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Race to 2016

Race to 2016: How political advertisements change the game

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Americans love advertisements. Whether it be the latest deodorant marketing ploy or an ad promoting a General Motors SUV, marketers will spend an estimated $189 billion on advertising this year in the US. With the advent of the Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited funding by Super PACs, the US political landscape has changed to allow for the virtually unlimited funding of such ads. According to the Washington Post, spending has already reached upwards of $1.2 billion this election cycle. In an age of such massive spending, how has political advertising changed and what effects will it have on the race today?

Political advertising has evolved over the decades, and has most recently, has taken a shift toward extreme negativity. In the 1960s, advertisements were funded by the campaigns directly, meaning an overly negative advertisement could backfire. By funding negative commercials, campaigns could potentially harm themselves by turning off moderate voters. The turning point was the infamous “Willie Horton” advertisement that was run by a political organization supporting the elder George Bush’s campaign in 1988. Using the example of an African-American felon who committed a crime on a weekend pass, a political committee called “Americans for Bush” painted his rival, Michael Dukakis, as irresponsible and weak on crime. Had Bush himself approved the advertisement personally, he would have received flak for such negativity. Yet because an independent, third-party organization had funded the ad, the backlash was not there. Advertising began to turn sharply negative, as backlash in response to negative advertising was directed not at a campaign but at an independent organization.

During this election cycle, the political equivalent of “Americans for Bush.” Attempting to paint Donald Trump as an unethical, racist, and hot-headed businessman, the Super PAC spent all summer spending hundreds of millions of dollars to change voter perception. This would hypothetically be cancelled out by Trump’s own ads. But the catch is this: Trump ran virtually no ads this summer because of a lack of funding. In fact, it is likely that political promotions have only had a marked effect this campaign season because of the disparities in funding. According to Politico, the Clinton campaign had a $42.5 million war chest compared to Trump’s $1.3 million at the beginning of the summer. When it came to Super PACs, Federal Election Commission filings show how Priorities USA was raising five times what pro-Trump Super PAC Great America was able to earn. All these allowed Clinton to run anti-Trump ads unopposed since July.

The experiences of the Trump campaign, in this way, reek with similarities of the Romney campaign. After a brutal primary season, Mitt Romney and his super PACS were running low on campaign funds. As such, the Obama campaign was able to utilize the virtually unopposed summer airwaves to paint Romney as a cruel and greedy businessman. And those perceptions, with no effective rebuttal, stuck. The same problems exist with Trump. Unopposed advertising over the summer created a perception that Trump was temperamentally unfit to be commander-in-chief. According to CBS News, 67 percent of all voters consider Trump to be a “risky” choice. Without any proper response from the Trump campaign over the summer, the perceptions have stuck with him may thus prove fatal in the polling booth.

Where it all went wrong

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It is actually going to happen. After months of fervent denial, Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for President. With a resounding victory in the state of Indiana, destroying any hope of sustained opposition, Trump is now looking forward to a showdown with (presumably) Hillary Clinton. Short of any massive revelation, he will be crowned the Republican nominee come July in Cleveland. Where did it all go so wrong for the Republican Party? 

For decades, the dominant political theory has claimed that unelected insiders in both major parties have already pre-screened and selected their candidates before citizens ever cast their ballots. Highlighting the massive clout party elites had, political scientist, Marty Cohen, claimed that it would be impossible for any major outsider to upset the carefully crafted structure the ruling class had created. Looking at past elections, this theory seems to have held true in the vast majority of cases, and there was no clear reason to suspect anything different in 2016.

It is with this reasoning in mind that seasoned political pundits like Nate Cohn claimed that Trump’s lack of establishment support and inflammatory language would cause him to flame out quickly. It is now clear that these pundits could not have been further from the truth. While party elites do have massive clout over the nomination process, this year’s overly competitive field and an overreliance on political commentary have ultimately done the party elites in.

 When the election cycle began, the number of Republican candidates was a staggering 17. It was within the clamoring for attention that the brash language of Donald Trump cut through the din. In any other election, there would have been one or two establishment candidates to rally behind. But the sheer number of candidates kept many party elites and donors on the sidelines, biding their time to see who would become the front-runner. This period of indecision led to diffusion in the party elite’s influence, as they waited for the field to clear out. Unfortunately for the leadership, it never did.

But while this collective action failure explains why the party leaders did not back a sole alternative candidate, it still does not clarify why they did not attack Trump from the beginning. The reason behind this lack of action is a circular one. Because the establishment read the overwhelming consensus among the political pundits that Donald Trump could never win, they saw no reason to act otherwise. But here is the catch. The political analysts had factored in the party elite taking action when in reality, the party elite had factored in political analysis when debating internally on what action to take. In other words, because the “experts” had said that Trump had no chance because of the elites’ influence, those very same elites assumed Trump would burn out because of the pundits’ analysis. By the time that theory was disproven, it was already too late, and Trump had already taken a commanding lead.

