It's Storytelling, Stupid: What Made Donald Trump Smarter Than Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton had a lot going for her, but Trump got the one central truth of modern-day campaigning that she, inside her bubble, never did.
Winning campaigns is a thrilling experience. But losing campaigns crushes your soul. And I can’t think of a campaign that worked harder or longer or was more convinced they were going to win than Hillary Clinton’s. I have a lot sympathy for Hillary and her supporters.
The short answer is the least complicated. She was the insider candidate in an outsider election. In 2008, I told John McCain he could have run a perfect campaign and lost by four points instead of six. Sometimes the currents are so deep it doesn’t matter how hard or how well you paddle.
But this one was close.
As a media guy, I’ve always believed there should be at least a little bit of art along with science in politics and life. But over recent years research took over the church while the choir sang from the hymnal of A-B testing, so I just shut up.
But then Donald Trump happened. I was surprised that he won. But the signs were there all along the way. The very first episode of The Circus, our real-time documentary on the campaign on Showtime, was titled “The Outsiders,” and featured Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump. We believed at the very beginning voters were expressing a strong preference for something different.
And the title of our second-to-last episode was “Nobody Fucking Knows” because despite the blizzard of polls and research to the contrary, our experience led us to believe maybe something else was happening. My co-host Mark Halperin was excoriated in the mainstream media in the last week of campaigns for simply suggesting there might be a path for Trump to win.
Even when I was in charge of advertising for the George W. Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004, I thought a lot of money spent on TV ads was wasted. And argued the campaign should think about other ways to spend the money. Donald Trump got that. And took it to an extreme. He spent more money on hats than ads or field organization, which seemed crazy at the time. But in retrospect, they were obviously better investments.
All the research when averaged out over the campaign had Hillary Clinton ahead the whole campaign. President Obama’s smartest strategist predicted there was 100 percent chance Clinton would win. 100 percent! Which fogged everyone’s lenses, including mine.
It seems likely that when it came to polling, Trump supporters participated in a “spiral of silence.” They don’t trust the establishment. Or the media. Why would they trust or talk to pollsters? Or acknowledge their support publicly only to be called ignorant, uneducated, misogynist, or racist? I think it’s more than likely they either didn’t respond to pollsters or intentionally misled them.
And Clinton was very well known and running for a third term for Democrats, so was effectively the incumbent. It should have been a clear warning sign when she never really polled above about 43 percent, because under this scenario, undecided voters are almost always going to break to the challenger.
And while Hillary’s rallies were always well orchestrated, supporters at the events always seemed more earnest than excited.
At the very first Trump rally I attended a year ago, and at the last rally I attended the day before the election, I was blown away. They were combination rock concert and church revival. I’ve never seen anything like them in more than three decades of working in politics. People got off work in the middle of day and stood in lines for hours in the blazing heat and freezing cold. They were passionate, enthusiastic, and totally dedicated.
Trump voters were never going anywhere else. No matter what they heard from the media or other candidates, they were sticking with their guy. In fact, all the attacks just hardened their resolve. Trump was right. He could have shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and he wouldn’t have lost any of his support.
Authenticity is like pornography; you know it when you see it. It’s not something polling can accurately measure, but it’s something voters crave and reward when they get it. Which is why advertising doesn’t work. Voters want to see candidates unscripted and unvarnished.
In early 2008, Clinton’s campaign was a battleship of inevitability without much message. Then she lost Iowa, and went from front runner to down double digits in New Hampshire. Then there was an incredibly authentic moment that cameras captured just a day or so before the election. She was asked a softball question by a supporter at a town-hall event, and for once she tossed the talking points.
She was clearly not feeling well, had lost some confidence, and likely feeling vulnerable. In other words, human. Like all the rest of us. And she teared up just a bit and talked about why she was running, and why the struggle was important. And she articulated a clear rationale for her candidacy. It was simple, quiet, moving, and real. And 24 hours later, she erased what was thought to be an insurmountable deficit and won New Hampshire.
Why didn’t that lesson stick?
During this campaign, I saw a moment like that just once. The day after she lost, in her concession speech. It was incredible. And achingly human and authentic. I had the opportunity to work with and get to know Hillary Clinton just a bit a few years ago during some non-profit work. And I’ll repeat what many others say. In person, she is warm, affectionate, engaging, and has a great sense of humor. One of the reasons we produced The Circus was to give candidates and their campaigns an opportunity to reveal a more contextualized, authentic view of who they are.
We conducted many interviews with Donald Trump, on his plane, at his office, and at his home. And got a lot of time with family members like Eric and Donald Trump Jr. We practically lived with Bernie and Jane Sanders, who became a rock star for our audience. Bernie is not warm and cuddly or conventionally television friendly. Just the opposite. He’s gruff and exudes “get off my lawn.” But our viewers loved him because he was real.
But over the course of a year, we got exactly zero interviews with Hillary (or Bill, or Chelsea). I’m not saying we were 60 Minutes, but we had more than a million viewers, which ain’t nuthin’. But more importantly, we offered an unfiltered opportunity to let Hillary be Hillary.
I get it that Hillary is not Bill. That he campaigns in poetry, and she campaigns in prose. That she prefers governing to campaigning. That she prefers public service to public spectacle. But running for president is not an SAT test. People want to take their measure of the person. For the life of me, I do not understand why Hillary Clinton insulated and isolated herself in a bubble. Of course she did a lot of directed communication to her base supporters. But where was the outreach beyond?
Megyn Kelly begged repeatedly for Hillary to come on her show. The Megyn Kelly with millions of viewers; who is no ideological patsy and took on Donald Trump more forcefully than any other journalist; who stood up against sexual harassment of women and helped push out Roger Ailes as the powerful head of Fox; who I suspect has a lot of viewers in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. A Megyn Kelly interview should have been a no brainer.
Finally, here is what I believe is most important. Trump told a story. We think about story usually in a cultural frame: movies, books, music. But it’s just as true for campaigns. Voters are attracted to candidates who lay out a storyline. Losing campaigns communicate unconnected streams of information, ideas, speeches. Winning campaigns create a narrative architecture that ties it all together into something meaningful and coherent, as I articulated last year in a short New York Times op-documentary.
How do you tell a story? Identify a threat and/or an opportunity. Establish victims of the threat or denied opportunity. Suggest villains that impose the threat or deny the opportunity. Propose solutions. Reveal the hero.
That’s what Trump did. The reality TV star understands the power of narrative. He identified a threat: outside forces trying to change the way we live. And an opportunity: make America great again. He established victims: blue-collar workers who have lost jobs or experienced a declining standard of living. He suggested villains: Mexican immigrants, China, establishment elites. He proposed solutions: build a wall, tear up unfair trade deals. And the hero was revealed, Donald Trump.
What was Hillary Clinton’s story?
Campaigning and governing demand different skill sets. Hillary Clinton was as qualified as anyone who has ever run for the office of president. She is competent and organized, and I think she would have made the trains run on time. I disagree with a lot of her politics, but I was genuinely interested to see how she would govern. I think she would have been surprisingly bipartisan and worked with people like Paul Ryan to get things done and solve big problems.
But we’ll never know because until and unless we change the rules, you still have to get elected first. And that requires mastering the art of storytelling.