There’s a lot here, so scuba gear.
It’s easy to forget, but when Ted Cruz announced his presidential candidacy 13 months ago at Liberty University, he was far from top-tier status. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker were in front, with Ben Carson showing well as the outsider candidate. Many polls did not bother to include Donald Trump, and those that did had him in the low single digits. Cruz was in the high single digits – in the middle of the pack of an unusually long list of conservatives competing to be the nominee.
I wrote here myself after Trump announced that I thought at the time that his effect on the race that it would start a demolition derby in that candidates who were considered top tier at the time would crash and burn way earlier than expected, and candidates in lower tiers would last longer than they thought, and that the ultimate nominee, while not being Trump himself, would be a surprise, considering the conventional wisdom pre-Trump. The only thing wrong about my analysis is the part about the ultimate nominee.
It should also be noted that Cruz was the first to announce his campaign formally, in March of last year. At that time, nobody but nobody but nobody was thinking that Trump would run, he did not announce until June 16, and only after a very short period of media speculation about a candidacy. Trump was not in any polling at the time of Cruz’s announcement.
But I believe this very political shrewdness is also what undermined his quest for the GOP nomination. Cruz’s obsession with being the conservative in the race barred the door to the broader Republican primary electorate that, while just as conservative as Cruz, does not base its vote on an ideological scorecard, or even fidelity to the conservative movement.
This hearkens to David French’s famous NRO piece back in January, that most “conservatives” aren’t that ideological, they just want someone to bare fangs against the kook left, and in fact, too much conservative ideological purity, especially on the wrong issues, will defeat that purpose.
Cruz’s operation was oriented around microtargeting various types of voters using big data. This involved reaching individual voters with unique messages designed to appeal to their researched opinions. It was executed using everything from Facebook ads to canvassing via phone banking and door knocking through a large network of volunteers.
Trump’s operation essentially consisted of the candidate doing news interviews, flying around to speak at rallies, and issuing direct public statements on channels like Twitter. Only shortly before the actual voting did he deploy paid advertising and use volunteers. Unlike Cruz, he appears to have done no polling or other type of opinion research. Rather than microtargeting, Trump aimed for mass appeal among the GOP electorate.
Thereby proving once again that big data isn’t that important. Big data and microtargeting got the credit for Obama eeking out re-election in 2012, and I bought into that bullshit at first myself. Then the next summer came, the Census Bureau report on who turned out to vote and who didn’t, and it showed that all the precious constituencies that were targets of Obama campaign big data microtargeting turned out less in 2012 than they did in 2008, that insofar as turnout, it was the middle aged and elderly black women that turned out in even bigger numbers in 2012 than they did in 2008, that saved his bacon. They’re not the kind of people you reach with Facebook ads.
If you had described these two approaches to any professional in politics before the campaign started, they would have predicted Trump to fail spectacularly. This is what most prognosticators like Nate Silver on the left and Karl Rove on the right did. They would have thought it insane that his approach – never mind his persona – would actually serve to make him the frontrunner. Trump threw out virtually every teaching in the rulebook of how to run for president.
And is in the process proving the irrelevance of a lot of industries and a lot of mindsets. That sound you hear is of a lot of polysci, PR and marketing textbooks being torn up in advance of having to be rewritten. It also explains why certain people in certain industries are so desperate to ruin Trump, because his victory ends their industries and therefore their jobs.
Political professionals have gotten so much power in presidential campaigns that they have diluted the candidates of a message and put up barriers to getting votes. They convince the candidates to run from most media interviews for fear of a gaffe (making them ultimately more gaffe-prone since they get rusty), stick to a boring, limited stump speech to give their talking points more resonance (even though saying something in a new way is more potent), and slice and dice the voters so that virtually everything the candidate says is geared toward an interest group rather than the electorate per se.
Why? Being stage-managed gives more power to the consultants. It makes the candidates more dependent on staff and vendors to navigate them through the torture chamber those people make the election into. The consultants become the smart people and the candidate is a commodity. This attitude is shared by the political media, whose access to the candidates is dependent on sharing a worldview about campaigns with those consultants.
