker, “if Hillary Clinton gives a speech that’s 75 percent about herself and 25 percent about Donald Trump, [the media] cover the part about Donald Trump.” This is true. Voters who have not availed themselves of free online text and video to see what Clinton and Trump are actually running on are failing themselves.
But if campaign ads matter at all, they should nudge those voters toward the information the campaigns want them to see. Up to now, the vast majority of Clinton ads have informed voters that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. Not only is that a risky message that could be upended by a strong Trump debate performance, it simply hasn’t been compelling.
To find something more compelling, you can… well, you can do a lot of things, but you can also poke around Clinton’s video archive. Her campaign actually invests some time finding the sort of human stories, person-meets-policy, that Obama — and before him, George W. Bush — used quite well.
You just haven’t seen any of that on TV.