Politics enters the reality TV age
By Jim Thomas
The talks shows and Sunday morning media events have been dominated post-election with “how did this happen” discussions. And the pollsters are desperately trying to convince everyone that their predictions were not that far off because of the close race. One even mentioned that the polls were basically correct in predicting a 1-2 point Clinton victory which came true in the popular vote but not in the electoral college. But regardless of how the post-analysis is written, a huge part of the country was surprised by the election.
I think what we witnessed was a sort of media transformation aided by some underlying events. In 1932, FDR mastered the use of radio to win not only that election but three others to follow. In 1960, it was television. Those who heard the Kennedy-Nixon debates on radio were convinced that Nixon won, but those who watch on TV favored Kennedy which became his vehicle to victory.
The 1992 election did not have any new media event but a change in its use and some very important underlying events. I recall attending a convention in 1991 during which a Democrat representative made a presentation on how the Democrats could defeat President Bush next year. The speech seemed absolutely ridiculous at the time. By any reasonable account, Bush had been a good president and following the first Gulf War which he had handled extremely well, his popularity rating has soared through the roof. However, his violation of the pledge not to raise taxes resulted in a primary challenge. He was also hit with a fairly strong third party challenge. And then there was Bill Clinton. Bush had been trained to stand behind a podium or sit in a chair. Clinton was comfortable engaging with the audience face to face and even to ask for clarification to focus on their concern. It was said that Bush commented to his advisors “How can I be losing to this guy”. But the change in methods of presentation coupled with the split in the primary and the third party vote did him in.
Some of this becomes familiar in the 2016 race. Hillary Clinton had a very high approval rating both as a senator and as a former secretary of state before she set her sights again to run for president. As with former President Bush, she faced a rival in her own party which split the vote and also votes were lost to third parties during the general election. However, the key difference may have been in the new method to reach the voter. During the primary and the early part of the general election, Trump was Mr Accessible. While Clinton made major efforts to control media access, Trump was piling up all kinds of free media through his willingness to be on any TV show that would have him. But the most effective weapon of all was the tweets. The 140-character opinion pieces came out at a machine gun pace. There were so many controversial statements in the air at one time, the media was unable to focus before the next one came out. The Russia hacks were a serious problem that we must deal with. However, I really do not think it was determinate. The same might be argued for the Comey letter, third party candidates, and a variety of other factors. If you look back on the campaign from the beginning to the end, Donald Trump said or did several things which would have been the kiss of death to any candidate. Why? Maybe we have entered the reality TV age for political campaigns. An era where candidates can get away with outrageous statements so long as they are entertaining. It will be interesting to see if any of the political candidates in 2018 or 2020 try to follow some of the Trump model or if this is a one-of-a-kind show. It will also be interesting to see how reality TV adapts to governing.
(The writer is a former senior government official who worked for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)