And consultants are often the paid stooges of plutocrats, he might have added. Consultants want to be hired and paid, so they want candidates who are able to raise money. This is why they direct their candidates to raise lots of money from big donors by having them cede to the wishes of big donors. While money is not a problem for Trump, he’s also not in much of a mood to spend it just for the hell of it. His campaign has spent shockingly little, and yet, he’s on the vestibule of the party nomination.
It’s giving Trump too much credit to say that he meant to expose the stupidity of professionalized politics, but that’s what he ended up doing. And he got lucky in the sense that his final primary opponent – although in just about every other way the type voters were looking for in 2016 – was somebody who leaned on that professionalism.
My read on this is that it’s half by design and half by accident. Hence the title of this post.
Campaign strategy aside, many conservatives are perplexed that Ted Cruz could lose to Donald Trump when Cruz is undoubtedly the closest ideological approximation to Ronald Reagan since he left the scene. He’s the perfect conservative, many said, so how could he lose in a conservative primary?
Because Cruz and Co. operated as if the politics of the season were nothing more than a conservative purity contest. And that of course is a derivative of what is currently my blog’s subtitle/tagline: I don’t care who casts the votes or who counts the votes. I care about who interprets the results. Just as the Republican establishment has, in its own self-interest, and the interest of major party donors, interpreted 2012 as a function of the party and its 2012 nominee not being open borders enough, lamestream conservative ideological cultists interpreted the results of 2012 as a matter of Romney not being a pure enough lamestream conservative, and assumed that the missing white voters were lamestream conservative ideological cultists who did a purity test on Romney and didn’t like the results. (That is actually one of the essences of a cult — Giving it credit for everything that goes right, and citing the lack of it for everything that goes wrong.) Both contentions have been proven false over and over again, but nobody is paying attention to good solid reason. So this is why Jeb! and Marco Rubio did what they did, because their campaigns were products of the “not open borders enough” bullshit interpretation, and this is why Ted Cruz did what he did, because his campaign was a product of the “not a pure enough conservative” bullshit interpretation.
I think this analysis misunderstands how Reagan framed himself as a candidate. He was not running to be winner of the CPAC straw poll or get the most conservative endorsements. He made it clear he was running to revive the U.S. economy and defeat the Soviet Union. Those were objectives that made it easy for any voter to support him. A majority ended up getting behind him because his ideas achieved those objectives, not because they dazzled on an ideological scorecard. Like Cruz, Reagan in 1980 had to get by better-funded establishment Republicans. But he didn’t try to shrink the nominating contest into a conservative beauty pageant.
It’s not even that difficult. Lamestream conservative purity made a lot more sense in 1980, because lamestream conservatism was established to solve 1980’s problems. Problem is, the problems of 1980 that lamestream conservatives set out to solve, they solved them, and they’re no longer problems. Yet and still, today’s lamestream conservatives haven’t realized that.
I believe Cruz’s ideas on reviving the economy and destroying ISIS could have won over voters, but they got diluted by his quest to be seen as the most conservative candidate in the field – a contest that’s a sideshow to most Republican voters. Picking a president is about the candidate’s vision of where to take America. “Make America Great Again” may be facile but it meets this objective. Cruz did not have a campaign theme like this of his own, never mind a slogan for it.
Cruz did have a campaign slogan of his own. The problem is, it was either ambiguous or disturbing, depending how you interpreted it. One could either read “Trusted” or “TrusTED” from the way the letters were colored. And that speaks to the first problem, the ambiguity. The other problem is that if one interprets it as “Trust Ted,” that leaves a lot of people with the impression that Ted has done a lot of things in the past to make him untrustworthy, and he’s trying to live that down with his slogan. When someone tells you in the imperative sense to trust them, you usually think that they can’t be trusted, and you fear in the back if your mind that if you do trust them, they’re going to let you down. “Trust me” is often the final sales pitch of the scam artist.
But Reagan made his conservatism seem utterly relevant to the world he was campaigning in.
I just explained that.
Donald Trump loses to Ted Cruz on a conservative scorecard, but he did a better job on selling his conservative positions as the cures to today’s public evils.
Better put: Ted Cruz wants to solve 1980’s already solved problems, Donald Trump wants to solve 2016’s problems that have become apparent in the wake of 1980’s problems being solved.