We know that Russian Intelligence worked to increase Donald Trump’s election chances by spreading propaganda. And we now know that they also attempted to tamper with US voting systems. And we know that President Trump has long spoken approvingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we know that Trump campaign personnel met with various Russian officials during the campaign.

All of this looks highly suspicious, and suggests that something was going on between Trump and Russia.

However, there is one thing about the “Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to steal the election” theory that doesn’t add up.  Namely, if Russia was covertly influencing the election, why would they bother to tell the Trump campaign about it?

Think about it: there’s no reason for them to have any contact beyond perhaps an initial meeting to lay out the plan.  Why keep having these meetings between Trump’s people and Russia’s people?  All it did was increase the likelihood of the plot getting exposed.

This is actually the best argument the Trump people have in their favor, as far as I can see.  If they were committing such a serious crime, why leave such incriminating evidence?

The “Trump’s campaign is innocent” scenario could be something like the following: sure, they met with Russian people, but it was nothing to do with election-hacking. Trump’s platform and Russia’s interests in promoting a new nationalistic world order just happened to align, and they were hashing out details of what they would do in the event that Trump won. Russia independently carried out their manipulation of the election without the knowledge of the Trump campaign.

Which would be the way to do it, if you were running a remotely competent espionage operation.  You don’t tell people stuff they don’t need to know, and from Russia’s perspective, the Trump campaign wouldn’t have needed to know that Russia was attempting to influence the election.

But this leads to the question: why did the Russians meet with them at all?  Presumably, Russian officials knew about the plan, even if the Trump people didn’t. And they would therefore know how bad the meetings would look if word of the Russian interference ever came out.

This points strongly to the conclusion that the Russians suckered Trump, or at least Trump’s people. They knew it would make them look bad when these meetings came to light, and so would undermine the American people’s faith in the entire government and the electoral process.

If this is the case, Trump and his personnel, rather than being willing pawns of a Russian plot, are actually naïve victims who fell into a Russian trap.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine the people working for Trump were that unbelievably easy to trick.  But it’s hard to see any other explanation.

I have yet to read the book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by  Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.  It sounds promising, though–full of interviews from campaign insiders giving first-hand accounts of what went wrong.

But the common thread coming out of reviews of the book, interviews with the authors like this one, and of Clinton campaign autopsies generally, is really ringing false to me. Or, maybe not exactly false, but at least woefully incomplete.

There are two main theories that have emerged as explanations for why Clinton lost. They are:

  1. The controversy surrounding her email server
  2. Her inability to connect with people

Both of these are valid explanations.  But I have not seen anyone analyze how these two things are related; and moreover, why the mainstream political press did not realize it until after the election.

This requires further investigation.  We will start by tackling point 2 first, since it is related to my favorite subject: the importance of charisma.

I firmly believe in the theory that charisma wins elections.  And Hillary Clinton has been my go-to example of someone who does not have charisma for years now. (Note: lack of charisma is often described as “could not connect” or “was not likeable”.)

So, to that extent, I agree that Clinton lost because the voters could not connect with her the way they could with a charismatic billionaire television star who lives in a golden tower.

The problem is, everyone has known for years that Clinton doesn’t have charisma.  It is not like this is some big revelation. This doesn’t mean the press is wrong to say that is the reason she lost… it is just that until election night, the press was right there with her, convinced she would win.

When the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would win, the mainstream political press dismissed concerns about her likeability.  When Clinton suddenly lost, they picked up on this as the obvious explanation for why she did.

And maybe it is.  But if that is the case, why didn’t the press seize on it sooner?  This isn’t the first time we ever had an election–they should have some idea of what is likely to happen based on past elections.  The charisma theory holds up pretty well over the past 50+ years of Presidential elections, so you would think there would have been more talk about it beforehand.

Part of it is the old “hindsight is 2020” problem.  And another part of it is groupthink: Once a few experts started saying Clinton would win, a lot of other people assumed the experts would know, and started following them. (I myself was guilty of this–I ignored Trump’s obvious charisma advantage because so many of the major forecasters were favoring Clinton.)

There’s an even bigger problem with political journalism here, but I want to wait to examine that.  For now, we can just say that it seems probable that Clinton could not connect with voters in 2016, since that had long been a problem for her.

Now to address the theory that it was not Clinton’s anti-charisma that cost her, but rather her email server–or more specifically, the FBI’s investigation of her email server. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has some convincing data indicating that it was FBI director Comey’s letter to Congress that swung the election to Trump.

Intuition seems to favor the “lack of charisma/could not connect” explanation; the hard data indicates that Comey’s letter was decisive.

Here is the significant thing, though: both explanations can be correct.

In truth, the letter was pretty mild.  It cast a cloud of suspicion over Clinton and enabled Trump to ramp up the number of sinister insinuations he made about her, but that’s about it.  Compared with the Access Hollywood tape which featured Trump literally admitting to a crime, it was small potatoes.