 As of now, Trump’s nomination is all but inevitable. Looking back just a month, the conventional wisdom was that the Republican Party could still nominate a less divisive figure. Perhaps this would have been possible. But the party elites should have done something sooner, rather than suffer from the bystander effect and wait as Trump won state after state, heading to an inevitable nomination.

Race to 2016: Breaking down Trump’s mating call

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If you close your eyes and listen to a Donald Trump speech at a support rally, you could easily mistake it for a fourth grade classroom—and that is no accident. Back when Trump announced his candidacy in June, he utilized a combination of harsh and straightforward diction to decry the corruption of Washington politics, and its failure to deliver on its promises.

“How stupid are our leaders?” Trump said. “How stupid are they?” Seeming to lack the capacity to understand what qualifiers are, he launched into a comedic tirade, lambasting the current system with a lack of nuance. He called it “huge.” He called it “terrible.” He called it “big, fat, and stupid.”

But while this extremity may make the job of political satirists way too easy, what is often ignored is its unique appeal among both white and blue-collar voters. Making up a majority of Trump’s support base, it seems that they are being swayed specifically by this unprecedented manner of speech.

According to a recent study of political rhetoric by the Boston Globe, the language within Trump’s speeches closely models that of a fourth grader, the lowest level of speech among all Republican candidates. The review, which used an algorithm dubbed the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, condenses word choice and sentence syntax to categorize paragraphs into grade levels. While it seems logical that America would pick the most educated speaker, Trump’s language and straight talking points can defeat the flowery rhetoric of even the most talented speechwriters.

The simple fact is much of the electorate is fed up with politicians that are “all talk, no action.” Trump is being rewarded for his refreshingly straightforward rhetoric that appeals to an emotional and angry audience. Unfortunately, while US-Mexico foreign policy should boil down to a lot more than “building a wall,” and while tough talk doesn’t move unpredictable dictators, people inherently gravitate toward simple solutions rather than complex policy points. Furthermore, while Republicans are combatting this rhetoric with their own complicated speeches, Trump’s simple solutions are inherently validated, not harmed, by the evasive arguments of established politicians against him.

Such a phenomenon was most accurately demonstrated by a recent Bloomberg survey, in which respondents were polled and re-polled after presented with arguments for and against Trump’s plan to temporarily ban all Muslims. After being read a statement from the establishment’s discontent over Trump’s proposition, the percentage of supporters in favor of Trump’s statement only dropped by a measly one percent. The establishment’s rebuttals go as follows:

“Leaders from across the political spectrum have condemned this policy, saying that banning members of an entire religion from entering the country goes against everything we believe in as Americans. And it will make our country less safe by alienating the allies we need to fight ISIS.”

It is not surprising that this statement did little to dent Trump’s support. It is much easier to believe that terrorism can be eradicated by a blanket ban, rather than understand the deeper nuances of radicalization and what drives the desire to terrorize.

This argument, also known as the Overkill Backfire Effect, explains that arguments like Trump’s are persuasive because processing a multitude of arguments takes much more work than considering only a few. In other words, a simple fantasy is much more believable in the face of a complex, nuanced reality.

When Washington politicians with their fancy law degrees and limousines use sophisticated language and never deliver on promised change, anger is inevitable and to an extent, understandable. But anger is a dangerous emotion. In order to combat the uncomplicated mating call of Trump, the Republican establishment must develop its own simple and clear message, rather than count on its usual flowery rhetoric. Rhetoric as usual ended the moment Trump won by 20 points in New Hampshire.

Race to 2016: Losers in Iowa

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Entering the Republican Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, Donald Trump looked unstoppable. Topping every poll in Iowa by a margin of seven points, his victory seemed well assured. Only six hours later, his domination in the polls evaporated, ending in a humiliating three-point defeat to Ted Cruz. This 10-point difference is enough to make Trump’s defeat the largest polling error since Barack Obama’s 2008 loss in New Hampshire. Was this defeat a case of short-term polling abnormalities or does it betray a structural instability in the Trump campaign?

Miscalculation of polls, especially in early-voting states, is not an uncommon occurrence. This phenomenon can be attributed to low voter turnout rates, which often fall below 20 percent. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Trump campaign’s unraveling, political number crunchers immediately went into election assessment mode. Among the most prominent explanations has been Trump’s absence in the final Iowa debate, along with the lack of a ground game to drive voters out.

