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How the Political Rules Changed in 2016

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Over the 40-some years that I have been working or closely observing the political campaign business, the rules of the game haven't changed much. Technology has changed the business somewhat, but the people who ran campaigns in the 1970s could have (and in some cases actually have) run them four decades later.

But suddenly this year, the rules seemed to change. Let me try to count the ways.

1) Money doesn't seem to matter so much anymore. "Money is the mother's milk of politics," the legendary California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh said a half-century ago. But some winning campaigns this year operated on what Unruh might have regarded as low-lactose diets, notably Donald Trump's.

The Trump campaign spent only slightly more than half as much as the Hillary Clinton campaign but won nearly a third more electoral votes. And that's not counting the spending of super PACs supporting the Democrat.

Sure, after 13 years of "The Apprentice," Trump had the advantage of celebrity, which helped him get the lion's share of cable coverage during the primary season. But he used the spotlight to make arguments and advance policies that won votes. Clinton spent most of August fundraising in rich people's homes. But what she did with her record one-month haul of $143 million didn't swing many votes.

2) TV spots don't matter so much anymore, either. In the 1970s, campaigns ran television ads because it was the best way to reach voters. There were only three networks, and you could "roadblock" them with spots that almost no one could avoid seeing. So many gross rating points produced so many votes.

Today old-line network audiences are a fraction of what they used to be, and technology allows people to skip TV ads altogether. A zero-cost tweet can get more attention than a $10 million TV ad barrage, and a YouTube video can earn a candidate more votes than a TV ad.

A corollary is that the Democrats' obsession with the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed corporate political communications, is utterly beside the point. Visible corporations don't want to take partisan sides -- or if they do, their public relations departments opt for political correctness.

3) Celebrities don't count. Did anyone vote for Clinton because Beyonce and Lady Gaga did concerts for her? Bruce Springsteen's Monmouth County, New Jersey, voted for Trump. The money ferrying such celebs to Clinton event venues was totally wasted.

4) Outrageous statements aren't disqualifying. The Clinton campaign spent the bulk of its ad budget on spots about decrying Trump's character, and this bombardment was augmented by mainstream media talking heads expressing horror about his latest outrage. But voters seeking change didn't much mind.

As Salena Zito, the reporter most alert to Trump's appeal, wrote, "the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally." Many voters are tired of being told they can't say things that are politically incorrect -- for example, noting that many terrorists are Islamists. They don't mind -- in fact, they rather like it -- when candidates do.

5) Polling and big data don't automatically generate the right moves. Campaign strategists have used polls to shape messages since the 1960s, often shrewdly. But poll interpretation is not a science but an art. The Clinton campaign didn't notice its candidate's weakness in the outstate (counties outside metropolitan areas with a million-plus people) Midwest, because those areas are just one subgroup in statewide polls -- though Iowa polls were a clue. That weakness swung electoral votes that President Barack Obama had won in 2012 to Trump.

Big data interpretation must be combined with what German military thinkers called Fingerspitzengefuhl, or fingertip feeling. The Clinton campaign had scads of big data in its Brooklyn, New York, headquarters but was so rigid in its application that it ran more late-campaign TV ads in Omaha (for Nebraska's 2nd District's one electoral vote) than in Wisconsin and Michigan (26 electoral votes).

6) Not being able to understand how the opposition thinks is huuuugely dangerous. This is actually an old rule, but one in particular need of reiteration in a year when most of the old rules no longer apply.

The Trump campaign seems to have had a pretty good idea of what its Republican opponents and the Clinton campaign were up to, but the reverse was clearly not true. In postelection interviews, Clinton campaign operatives were blaming their defeat on racism, the FBI director and the Russians.

Mature adults would be seeking to understand how they failed to see how the rules were changing.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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