For months now, consultants and pundits have been opining about what would be necessary to take The Donald down. We now have a glimpse into what Team Jeb will do—they released an ad this week pointing out Trump’s various flip-flops over the years—but obviously more will be needed.
But perhaps something much different than what Jeb has signaled will be his approach will also be required. There is no existing blueprint for how you kill off a candidate like this, so John Ellis and his staff are probably going to have to do a lot of experimentation to figure out what works, as will any other candidate who wants to help Trump toward what most assume will be his eventual demise.
Here, however, are a few options they might consider—and indeed probably are already considering, at least to some extent.
1. Focus on moving an anti-Trump message to where low-information voters actually get their information.
The reality, whether political campaign operatives like it or not, is that evangelical farmers in Iowa are not reading Politico. Rushed-off-their-feet moms-of-three in Laconia are not watching daytime cable news.
At best, they’re reading their local paper, watching their local evening or morning news, tuning into O’Reilly, and maybe checking a social network for information once or twice a day.
Moreover, despite the fact that they live in the first caucus and primary states, respectively, they—like most people—probably do not live and breathe politics, or even much like it. They’re probably more interested in human-interest stories, the weather, and perhaps sports.
They’re definitely laser-focused on their kids, their churches, their jobs, their communities, their friends. This is, incidentally, probably where they’re hearing about Trump, and where he can most effectively be countered.
Yes, the political media beast needs to be fed and engaging with elite reporters and columnists has its advantages. But just consider that with regard to “educating” the Trump-inclined, low-information voters that are so plentiful out there, there may be more utility in talking to the local ABC affiliate. Or in making sure you have good, well-versed volunteers who hang out at the VFW hall, the tavern, Applebee’s, or wherever that everyone else flocks to, and that they are armed with bad information about Trump.
And that you have volunteers who work at big employers in town, and talk to their colleagues. And that you’re engaging in meaningful outreach to local faith communities, not just speaking at whatever religious conservative conference. And yes, that you’re doing enough radio or pitching enough radio producers, especially with regard to drive-time coverage.
Word-of-mouth is a hard to control, hard to manage communication method. Local media can be harder to pitch than the big, national, political outlets. Talk radio may hate your candidate (and his guts). But these are probably also going to be essential communications media where you’re dealing with people who don’t read political morning newsletters, religiously watch Fox throughout the day, or spend all day feeding a political Twitter addiction. Be diverse in your campaign communications.
2. Focus attacks on Trump’s support for single-payer and socialized medicine systems.
Team Jeb did this in their video, and they deserve credit for that. One thing we know from that late July Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies focus group of Trump-interested voters in New Hampshire is that those who otherwise seem favorable to Trump do balk when they’re told that he favors single-payer and socialized medicine health-care systems.
Pound away on Trump for this. Most people who hate Obamacare—and that would include a heck of a lot of Republican caucus-goers and primary voters—aren’t going to be enthusiastic about the institution of the British National Health Service in the United States of America, or anyone who would support that.
3. Focus attacks on his business record.
People like Trump because they think he’s successful and that, to borrow from The Donald himself, everyone who’s spent their career in politics is a loser who couldn’t cut it in a real rough-and-tumble environment like, say, the real estate business. And if Trump weren’t right about this, after all, why would NBC have hired him to fire people on The Apprentice?
Whoever wants to take down Trump will need to get more voters believing that Trump is only successful in the branding and self-promotion department, and rather fair-to-middling in all the others entailed in running a thriving business. They don’t need to view him as a failure; they just need to come to view him as substantially less of a winner than they do now.
This will be a pretty major feat, but it is doable. According to CNN Money, “no major US company has filed for Chapter 11 more than Trump’s casino empire in the last 30 years.”
In order to pay creditors, he has had to give up everything from yachts to airlines to his stake in hotels. The 2004 bankruptcy seems to have stemmed from excessive debt. It’s not hard to speculate that Trump-inclined voters might have reservations about electing a guy with that particular blemish on his record given their likely worries about the size of the national debt.