Yet the press hyped the Comey letter as though it were comparable. Why?

The answer is… charisma.  Remember, charisma is the ability to make people want to like you, irrespective of anything you do.

Trump has charisma.  That is why so many voters wanted to like him, and were willing to overlook so much to vote for him.

In contrast, Clinton does not have charisma and as a result many voters were glad to seize on any excuse to vote against her, even a trumped-up (pun not intended) one.

If the email thing had happened to Obama, he could have weathered it.  It probably would not have even been front-page news.

By the same token, if it had not happened to Clinton, there would have been some other heavily-hyped scandal the press would have touted.  Scandals make for good stories, and plenty of people wanted to read about the alleged crimes of Hillary Clinton. People were looking for an excuse to dislike Clinton.

Another key factor to remember is that charisma works on the press, too.  They try to be neutral, but they are just human beings–their personal feelings about a candidate are going to affect their coverage. So,if they are covering somebody who is uncharismatic, they are going to include that in their narrative, even if only subconsciously.

This is leading me to that bigger problem that I mentioned earlier, and it has to do with how the press covers everything.  The problem is that they need to have a simple answer for everything. They cannot say, “we do not understand what happened”.  They have to come up with some explanation, and it has to be something simple that they can explain quickly.

This does not just apply in politics, but to pretty much all mainstream press analysis of anything.  I remember, as my liberal friends and I watched the election results in mounting horror, I kept thinking inexplicably about Super Bowl XXV.

If you are unfamiliar with football history, it went like this: the heavily-favored Buffalo Bills and their record-setting offense lost by a single point to the New York Giants and their strong defense.  On the last play of the game, the Bills missed a field goal that would have given them the victory.

The “narrative” coming out of that game was that the Giants’ defense stifled the mighty Bills offense. (Then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s game plan is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) But if the Bills had made the field goal, it would have been different–even though the Giants defensive performance would have been exactly the same.

The perception of both the Giants’ defense and the Bills’ offense was decided by the performance of neither unit, but by the Bills’ kicking game.

This does not mean that defense does not win championships, any more than the fact that Clinton winning the popular vote means charisma does not win elections.  We have enough examples of both throughout history that it is fair to say it constitutes a pattern.

But the sporting press largely did not acknowledge that prior to the game, just as the political press didn’t acknowledge charisma’s strong track record prior to the election.

In each case, it took a specific event (a missed field goal/the Comey letter) before the press were able to recognize the larger pattern.  (Defense wins championships/charisma wins elections.)

In other words, if a Clinton scandal did not exist, the press would have found it necessary to invent one.

The press does not analyze things as closely as they want you to think they do.  They generally report on what happened and then seize on anything that seems convenient to explain why it happened.

(Another area where this is especially transparent is business and financial journalism.  Most journalists have no idea what made the markets go up or down, unless there’s some major world-shattering event that makes it obvious. Most of the time they just make some guess that investors are optimistic or pessimistic based on same random bit of data that seems plausible.)

In general, the press wants their viewers to think they know what is going on.  This makes sense, because the purpose of the press is to convey information.  However, if you do not have all the information readily available, it is hard to know what is going on. This leaves journalists with two options: They can either admit they do not know what is going on, or they can spin some narrative that sounds plausible.

Option 1 is unattractive for a couple of reasons.  First, it is always hard to admit you don’t know something people expect you to know.  And second, suppose some rival press outfit does know what is going on.  Then they might gain an edge in credibility and thus increase their audience.

Option 2 looks a lot better.  If you do that, people come away thinking they learned something.

To most people, Option 2 sounds a lot like lying.  But it’s not the same thing–most journalists aren’t deliberately making up lies; they’re just saying stuff that seems like it’s probably true.  And most of the time, it is true.  If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

But sometimes it is not a duck.  Sometimes, it is a black swan. And when that happens, the press can look pretty stupid.

Trump and his campaign were so weird that it distracted the press from the fundamentals of politics.  Trump’s charisma advantage got overlooked or minimized because everything else about him was in total opposition to the normal laws of politics.

This is the ultimate problem with the political press: once a narrative gets established they tend to disregard all information that contradicts that narrative, unless it becomes impossible.

But even once a narrative has been conclusively disproved, the press still has a hard time putting the pieces together and explaining why the narrative was wrong. Notice how, in the interview linked at the top of this post, Allen keeps coming back to the “email scandal” as the deciding factor. He is not completely wrong, since the emails led to the FBI investigation, but he has trouble putting it all in context.

The correct interpretation is that Clinton lost because her lack of charisma made many voters predisposed to dislike her, and the sensational coverage of the allegations about her email server–and the FBI’s investigation into it–turned enough swing voters against her.

This is a fairly straightforward explanation: Clinton’s lack of charisma was an ongoing problem throughout her career, and the email investigation was the catalyst that ignited the anti-Clinton sentiment that was created by her lack of charisma.

