There are two pretty fundamental rules of political crisis management: if you’re in a hole, stop digging; and if your rival is self-destructing, stand back and let them.
Hillary Clinton knows enough to abide by the second. Donald Trump seems incapable of following the first.
During traditional presidential campaigns, the couple of weeks immediately after the party conventions are supposed to be relatively quiet – a period when candidates can digest the polls, take stock of which messages are resonating and which aren’t, and plan for the coming 90-or-so days into the final stretch.
For Trump, though, it’s been anything but a lull. Coming off a convention that was disjointed from a messaging perspective, series of missteps and outlandish assertions left some Republicans running for the exits and the campaign in sore need of a reboot.
It also overshadowed an attempt to focus on his approach to economic policy and unnerved the party over down-ballot races, hence the strategy meeting on Friday in Florida between Trump’s advisers and the RNC.
Yet as “the failing mission to save Trump from himself” (so called by the New York Times) showed little sign of changing the candidate’s course, some of his statements were even prompting real-time contextual fact-checks in broadcasters’ chyrons.
There have been plenty of “turning points” throughout Donald Trump’s campaign. But if he goes on to defeat in November, two recent episodes will likely stand as marking the difference between what he was able to surmount in the primaries and what could prove decisive in the general election.
The first came at the Democratic Convention, but its reverberations will be felt for the rest of the campaign. In this remarkable election year, it could well be that the most enduring political message was not delivered by a politician.
When Khizr Khan and his wife stood on the stage at the Democratic National Convention and spoke about their dead son, it was little short of devastating. But Trump’s subsequent reaction compounded the damage, amid criticism from senior Republicans – even if most stopped short of withdrawing their support.
But the second was one of those moments that brought a general sense of a line having been crossed
when Trump appeared to suggest that there might be a “second amendment” solution if Clinton was to win the Presidency.
As Trump and his surrogates scrambled to spin the remarks and, predictably, blame the media, the furore gathered pace, with the New York Times writing: “Seldom, if ever, have Americans been exposed to a candidate so willing to descend to the depths of bigotry and intolerance.”
Slate went so far as to call it the “logical end point” for Trump’s campaign, while veteran newsman Dan Rather felt he had to weigh in with a lengthy Facebook post stating that calling Trump out is “not partisanship but citizenship”.
The episode even prompted a response from the daughter of Conservative icon Ronald Reagan.
Losing ground on the ground
With local organisational difficulties and an absence of ad spending, polls show Trump falling behind in some key battleground states, leading one observer to conclude, logically, that if he continues to lag, “they’re not really battlegrounds”.
There’s also a sense that a developing story on Trump adviser Paul Manafort’s ties to Ukraine will have further to run.
Even when Clinton’s optics took a hit – such as having the father of the Orlando mass-murderer sit behind her during a rally in Florida – the Trump campaign found a way to let that opening slip.
The Clinton campaign itself, meanwhile, has been standing back and reinforcing the message of Trump’s unfitness for office. But it will need to resist the temptation to jump in at every opportunity. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted: “There are so many ways to attack Trump that you risk losing the thread unless you focus on one or maybe two major themes.”
To that end, the Clinton campaign’s new Dump Trump website and an effective TV ad – Unfit – aims to crystalise the issue, particularly for wavering Republicans.
But Team Hillary isn’t out of the woods just yet, with apparently continuing concerns about further revelations as a result of the recent email hack which led to the resignation of party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the convention kicked off.
There’s also a new anti-Clinton ad from the National Rifle Association that will appeal to Trump’s base, regardless of the fallout from the Second Amendment row.
Mastering the media
The next big scheduled event is the first Presidential debate, set for September 26. While Trump had been bashing the proposed timing and format television is obviously more his natural habitat than hers.
A new study of Trump’s use of social media shows the proportion of his tweets that he sends himself has dropped from 77 per cent last October to 24 per cent in August, while it seems – perhaps unsurprisingly – that he personally writes “the angriest ones”.
An ongoing theme recently has been his talking about how, should he lose, it will be because the election will somehow be “rigged” while all the while railing against the media. (Trump’s response to that article? To threaten to remove the NYT’s credentials).
A really interesting interview this week with NBC reporter Katy Tur gives an insight into the often turbulent experience of the press corps following the Trump campaign.
Finally, with news that people would “rather watch the election than the Olympics” at least they’ll have plenty to entertain in the coming weeks as things heat up still further.
FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one is easily the most fascinating yet. He’ll be writing here regularly about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies until election day in November.