A bonus to pulling it off is that The Donald tends to fly off the handle and say over-the-top things when his business record is criticized. That is a Trump characteristic that we know Republican primary voters, including those who are otherwise Trump-favorable, are concerned about.
4. Raise the religion point with appropriate audiences.
I am one of those voters who doesn’t really care whether a candidate is religious, only whether they have good values and whether they are in any significant respect a fraud.
That said, there are about 50 people in the entire GOP who think this way, so there is merit in pushing the media, voters, and anyone else who can to try to pin The Donald on his favorite Bible excerpts; his church attendance; his views on communion; whether he has ever asked for forgiveness from God, any kind of higher power, or anyone or anything else; and his prayer habits. There’s a decent chance that he will say something insulting, and if and when he does, that will be a differentiator worth seizing on, as the Bush campaign has done previously.
5. Call a spade a spade, like he does.
The theory behind Trump is that people are tired of political correctness. But in truth, they are sick of people who won’t say what they think and who self-censor in order to win friends and influence people. Trump is obviously not politically correct, but the reason he wins points is more the latter thing than the “non-PC” quality per se.
Most Republicans (and Republican-leaning Independents) think Democrats are hell-bent on destroying America and that most Republican elected officials, especially in Washington, D.C., are largely content to manage or briefly stall our decline and pick stupid fights.
Nobody likes these Republican politicians. Most of us, even those who work in the political arena, think they are clowns and liars and wastes-of-space. Probably most of the candidates think this, too.
Stop saying things that only kind of sound like mild criticisms of our elected leaders. Start calling a spade a spade, including when the spade has an “R” next to his or her name.
Politicians, whether they be Democrats or Republicans, tend to suck. They don’t care about you, they don’t care about much of anything, and they’re probably not people that most of us would choose to spend our free time with for good reason. Say so, and don’t beat around the bush.
6. Don’t replicate the policies, replicate the tone (provided that you plausibly can).
In other candidates’ rush to “me-too” Trump in an effort to get at least a couple of his voters when he eventually implodes are missing a key point: What’s attractive to actual Republican primary voters (as opposed to the never-vote-but-claim-they-do crowd that is by and large supporting Trump) is not his dubious policies regarding immigration or China or the Middle East. It’s his tone.
Right now, other candidates are “me-tooing” on policy. They are not “me-tooing” on tone. They sound like relatively mild-mannered people who are quite, quite peeved about birthright citizenship and anchor babies and sanctuary cities (and not too much else, as it happens).
They look like the 10-year-old who is desperately trying to keep up with the 15-year-olds playing football, but getting spanked all over the field—except the 10-year-old is cute and lovable and endearing, and these people aren’t.
Replicate the tone, if at all possible—but bear in mind that it may not be possible for you to do so plausibly. If you’re more the Ms. Congeniality type, probably trying to play the brash, loudmouthed, tell-it-like-it-is New Yorker won’t work for you, so don’t even try it.
But if you are genuinely pissed off about the state of affairs in this country—and, really, most people are, so there’s a decent chance you are, too—then start letting it show. This is a much better strategy that just flip-flopping your way toward advocating whatever Trump is pushing at any given moment.
7. Don’t be a politician. Be a human.
When I was out in Iowa a couple weeks ago, I learned something interesting. For as much as Trump comes off as a blowhard prick to many of us who work in the political arena and are high-information voters, to the people who actually meet him out on the trail—and let me assure you, just in the Des Moines airport alone, there were many—he comes off as a really, really nice guy. He seems to genuinely care about you, your job, and your kids no matter what your socio-economic status (or, indeed, race) is.
So do a few of the other candidates, from what I know and/or have heard—especially the others who, like Trump, are currently rising.
