Some Early End-Game Wisdom

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


The stakes for the first Presidential debate on September 26 couldn’t be higher. On paper, it looks like advantage Clinton on the basis of her mastery of the issues and debate experience. The Clinton operation has got to be breathing a little easier now that Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson has been officially barred from the high-impact confrontation, leaving him with little opportunity to get his message, and his name, out to voters. On one hand, this clash of the candidates will now be mud-wrestling mano a mano. And Trump has never debated one-on-one, let alone at the Presidential level.

On the other hand, Trump has a low bar to clear in the “expectations game” and is, in his own way, an accomplished television performer. If he can get Hillary on the defensive and cut the figure of a plausible President, The Donald can change the whole political calculus. On the third hand, if she can put Trump on the defensive and get him racing down rabbit holes, the race may be over. Trump, of course, faces the dilemma male opponents of female candidates still face—even in the 21st century: How does the opponent stay strong on offense without looking like he’s beating up on a girl. (Former Congressman Rick Lazio, Hillary’s GOP opponent in her first campaign for Senate failed that test.)

While the September 26 Presidential debate promises to be a ratings blockbuster, it seems likely that California’s U.S. Senate debates between Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez will rival those annual Yule log shots in terms of viewership. To say the least, this race hasn’t caught fire.

The overwhelming anti-Trump emphasis of Hillary Clinton’s television advertising brings to mind the 2002 re-election campaign of California Governor Gray Davis against Republican Bill Simon. The Davis campaign appeared to believe that selling positive messages about the Governor was futile and the only way to go was to destroy his opponent. The result was a marginal victory by Davis over a lackluster GOP nominee in deeply blue California. The negativity left a sour taste among voters that produced little goodwill toward Davis as he faced the State’s fiscal nosedive and the 2003 recall campaign.

Speaking of California, Donald Trump is no Pete Wilson. Because both campaigned on the immigration issue in a manner that has pushed Latino voters away from the GOP, some pundits have painted Trump as a newer version of the former California Governor. Trump and Wilson are very different. Pete Wilson could be partisan and feisty—and, like Trump, he moved toward the GOP right as he plotted his (ultimately futile) Presidential candidacy. But, unlike Trump, Wilson was a seasoned officeholder with a feel for the workings of government. He was basically a moderate who had carved out a niche as a progressive, environmentally-minded Mayor of San Diego. He was never a darling of the right. In 1994, as he ran for re-election against the Democratic nominee, State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Wilson latched on to a tough anti-illegal immigration stance. Wilson’s main beef was that the federal government wasn’t paying for the extra cost of providing services to the growing undocumented population—leaving the State to foot the bill. His “they keep coming” ads and his support of Proposition 187, which would deny health and education services to undocumented immigrants, generated huge animosity within the Latino community, a continuing surge in Hispanic voter mobilization and an increasingly deep voter antipathy toward the Republican Party. Wilson and Proposition 187 both cruised to big wins in 1994, and the long term electoral consequences of the Republicans’ embrace of hardline anti-immigration politics have been obvious.

The key to winning or losing the public opinion game is controlling the agenda. Hillary Clinton and her team lost control of the agenda by playing keep-away with regard to information about her recent bout of pneumonia. No doubt sensitive to the question of her health–thanks to the rantings of Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani (two prominent medical authorities), Hillary and her folks elected to soldier on campaigning without acknowledging that she was under the weather. When she felt unwell at New York’s 9/11 Memorial ceremony, Clinton compounded the problem by playing cat and mouse with the media. Now, Hillary’s robust return to the campaign trail and Donald Trump’s slip back into the birther sinkhole (pushing, at least temporarily, Clinton’s e-mail mess off the electoral radar screen) are once again putting control up for grabs.

The roller coaster ride of public opinion polls taken on the presidential race should not come as a surprise. Polling adheres to the rule of “garbage in, garbage out.”   Donald Trump had a modestly successful convention and got a modest bounce. Hillary Clinton had a stronger convention and got a bigger bounce. Then the momentum changed when stories came out about the Clinton Foundation, more emails, a certain “basket of deplorables,” and Hillary’s health scare. Trump’s support doesn’t seem to move up beyond the low forties in either national or battleground polls, but Hillary Clinton’s numbers seem to rise and fall as the campaign proceeds. Clearly, there is an enthusiasm gap in the sense that Trump’s voters seem to love him and the Clinton base is durable, but younger voters are not enthusiastic about her. The likelihood is that Millennials, who can’t stand Trump, will come around as election day approaches and vote for Clinton–with prodding from the Democratic turnout machine. Those younger voters and disaffected Republicans who now say that they are undecided or leaning toward a third-party candidate can be expected to be jolted into the reality that the choice for President is really between Trump and Clinton…or at least that is what the Clinton campaign is counting on.

There ought to be a law banning campaign surrogates from cable news networks. Cable programmers appear to think that on-the-air food fights between Stepford mouthpieces for the Trump and Clinton campaigns is good television. Watching no-name surrogates throw stale talking points at each other at pitched volume, just makes you want to reach for the remote—and maybe throw it at the TV screen. The other day, one of the cable “news” shows had two surrogates shout at and over each other, while an insert at the bottom of the screen showed the Democrats’ Vice-Presidential nominee, Senator Tim Kaine, making a serious policy address–without sound!

Nonetheless, this race could become a battle of the surrogates. Clinton certainly has an advantage in surrogate power—a President and former President, both with strong approval ratings, two popular Senators, Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Independent Bernie Sanders, a boatload of Hollywood glitterati—among others.

Here is a fascinating point about surrogate use: Bill Clinton was at his best campaigning for Barack Obama. President Obama is at his best campaigning for Hillary Clinton.

On to November!

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