Sometimes the only thing more dangerous than a question is an answer.
Over the summer, I was forced to answer some uncomfortable questions from my students about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. These questions arose amidst an introductory course in political psychology and strategy at The Washington Center, taught to a cohort of thirteen Millennial-aged college students from around the country.
By coincidence of timing, Trump’s late July peak in the national polls came just at the semester was nearing its conclusion – provoking some interesting conversations about the recently crowned nominee’s campaign strategy. One student even asked point blank, “If it’s working for Trump, doesn’t that mean it works? And if it works, why shouldn’t we do it too?”
It turns out that our children are watching, as Hillary Clinton recently warned in a powerful TV ad, and we should be concerned about the strategy lessons they may be learning from this election.
I urged my students to suspend judgment until the fall. After all, the voters and constituencies that make up the national electorate have very different psychologies, motivations and interests when compared to the increasingly white, rural and authoritarian voters who make up the Republican base.
Just as important, I suggested, Trump will be facing a competent and disciplined opponent in Clinton, who can be expected to deploy all the standard tools of a modern political campaign: fundraising, polling, media, analytics, research, voter contact and more. Trump could easily fall behind if he sticks to large rallies, earned media, his rotating cast of colorful characters and his Twitter account.
Much to my relief as a teacher of campaign techniques, recent polling seems to be bearing that out. But only later did I realize that the answer I gave my students just begs the question. It’s a question that Trump, through his actions, has called. Here’s why.
The 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be an unprecedented nationwide experiment that will test the value and effectiveness of modern campaign strategy. Which side wins, and by how much, will tell us a lot about whether the tactics and techniques championed by political consultants actually work – since one side is using them and the other side, for the most part, isn’t.
If Trump pulls out a victory or even comes close to one, consultants on both sides of the aisle are going to have a lot of explaining to do on Nov. 9. The press, the public and the candidates we work for will be clamoring for an answer to essentially the same question my students were asking: How is it that a candidate who tossed out virtually the entire consulting playbook managed to do so well?
I, for one, hope that’s a question we never have to answer.