When Philadelphia hosts the Democratic National Convention at the end of the month, they should recall a local legend, and shudder.
For years the streets of Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love”, were full of anything but love as crime soared and frustrations mounted. Enter, stage right, Police Commissioner-cum-Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose years as a beat cop prepared him to lead a tough city at a tough time. His message: “you and your family will be safe again.”
Rizzo made good on that promise, but did so by running roughshod over the normal rules of engagement and communication in a then racially-divided city. In the process, his willingness to talk openly, boldly, and brashly was criticized by the press and excoriated by political opponents.
Judging by the polls, Frank Rizzo was always in trouble, always behind, and yet, on election day, he won.
His long-time campaign manager, Marty Weinberg, called it the “hidden vote”, that 10 to 15 percent of the electorate who would never openly admit they’d vote for Rizzo, but always did.
I call it “The Rizzo Factor,” and it’s not without precedent.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a national African-American icon, was ahead in every poll for governor of California in 1982, but lost to George Deukmejian, an upstart conservative GOPer with a strong jobs message.
In the 1989 governor’s race in Virginia, Doug Wilder sought to become the first African-American Governor in the South since Reconstruction.
Despite the Washington Post predicting a blowout win days before the election, Wilder barely survived.
Fast forward to the age of Trump. Growing uneasiness about jobs, and threats to American security, have created historic anger, frustration and angst. We can do better, Donald Trump assures us. We can be great again.
The way he says it is Frank Rizzo-like. Trump is running for President at a time when many Americans feel the system is broken, the world is dangerous, opportunities are narrowing, and no leaders are stepping up to do anything about it.
Harvard’s Benjamin Friedman, who penned “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth”, believes public figures like Rizzo and Trump ascend when economic growth is unequal. “Every time you go through a period in which the bulk of American families lose a sense of getting ahead…problems start to appear.”
As does a collective thirst for remedies.
Like Rizzo, Trump is unafraid to tell it like it is.
Like Rizzo, Trump appeals to working class Americans who find they’re working harder and advancing less.
Like Rizzo, Trump doesn’t stand on ceremony as people are hurting, lives are threatened, and the world seems upside down.
This brings us to Trump’s showdown with Hillary Clinton. Already, even before he formally claims the nomination, we are hearing predictions that he is unelectable, certain that he could lose in a landslide. Like Britain was certain to stay in the EU.
One more thing, back in the States: Unlike the black-white dynamics of Rizzo, Bradley, Wilder, and others, Clinton is making her bid in part by playing to gender, proclaiming for all to hear she’d be the first woman ever elected President.
Intellectually, it’s a valid point and motivator. Yet, what people are looking for today is not to check the box of history, but to ensure this nation doesn’t become history as a world leader.
Which brings us to how Americans may actually vote, and how that may be different than what they’re telling pollsters.
One reason people are restrained in declaring how they’ll vote is that sometimes they hold views they feel are unacceptable to talk about it, even with family, and especially when there’s a disconnect between the mind and the heart. Yet the truth rests in that secret place in all of us that makes us human.
A prediction: Like Rizzo, Trump has a “hidden vote” that will never be picked up by the polls, pundits or pontificators.
If Trump is within a few points of Clinton in the polls going into Election Day, he will become President of the United States, leaving experts scrambling for explanations, and pundits grasping for cover, as the story becomes the stuff of political legend.