In 2016, Message Trumped Mechanics

Political messaging Trumped political mechanics

Yesterday we looked at Donald Trump’s sophisticated Facebook infrastructure, which included targeted “dark posts” and an impressive program to recruit supporters and test content on a massive scale (175,000 variants in one day!). But Hillary Clinton was no slouch on the digital front, creating a comprehensive data-driven campaign that built on the Democrats’ experience since 2004, as I explored this week in Campaigns & Elections:

This year, Hillary Clinton’s team raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, built a massive data and human infrastructure to turn out their voters, invested their money in targeted TV advertising, created opportunities for volunteers to work in their own social circles on behalf of the candidate — all pieces Obama had shown should work.

The problem is that it simply DIDN’T work — Trump won. Yes, some Democrats will argue that a few tens of thousands of votes here and there would have swung the election in Clinton’s direction, but the point is that they didn’t. And, this is the third cycle out of the last four in which Democrats lost ground — 2010 and 2014 now look like harbingers, not flukes.

I’ll talk soon about some things I think Democrats should institutionally to help make up lost ground, but that’s a conversation for another day. For now, I’ll argue that in 2016 we saw an example of the limits of data and digital to elect a president…or anyone else. Yes, the Democrats had the sophisticated machinery of modern campaigning, with the Trump campaign leapfrogging them perhaps only on social media. But we seem to have forgotten one truth as old as politics itself: that the messenger and the message matter.

Most importantly, [Trump] had a message: that something was broken in The System and he was the one to fix it.

Not all of his supporters may have completely agreed with the second part, but the idea that everyday people had been left behind was the gospel preached by Sanders and Trump alike. It was a message that resonated, and the Clinton team had nothing to counter it — their own lines were bloodless by comparison.

The message and the messenger overwhelmed the technocrats this time, and I bet they’ll do it again. In a digital age, we’ve found that the basic rules of politics still apply: the best technology, know-how and staff don’t matter one bit if the right voters won’t buy what you’re selling. In 2016, message trumped mechanics.

Political technology is powerful, but it’s not ALL-powerful. The prettiest internet toys do you no good if your candidate doesn’t excite and your message doesn’t inspire.


Written by
Colin Delany
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