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To nominate Clinton, it takes a village

Understanding others

Donald Trump is a singular political phenomenon. Hillary Clinton seems coordinated and almost corporate. At a time of political upheaval, it's unclear which advantage is stronger. 

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    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives to speak to volunteers at a Democratic party organizing event at the Neighborhood Theater in Charlotte, N.C., Monday.
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To anoint Hillary Clinton as the official 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, it takes a village. 

In Cleveland last week at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump’s face was the dominant image. It loomed from videos over the stage. It stared out from T-shirts outside the arena, pointing a finger and saying stuff like, “Hillary, You’re Fired!” Three of the four convention nights Mr. Trump himself appeared on stage.

This week in Philadelphia, the Democrats are using a much different, more traditional approach. The party’s biggest names have marched to the podium one by one and praised Mrs. Clinton while bashing Trump. Except for a brief hug with President Obama on Wednesday night, Clinton herself has stayed more behind the scenes.

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That will change somewhat with her acceptance speech Thursday. But this contrast in stagecraft is a symbol of the essential differences between the Trump and Clinton campaigns.

Trump is – in Newt Gingrich’s word – a “pirate,” a master of reaching out across global media platforms to grab the world’s attention with a sudden, bold stroke. Sometimes the move misses – witness yesterday’s uproar about whether he should have urged Russia to hack and release missing Clinton emails. But the action and resulting attention is the thing.

Clinton is more of a communitarian, heir and presumptive next leader of an existing political coalition. She’s guarded by nature. Her campaign seems a coordinated, almost corporate effort of many people doing many things, some visible (surrogate speeches) and some not (microtargeted emails).

The result is a fascinating clash of new versus old approaches to media, organized versus insurgent marketing, and two personalities as different as July and December. It’s a race that scholars and political pros will be studying for years.

“Trump is consciously running an unrestrained and uncontrolled campaign, while it is true that Clinton’s methodology creates distance between herself and voters,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Clinton’s approach is an attempt to “dramatically cut down on mistakes,” Engel adds. “It’s a prevent defense.”

Parties and personalities  

In part this split is rooted in traditional differences between the parties. It’s a political truism that the Republican Party is more organized around ideology, while the Democratic Party is more transactional. The former involves what George H. W. Bush called “the vision thing” and punchy presentations. The latter means making Democratic interest groups happy with targeted policies.

Thus Trump’s campaign website is thin on policy details and long on assertions that it is only the GOP nominee who can Make America Great Again. Clinton’s corresponding site is so numbingly detailed that it has a section on curtailing “horse soring,” the use of chemicals to exaggerate gait, as New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out this week.

The differences are also personal. Trump has been a celebrity for years and is as comfortable making media appearances as he is taking a nap. He obviously believes that there is no such thing as bad news coverage. There are only chances for attention (and possible votes) missed.

In contrast, Clinton herself seems almost physically absent from the campaign. Trump has correctly pointed out that it has been more than 235 days since the Democratic nominee last held a press conference. She sits for personal interviews, but not at Trump’s pace. She’s begun calling in to news shows, but only since Trump has demonstrated that’s an efficient and effective way to control a media appearance.

In Clinton’s case, that’s probably a learned behavior. The drama of Clinton’s decades in public life and the Clintons’ perception that they have been badly treated by the media and political opponents has caused her to retreat behind a kind of gauzy curtain.

“She’s someone who’s every word is very guarded publicly, because she feels she’s kind of been burned,” says Brian Rosenwald, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on the political impact of talk radio.

She’s also a policy wonk as much as a politician. When she answers a question, she’ll often dance around it at first, looking at all angles, before concluding that essentially, “it’s complicated.” Asked about fracking, she’ll talk about its environmental dangers and energy benefits, then outline when it is, or isn’t, OK. Asked about immigration reform, she’ll talk about its history and ideals, and then get into a multipoint program.

Trump doesn’t do such nuance. In his own acceptance speech he flatly declared that, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

In his surety and brevity, he’s the Twitter candidate, a fit for the new Facebook age. Clinton may be not unlike most candidates in her desire for word control and image protection. It’s Trump in this context who is unique, the agent of disruption.

“More and more our culture is headed towards quick sound bites. Donald Trump fits that very well. Hillary Clinton probably wants to give in-depth policy answers, and that stuff doesn’t transfer as well to social media,” Brian Rosenwald says.

Clinton knows that she has to up her communications game, given her opponent’s skills. She (or more likely an aide) has sharpened her Twitter approach in recent months, for instance. Posts are punchier and less policy oriented.

Hillary's political village

Her advantage is that she is not alone. Unlike Trump, she has inherited a strong party network that has been building voter lists and studying new targeting techniques for years. In that sense, she may be the candidate of the brave new electronic age, while Trump lags back in a traditional era.

“To understand Clinton’s use of social media, you have to go back and recognize she remains part of the broader Obama coalition . . . The Obama people were really revolutionary in employing data metrics and new technology in order to micro-target voters,” says Professor Engel of SMU.

Thus Clinton, or the Clinton team, may be good at communications efforts that are not readily apparent. Take video games. The Obama campaign went so far as to buy ads within popular games such as “Madden Football” in 2008 and 2012. A player scanning the virtual Madden stadium would have seen a virtual Obama billboard hanging over the field.

These ads were targeted to those playing Madden online in 10 swing states.

“More and more everything is targeted. Every ad is different. Everything is slicing and dicing the audience,” says Professor Rosenwald.

In that sense, Clinton versus Trump might not be not an old media candidate versus a new media one, as much as it is two competing versions of adapting to the changes wrought by the electronic age.

It’s not clear whether one is superior over the other. There’s not great data on whether microtargeting actually drives votes. Trump may find out that in the end there were days when not saying anything might have been preferable to saying something controversial.

In about 100 days, we’ll get a result that will shed some light on these questions.  

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