Twenty contests and two funerals

If the race to the White House were a normal campaign, a column like this would quickly become a trend snapshot: who’s up, who’s down, who’s spending more, which ads and messages are working, which aren’t, writes Steve McGookin.

And a month would usually be a decent interval from which to be able to draw some reasonable conclusions about the overall direction.

But (and how many times recently have you read an article that begins “if this were a normal campaign…”) the simple fact is there’s almost too much material being produced between one point and the next.

Since last month’s column, there have been primaries or caucuses in another 20 states, multiple debates with dubious discourse, a couple of candidates have called it a day and there have been two high-profile political passings – Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and revered former First Lady Nancy Reagan – which will have an impact on both the tenor and substance of the argument.

Oh, and the Republican front-runner got into a spat with the Pope. Remember that?


You could be forgiven (excuse the metaphor) if it slipped your mind, since one of the emerging characteristics of this campaign is that nothing – even something that might traditionally have spelt the end for a candidate – has much of a shelf-life in the public consciousness anymore.

The first column in this series – way, way back eight very long weeks ago – explored how Donald Trump had turned traditional politicking on its head by relying mainly on free media. Now, it seems, we’ll get to see whether his unprecedented crusade can subvert another advertising truism – that negative ads work.

The Washington Post reports that when voting started at the beginning of February, only 9 per cent of TV ads were negative against Trump. By the first week of March, that had reached nearly half.

My colleague Adrian Michaels wrote recently how Trump was breaking the mould of conventional communications in that his lack of credibility doesn’t matter. And his continued performance at the polls suggests that nothing anyone says about him – for or against – matters much either.

In a profile of Trump’s unconventional media spokesperson Katrina Pierson, The Hill writes that: “While staffers for GOP candidates Ted Cruz and Scott Walker were fired for things they wrote on Twitter, there’s been no comparable trouble for Pierson. “It doesn’t seem like the Trump campaign is that concerned about what she says and how she says it, which is really rare,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Yet no one can claim the campaign’s message – however it’s defined – hasn’t been resonating, especially as the GOP establishment has ramped up its efforts against him in what the New York Times called a “desperate mission to stop Trump.”

Increasingly, there’s been big money behind attacks on behalf of the other candidates as those behind Conservative super PACs have been left wondering why their spending power appears so diminished.

A seven-figure ad buy on behalf of Marco Rubio, for example, led to ads like this one:

While another anti-Trump ad by a different PAC slammed him for hiring illegal workers:

Even something like this ad, which concentrates on his language, likely only served to reinforce the image his supporters have of him, which they frequently cite as a plus.

Eventually Mitt Romney, the defeated GOP candidate in 2012, was pushed into action, with a speech denouncing Trump and recording phone messages in support of his opponents.

Trump’s reaction?

No dynasty

But the embodiment of the futility so far of the anti-Trump forces has probably been the evaporation of the Jeb Bush campaign. After Trump took a risk during the South Carolina primary by attacking GOP orthodoxy – and the Bush family – in their well-worn post-9/11 narrative, Jeb’s campaign grew increasingly desperate, spending big to secure a firewall in a state where no Bush had ever lost.

But it was in vain, and an unfathomable and widely-ridiculed Tweet about his gun by the candidate didn’t help.

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian called it “a portrait of the American nightmare”, saying it “reveals that mainstream American politicians are giving up. They have no weapons to fight a politics so irrational it is a threat to civilisation. So let’s all laugh at this photograph. While we can.”

Overall, instances of people saying “You couldn’t make this up” have seemed to increase exponentially.

Wired magazine wrote a – very good – piece on the risks of “marginal media”: where what’s happening behind a candidate often takes over virally from their intended message.

It signed off thus:

Correction at 9:58am on 3/09/2016: Due to an oversight involving a haphazardly-installed Chrome extension during the editing process, the name Donald Trump was erroneously replaced with the phrase “Someone With Tiny
Hands” when this story originally published.

It sent Vox looking for other Trump-related extensions.

And remember the Cruz ad against Rubio that was pulled after 24 hours when it was discovered that one of the actresses in it was a porn star? Well, of course, she subsequently endorsed Trump.

Her quote about the new-found object of her affection pretty much says it all: “He’s the front-runner but he’s also kind of — especially in this last week or so become kind of an underdog.”

So we head into Florida and Ohio – the home states, and possibly the last stands, for two of the remaining four GOP candidates, Rubio and John Kasich – with Trump still striding ahead, but with the possibility of a brokered, or contested, convention in July still looming large.

In a memorable post-election victory speech in Michigan, Trump basically hosted a live infomercial, leading the National Review’s Rich Lowry to describe him as “the Billy Mays of the Republican Party”.

Trump has shown he is, indeed, a remarkable pitchman. And so far, like Mays, seems to be able to sell the American people pretty much anything.

But perhaps the most effective ad in the past few weeks, though, has been one not even from this campaign. ‘Confessions of a Republican,‘ alongside the classic ‘Daisy Girl’ commercial from the 1964 general campaign, helped LBJ define the “extremism” of Barry Goldwater.

Could something similar have the same effect now?

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.

His column from last month is here:

Ad bonanza as campaign gets down and dirty