How to win an election US style

As Clinton and Trump square off in the final presidential debates, EDGAR charts the hoopla and hokum necessary to win the White House.

Conor Purcell October 9, 2016

What you need to realise, what’s utterly central to every US election since US elections first took place, is that none of it is real. It’s a show, a series of staged events; a carefully considered theatre which is produced in order to make each candidate look as ‘Presidential’ as possible. 

And it’s that word, ‘Presidential’ that is the key word when watching this year’s election between the Democrat hopeful Hillary Clinton and the Republican whirlwind that is Donald Trump. What you also need to realise is that the act of being President and the race to become President are two separate, almost mutually exclusive things.

Almost none of what a candidate does when running for president will be replicated when in office. Yet it’s precisely the debates, the town hall meetings, and the on-message speeches that will persuade the electorate who to vote for. Once elected, none of the skills needed to win an election will be needed.

The election theatre has become more pronounced in the past few decades, and we can look back to the Nixon-Kennedy election in 1960 as the first modern contest. That was the first election dominated by television, and one where JFK’s youthful energy was in stark contrast to Nixon’s perceived surliness. In the end Nixon lost by only 0.17 per cent of the vote. 

In Joan Didion’s book, Political Fictions, she makes the point that the only true modern President was Ronald Reagan, as he understood the role better than anyone before or since. His role was that of ‘President’, and it was a role that didn’t change after he got elected. He knew his place – essentially a figurehead – one that Americans could look to for hope, for strength, for leadership.

Americans are essentially an optimistic people and Reagan was the ultimate optimist. As Didion pointed out: “In Reagan’s presidency talking about something was given the same weight as doing something. Martin Anderson, Reagan’s chief domestic policy adviser in his first administration, reveals, unwittingly, what this meant, in his book Recollections of Reagan

He cites speeches as events, moments when Reagan showed his Presidential ability, most notably his 1983 Star Wars speech and later that year the speech in which Reagan described the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. Another speech, this one in Brandenburg Gate in 1987, when Reagan uttered the famous line: “tear down this wall,” is credited by a number of advisers and commentators as hastening the end of the Soviet Union. This is a parallel world where speeches equate to actions and the words of Reagan’s speechwriters gave Reagan a place – in their minds at least – as one of the great leaders of the 20th century.”

This is politics as a structured unreality, where speeches were scheduled long before there was any issue to talk about and so a President’s staff has to find or create an issue to talk about. Reagan, more so than any president before or since, turned politics into performance art, performed for the news networks and columnists and pundits, an art that gives the illusion of conflict, where real issues are tackled and real problems are solved.

Of course, this is reflected during the elections themselves – the illusion is that there is a real contest, and that the American people decide who wins and who loses. In reality there is a series of events (candidate wears hard hat and meets auto workers, candidate pitches baseball at little league game, candidate sits down for one-to-one interview about Russia) – which are all set up to show different facets of that candidates personality (man of the people, playful, knowledgeable). A candidate’s ‘performance’ is related to their skill at avoiding questions, or at least getting from the interviewer’s question to their pre-prepared ‘talking point’ as quickly and elegantly as possible.

For example:

Interviewer: After the Russian actions in Ukraine, what should the American President do with regard to that country’s aggression?

Candidate: You know Susan, I think the American people are against aggression wherever they see it, but what really matters to the people here in Iowa is jobs, and that’s where my Jobs 2016 plan comes in...

A pollster will have told the candidate that no one in Iowa cares about Russia or Ukraine and what they do care about is employment, so the candidate is told to ensure they talk about jobs, preferably in pithy sound bites, so the news networks will cover it. Most if not all of what happens on the campaign trail is set up with the media in mind. Witness this – in Political Fictions – from the 1988 Presidential Race, where the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, had just landed in San Diego.

“Dukakis emerges from the plane onto the tarmac with an aide. They have a discussion for a few minutes and then another aide emerges with a baseball and a baseball mitt. The press watch as Dukakis throws the ball to his aide and his aide throws it back. Then Dukakis’ daughter appears and Dukakis throws the ball to her and she throws it back. The campaign’s director tells them to stop, says that they have the shot. The mitt and baseball are brought back onto the plane.

A few weeks later the following report is published in US News & World Report: ‘Under a boiling noonday sun in the desert, Michael Dukakis was indulging in his favourite campaign ritual – a game of catch with his aide Jack Weeks. “These days,” he said, “throwing a ball around when we land somewhere is the only exercise I get.” He did this for 16 minutes – he rolled up his sleeves halfway through but never loosened his tie - and when he was finished, someone asked him what throwing a ball around in the heat said about his mental stability. Without missing a beat, and without a hint of a smile, Dukakis echoed a sentiment he has articulated repeatedly in recent months: “What it means is that I am tough.”’

The men and women who run for office are signing up for a gruelling schedule of performances: meet and greets, speeches, debates, townhall meetings, interviews; events where their scripts are tailored, their talking points memorised, their daily buzz words repeated. The stamina required for an election campaign is immense. Candidates campaign while sick, while jetlagged, while sleep deprived – every word they say is analysed, every movement critiqued.

Witness the furore over Hillary Clinton’s bout of pneumonia in September – the idea that the American public expect a 68-year-old woman to power through such a gruelling schedule without showing any signs of frailty is ridiculous, but a large part of the American public do.

The high point of the election for many are the debates – a media construct with no point other than to give the media content to spin from. Having launched their opening salvos on September 16, Clinton and Trump go head to head again on October 19, as they attempt to score points before the big vote on November 8.

The president of the United States will never be in a position where he or she has to engage in a live debate – it’s irrelevant to the job of President, but it’s a necessity. A candidate who refused to debate would be declared a coward. After each debate – arguably the pinnacle of the campaign as competition – the media declares winners and losers, and pundits, the numbers of whom seem to increase every four years, spin the narrative in their candidate’s favour. 

Sometimes no post-debate spinning is required. Witness Bob Parr’s dismantling of Michael Dukakis with the line, “You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy,” during the 1988 Vice-Presidential debate, or watch how Bill Clinton disarmed an audience member in his debate with George Bush in 1992. The public believes the debates are where they see the real candidates in action, despite the fact no one would talk like that in real life, President or otherwise. This sense of unreality feeds into expectations of a candidate’s past.

The candidate must show humility, but not too much; the candidate must love his family and must believe in God. The candidate must praise the military and ideally will have served in the military. The candidate must be experienced, but not too experienced – no one wants ‘politics as usual.’

The candidate must be energetic, but not too fresh-faced. The candidate must understand the world, but focus on domestic issues. The candidate must be photogenic but not a pretty boy. The candidate must talk like a real person but not act like a real person – they must not have taken drugs, or had affairs, or stolen or used racial slurs, or have done anything remotely interesting during their life.

Donald Trump, of course, has changed these rules somewhat, but, if elected, he will be forced to operate under the same constraints as every other President before him. The candidates may truly be different this election year, but the system remains the same. Be entertained, be informed, but don’t expect anything to change. In the immortal words of The Wire’s Omar Little, ‘the game is the game’.