On Tuesday, Ed Gillespie—who ran a shockingly close race against Sen. Mark Warner just three years ago—got kicked in the backside by Virginia voters who weren’t buying what he was selling.
There are many reasons why Gillespie lost, but a big one is this: Gillespie and his team didn’t take on board the basic lesson that inauthenticity in politics is a killer.
Gillespie, a former George W. Bush RNC chairman closely associated with that president’s brand of compassionate conservatism, tried to generate the momentum that propelled President Trump to a victory over Hillary Clinton with MAGA-ish closing arguments about the perils of illegal immigration, MS-13, and sanctuary cities (or commonwealths). As Steve Bannon put it right before the election, Gillespie had adopted the message of Corey Stewart—Virginia’s most strident opponent of letting any unlawful immigrants stay in the country, under any terms. It did not work.
Set aside where voters, including Trump-supporting ones, actually are on these issues (for the record, they’re a lot more tolerant of “amnesty” than Stewart thinks; a June Morning Consult poll pegged Republican support for protecting DREAMers at 73 percent).
The truth is, voters don’t really vote on policy nearly as much as political pundits and many operatives like to think. Voters decide who they like, and don’t like, the way they would characters in a TV show, and then adapt their political positions to fit with what their preferred politician is saying.
This is documented in Gabriel Lenz’s book, Follow the Leader?: How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance. Lenz’s data shows that frequently, if not most of the time, voters pick a candidate and then tailor their views to match those of their politician.
A January 2017 study by Brigham Young University’s Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope, found that Republicans easily adopt liberal policy positions when told that Trump supports them (even when he does not). The introduction of Trump’s name made Republicans “about 15 percentage points more likely to support that liberal policy.” Stanford research has shown liberals behave the same way, too, in case you were wondering (PDF).
This is a hard thing for politics junkies, including many political operatives, to understand. Most of us were motivated to get into politics over a particular issue, so we instinctively believe that voters think the same way that we do. But they don’t; for your average voter, it’s more by which “avatar” they like best.
In 2016, Republican voters liked Trump. Crucially, overwhelming majorities of them were familiar with him; they were not with Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio (they were with Jeb Bush and Clinton, just not in a good way). They had seen Trump literally as a character on their TV screens for a long time, via The Apprentice, and their impression of him was as a rich businessman (“rich” usually equals “successful” for Republicans). He was a straight talker, often to a fault. He was not politically correct, he told it how it was, or how he thought it to be. He was a tough guy. He was Trump.
To state the obvious, as the president did on Twitter in the aftermath of the election, Gillespie—a nice guy who had been about as far from the bullying, swaggering, social media-addicted, almost-seems-like-he-has-Tourette’s, nationalist-populist Trump—was and is not Trump. But Gillespie tried to convince Trump’s voters, who he needed to support him to have any shot at winning that he was Trump by talking policy—when voters aren’t policy-driven.
It came off as inauthentic, which even if one accepts that the Trump we see is a caricature of the actual man, isn’t very Trumpy. And by the way, voters, and the media that they consume, generally don’t respond well to inauthentic candidates.
Bill Clinton may be a liar and a cheat, but few people ever looked at Bubba and said “actually, he’s an introvert, has no empathy with working people, and when he’s at home, speaks with an upper crust New England accent.”
George W. Bush, for all his faults, also seemed like pretty much what he was: A verbally bumbling but personally amiable guy, with a dose of Texas in him.
Barack Obama seemed like a coldly rational and unemotional community organizer.
And no one thinks of Trump as anything but an egotistical businessman with a lot more money than they’ll ever have, who has spent his life banging models, baiting the media, throwing his weight around, and throwing insults out whenever he damn well pleases.
The moral of the story is this: If Ed Gillespie had run as Ed Gillespie, instead of Ed Gillespie in a cheap and badly fitting Trump Halloween mask, he probably would not have lost so badly.
At the end of the day, as John McCain can attest, if you’re a moderate guy with an occasionally foul mouth, dark sense of humor, and a belief in climate change and letting some Mexicans who came here illegally stay, you’re better off just being that guy. Gillespie should have run as Bush’s RNC chairman, just moved forward a decade. The result would have been no worse at the polls, and much better for his dignity.