Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton

The Decline of Campaign Predictability


   “Internet Research Agency,” St. Petersburg Russia        

The current unease in the politics of Western nations owes a lot to the disruptive effects of social media contagion, seen in the rise of the yellow jackets of France, avid Brexiters in the United Kingdom, and America’s MAGA enthusiasts, who accept the trashing of American political traditions as payback for being left on the political margins.

We are on the edge of another extended presidential contest, reflected in the growing preoccupation of  the national news media on possible challengers in both parties.  While its natural to speculate on those who might rise to become a party’s nominee, forces in play now make this handicapping process far less predictive.

The parties once had a tighter grip on its members and it’s brighter lights who were ready to vie for the nomination.  But they are now weaker and less cohesive.  Leaders and rising stars within them still claim attention, but steering the nomination is more difficult. The difference is the growth of social media.  Think of a poker game with two wildcards.  That can make for some surprises. Now imagine another game with eight wildcards, which would make any bet far less certain. That’s roughly the effect that media contagion can have on those who want to end up at the top of the heap.  Twitter and other social media are always potential disruptors in ways that the once dominant broadcast networks were not.

To be sure, those of us who have studied presidential politics used to be cheered by the decline of the “smoke filled room” of ‘pols’ who could make private deals well out of sight of the the public side of a campaign.  For example, John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, famously helped pave the way for the nomination of his son. The elder Kennedy and his friends had the power to make it happen. Now, not only are there no back rooms with true power-brokers, there is no process-centered roadmap that will help predict how the finalists in this long struggle for party dominance will fare.  Once they ‘surface’ as candidates they will hit a maw of social media forces not easily controlled by anyone. The serendipitous nature  of peer to peer connection is now a driverless car, leaving a lot up in the air in terms of where a candidate will end up. Add in the seemingly endless desire of Russian state actors who can sabotage campaigns with misinformation or inflammatory rhetoric.  The point is that the effects of these forces cannot be predicted in advance.  It is in the nature of internet contagion that private citizens and others blending with them will create campaign roadblocks no more predictable than a California mudslide. The best we can do is know that some of these narratives will weaken strong contenders, while leaving others mostly untouched.

This was partly the fate of the Clinton campaign in 2016.  A range of factors contributed to her defeat: Wikileaks “dumps” of private emails, Trump  campaign contacts with Russians eager to see her lose, and a hefty dose of nativist appeals. Trump himself has tried to quell astounding but credible speculation that he is a willing or unwilling “Russian asset.”  Yet in other ways the fate of his administration is also to be determined by the social media cards that remain to be dealt.


We cannot predict whose identities and fantasies might be triggered by factual or fabricated narratives.


This defeat of even minimal predictability owes much to the gap between what might be called a “strategic/rhetorical” model of politics and a new and more fluid model of how information now enters the public sphere.  The first assumes an understanding of the rules and key audiences that must be satisfied.  The second blurs the idea of “audiences” altogether.  At this stage and for the immediate future, we cannot know whose identities and fantasies might be triggered by factual or fabricated narratives from unvetted sources.  The best we can know is that when they arise, the “viable candidate” of today may suddenly look unelectable.

In short, the politics of Western nations is now shaped by the disruptive power of social media contagion, seen in the yellow jackets of France, avid Brexiters in the United Kingdom, and America’s MAGA enthusiasts.

The Canvassing Imperative

Of course we can do politics at a distance through all kinds of dreary media: direct mail, tweets, television advertising, robocalls and other poor substitutes for direct citizen action.  But there’s a better option.

In the age of video politics and social media it may come as a surprise that political canvassing survives as a vital way to connect with voters.  Though for many it may seem like a stretch to actually show up at someone’s front door and ask for their support, thousands of Americans are comfortable doing it.  Canvassing is a proven way to increase a candidate’s chances.  One study indicated a 10 percent increase in the likelihood a voter will show up on election day if they have met someone from the campaign.

We have over 500,000 elective offices in the United States. Most are for small districts, featuring local candidates who cannot afford TV buys or big campaign budgets. The solution?  Put your supporters, friends and family to work going door to door and asking voters for their support.  It’s always been an important feature in American political life.  This humble approach is even credited with Barack Obama’s impressive presidential win in 2008. The former Chicago organizer seemed to remember a thing or two about mobilizing neighborhoods.  In that year thousands were mobilized for a street by street effort in key states, spreading enthusiasm from one front porch to the next.

When insiders talk about a good “ground game” this is partly what they mean.  It’s no wonder that the emerging wisdom in campaign strategizing is to put less money into video ads and more into organizing recruits to knock on the doors of the still undecided.

Social media and face to face canvassing share the common thread of a more interpersonal approach to political persuasion.  The canvas in particular is a hopeful exercise in direct citizen to citizen action.  By comparison, candidates who phone in a plea for support via robocalls seem positively lazy .

Two recent developments are reminders of the importance of canvassing. One is a new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes on the failed 2016 Clinton campaign.  Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign lays part of her defeat to the fact that her staff did not follow the Obama playbook of fully committing to get-out-the-vote efforts. Of course neither did the victor’s campaign.  But Donald Trump in 2016 was an outlier in so many ways that it is risky to view his path to the White House as a bellwether.

The second development comes from recent reports that some of the parties fighting for dominance in the French elections are trying out American-style canvassing. The tradition is deeply entrenched in Britain, but not across the Channel in France, where talking politics at the front door of a stranger’s home is considered unusual.  But it reflects a feature that motivates so much effective canvassing: an urgency at the grassroots to do something to stave off an election disaster: in this case, what some fear could be a Trump-style victory by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.  Whatever the outcome of the final vote on May 7, the result is good for democracy in France.  More citizens will have engaged in meaningful contact with their neighbors on a vital question worthy of their effort.

Few householders are hostile.  And most seem surprised that someone cares enough to show up.

Of course we can do politics at a distance through all kinds of dreary media: direct mail, tweets, television advertising, robocalls and other mechanical means that are poor substitutes for direct citizen action.  But all are disembodied, remote and impersonal.  Only social media come close to rendering an impression of direct contact with others we know.  And even that is partly an illusion: something short of a genuine conversation with a  neighbor in real time and space.

A modern canvasser should not expect a cakewalk.  Many doorbells will not be answered. And some campaigns send their workers to the wrong houses (a micro-targeting challenge that is never easy).  But few householders are hostile.  Most seem surprised that someone cares enough to show up.  And all seem grateful that the canvasser isn’t launching into a lecture about eternal salvation.