Despite the search for answers, all theories fail to provide a satisfying explanation for the ten-point error in polling. In fact, it remains dubious whether the two excuses are valid at all. After Trump’s absence in the Iowa debate, there was no decline in his polls both nationally and in New Hampshire. As for the lack of a voter turnout, the exact opposite happened—with caucuses topping projections from even the most optimistic estimates. Additionally, Trump won the vast majority of first-time caucus-goers, a tested sign of voter enthusiasm.

The answer may be much simpler: Trump is the lovechild of a Republican splinter group, and will fail to expand his support to include a broader base. Trump’s candidacy is much more like that of Pat Buchanan, an ultra-conservative who previously served as the White House Communications Director. Despite leading in the polls by large margins, he was upset in the Iowa caucuses by lesser-known Bob Dole, who would go on to become the Republican nominee in 1996. In this way, despite all the sensationalism, factional candidates thrive within the fragmented environment, until the establishment consolidates behind a single candidate. While divisive candidates may seem unstoppable in a crowded field, once moderates and the base rally around a single candidate, the splinter group, once a formidable opponent, is tiny in comparison to the much larger centrists.

The media focus on Trump has provided him with 24/7-cable news coverage that any candidate would kill to have. Unfortunately, this support has plateaued. Polls in the early stage can offer the illusion of being the most reliable analysis, but until Trump’s support among Republicans nationally can rise above 50 percent, the attention is more hype than actuality.

What happened to Ben Carson?

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How quickly the tide turns in Washington.

At the first Republican primary debate on Aug. 6, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson appeared unstoppable. Leaping past other establishment candidates, he shocked political pundits when he placed next to Donald Trump in the national polls. Supportive of the less abrasive version of the strident Trump, Republicans rallied behind the man once hailed as the pinnacle of the American Dream. By late October, Carson had surpassed the seemingly insurmountable Trump, leading in a CBS-New York Times poll with 26 percent of the vote, four points higher than Trump. With a compelling childhood story of overcoming gang violence, along with a strong grassroots campaign, Carson seemed set on the path to the Republican nomination.

Less than three months since, the Carson machine seems to be crashing toward an inevitable and messy demise. According to poll data compiled by RealClearPolitics, within two months, Carson’s polls have dropped by a whopping 14 points, forcing the Carson campaign into damage control mode. With the two top advisers resigning in frustration, the only question that remains is, “what happened?”

In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting and the Paris bombing, the election has centered more on national security than on the economy. The sudden shift in focus has drawn into question Carson’s expertise and has raised the question whether someone with virtually no experience in government should learn on the fly. After all, why would voters trust a president with no political experience if they would not trust a neurosurgeon with no medical training?

Carson’s lack of expertise became ever apparent in the aftermath of the Paris attack. Inviting him to speak in a live television interview, Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Carson whom he would call to help lead a fight against terrorism. In response to the question, Carson could not give a straight answer. Instead, he dodged the question in a bizarrely Palin-esque display of political naivety, calling for the vague solution of “international cooperation.” Unable to name even one of America’s international allies, Carson seemed uncertain and unknowledgeable—something voters refused to accept in the 21st century of ever-evolving threats.

Ultimately, Carson remains a victim of his own success. While his success revolved around his rags-to-riches story as a violent young teenager in the streets of Detroit who became a celebrated neurosurgeon, it only resonated because of the economic focus the election was taking at the time. Now that the tides have turned to an outward foreign policy focus, Carson’s inexperience seems more apparent than ever; simply put, Carson has failed to adapt.

Unfortunately for Carson, his campaign is hemorrhaging at an unstoppable rate. Unless the campaign can undergo emergency brain surgery, the future of his newfound political career seems uncertain at best and beyond the point of no return at worst.

Race to 2016: Bernie Sanders

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“Excuse me, do you know who Bernie Sanders is?”

“Who?”

“He’s a presidential candidate for 2016, who works for the common good of society rather than catering to the individualistic needs of—”

“—I’m sorry, I only know Donald Trump and that Clinton dude.”

“Please, sir. It’s 2015. There are two Clintons.”

Although he may not be a frontrunner and certainly is not the most noticeable among the 22 presidential candidates for 2016, Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, is drawing energized crowds with his fiery anti-billionaire rhetoric. Originally a Democratic Senator from Vermont, Sanders is the most liberal of all candidates, supporting LGBTQ rights, abortions for women, criminal justice reform, and solutions to institutional racism.

Sanders’ main concern, however, is economic, dealing with income inequality and anybody that is excessively rich—banks, billionaires, Wall Street—and corporate greed in general. Hillary Clinton may say she’s the “everyday American’s champion,” but Sanders is the only candidate acting as one. In order to combat his greatest fear, income inequality, Sanders would implement an even steeper progressive tax, which would compel the rich to pay increased taxes in order to support so-called “socialist” programs. These programs, such as Obamacare and Social Security, redirect collected funds to poorer citizens and relieve them of the burden of paying for what may be argued as basic human necessities.

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