The point? Be a human, not a politician. No one likes the guy who kisses babies just for the photo op, and whose primary interest in talking to the janitor is to get it caught on camera so that he, too, can look like he doesn’t loathe working-class people.
And for a lot of people who have seen Trump and other candidates up close, by virtue of living in early-primary states, certain other candidates are that guy—and The Donald is very much not. (By the way, this accords with stories about Trump’s care and compassion for people within the Trump organization, as well, which one hears from time to time.)
8. Do you have non-political experience? Talk about that.
Every so often, America shows an interest in electing non-politicians to big jobs. Usually, it’s military leaders. In 2016, there’s a chance, albeit still a small one, that it might be a business leader because people appear to be just that frustrated—for now—with the political class.
Hopefully, at some point in your life, you’ve done something other than work in politics. Maybe you had a different job. Maybe you were unemployed. Maybe you prioritized being a Dad over professional pursuits for a while. Maybe you taught Sunday school. Maybe you coached a sports team. Maybe you play in a band.
Whatever the other thing is, get talking about it. Because right now, people are skeptical when they just hear about vetoes or legislation introduced or votes against or bills signed into law. What they don’t know is what a particular candidate will really stand for, what else he/she knows, how he/she thinks and operates. Non-political experience may give an interesting glimpse into those things, and in a field of seventeen, it is at minimum a differentiator.
9. Go after your other rivals, not just Trump.
There are 17 people running for the Republican nomination, but sometimes, based on political coverage, you would think there is only one: Trump.
The reality at this point is that Trump has to be targeted effectively for someone else to become the nominee. But don’t forget that there are a lot of voters that don’t like the guy and will never vote for him, and you need to persuade a bunch more of those people to get onboard in order to win.
Indeed, the illusion of being able to grab Trump voters may prove to be only that—a mirage that tricks you into wasting resources and energy. And, while I tend to think a fight with Trump ultimately does benefit Bush to a degree, at least, there is an argument that he and others should be trying to pick off votes from the other more mainline GOP candidates.
Politics are about coalitions. What does yours look like? Go get the people who fill it, whether they’re now supporting Trump or a candidate polling at 3 percent. In a field of 17, an extra point here or there might equate to a ticket to South Carolina.
10. Remember, what is a concern today probably won’t be in three months time.
Politics is full of people who spend every day freaking out about things that in 99 percent of cases will matter not one whit in 48 to 72 hours, let alone on Election or Caucus Day.
Trump must be dealt with in order for another candidate to win, yes, and it may be hard to get press coverage unless you’re responding to his latest proposal to do whatever, but other things may well ultimately prove to be more important.
These include having your own vision for the country and keeping your integrity intact, devoting proper time and attention to debate prep, having a decently formulated tax policy that you believe in and can articulate, your views and stances and voters’ measurement of them when an unforeseen international crisis breaks out, what the stock market is or is not doing.
People too often forget that the vast majority of what happens in our day-to-day lives is completely outside our control. They spend an inordinate amount of time trying to dictate the outcome of small, largely inconsequential, or unmanageable events, instead of devoting time and attention and energy to the things they can affect.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in politics. If it’s a choice between responding to Trump’s call for ending birthright citizenship or articulating your very real, heartfelt concerns about the stock market, America’s value system, our health-care system or anything else, odds are, you should choose to talk about the thing you actually care about instead of “what’s in the news,” aka what Trump said.
Eventually, your idea or perspective or belief or approach—or, indeed, you—may catch on. Playing on someone else’s turf, acting like what’s relevant right now and how you respond to it will absolutely determine your success or failure months down the line, does little to nothing for you, and creates a lot of pointless work for your staff.
Obviously, there will be exceptions to this rule, but err on the side of talking about and devoting energy and attention to you and your ideas and beliefs and values, not someone else or theirs. God knows that’s what Trump does, with a healthy sprinkling of kicking the proverbial crap out of his political opponents—and as everyone knows, for the time being, he is winning.