I think many journalists are reluctant to put it in these terms however, since according to this interpretation, they were accessories to the loss because of how they covered the email investigation.

electoralcollege2016-svg
Via Wikipedia

There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that the Democrats lost white working- and middle-class voters in the 2016 Presidential election. Ever since, they have been trying to figure out how they can win them back without sacrificing some other part of their coalition.

As I explained here, this thinking is flawed.

Too many election post-mortems have treated the electorate as a static thing, when the reality is that they are very mobile and could easily completely change the map in just a couple years. And they won’t be reapportioning the electoral votes again until after the 2020 election–so there is one more chance to use them as they are currently distributed.

It’s important to remember that the Democrats won the popular vote in 2016.  So they should not be thinking in terms of how to get more votes.  The pressing problem is how to get the votes they already have into places where they will be most effective.

There is nonetheless a kernel of truth in the Republicans’ oft-repeated claim that liberal Democrats have fallen out of touch with the rest of country by congregating in urban areas on the coasts. They are concentrated in such super-blue areas that they forget about the rest of the country.

Democrats may respond that they don’t want to be in touch with people who would support a man like Donald Trump. Why should they engage with people who support a man so antithetical to their beliefs?

There are two problems with this logic. The first is that not all Trump voters enthusiastically support him. Some of them could probably be persuaded to see things differently.

The second and far more important point is that venturing into the Trump-supporting heartland need not mean surrounding oneself with Trump supporters.

This map, by Max Galka of Metrocosm, illustrates it well. It shows the total votes cast in each county and the winning candidate’s margin of victory.

election-map-3d-by-county
Credit: Max Galka, Metrocosm.com

Obviously, the first thing you notice is that L.A. county is almost literally off the chart. But the more significant thing is that Clinton won the heavily-populated counties all across the map. Even in the much-discussed Rust Belt of the Midwest, the region that delivered the victory to Trump, the highly populated areas were going for Clinton, often by big margins.

New York and Los Angeles aren’t the only heavily-Democratic cities in the country; they just happen to be where most of the press and broadcasting industries are located, so they get the attention. But even the red states usually have at least one urban area that voted for Clinton.

So, it’s probably true that Democrats should move out of the coastal enclaves. Not because they need to get in touch with the heartland, but because they need to send reinforcements to the inland liberal enclaves.

Of course, the Democratic party is not an army, and Tom Perez can’t just order thousands of Democrats to march off and take Madison, Columbus and Detroit. There’s no one obvious mechanism you can use to make them do this.  Most people don’t consider the number of electoral votes a state has when they are deciding where to settle.

There are ways this move can be encouraged, though.  After all, lots of those blue columns on the map represent some city with a Democratic mayor and city government.  If they play their cards right, I bet they can come up with policies that make their cities even more inviting to Democrats.

This is one area where the liberal entertainment industry that the Republicans so despise could really prove its worth. If it could make other cities have the same brand power as New York and L.A. it could help to attract other Democrats. (To some extent, this is happening with the city of Austin, Texas.)

One of key lessons of the study of history is that it often is useful to re-think the whole framework used for planning a strategy. It would be helpful if strategists regarded the electoral map as a playing field on which mobile units can move rather than as static territory to be gained or lost.

 

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”–Edward R. Murrow. 1958

[Note: it might be useful to read this post before you proceed.  It addresses some of the same points.]

Barb Knowles of the saneteachers blog suggested that I do a post on print media political campaigns vs. televised/video ones.

The famous line of demarcation in how media changed campaigning is the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. They were the first-ever televised debates. Kennedy, the charismatic candidate, won over the supremely un-charismatic Nixon.

It made such an impression on Nixon that he did not debate in his later winning campaigns. He believed, and he was probably right, that an extended televised appearance that wasn’t carefully stage-managed would hurt his image with the voters.

Indeed, in every campaign in which there have been televised debates, the more charismatic candidate has won.

Television, as I once wrote, is a force multiplier for charisma.

Back in the days of print-only campaign coverage, it was much harder for a charismatic candidate to win.  In the 1896 Presidential election, the famously charismatic populist speaker William Jennings Bryan lost to the un-charismatic William McKinley.

Both Bryan and McKinley played to their strengths during the campaign.  Bryan traveled the country at an incredible pace, giving more than 500 speeches. McKinley used his massive financial advantage to send other speakers on his behalf, and to control the coverage that appeared in print.

There can be no doubt that if television had existed in 1896, Bryan would have won. For one thing–and this is something political strategists still don’t understand–even negative television coverage of charismatic candidates is a win for them.  Even if some pundit comes on afterward to denounce the candidate, as long as video of him delivering his message is getting out, he is winning.

There was of course no television, or even radio, in 1896.  However, Bryan was so popular that decades later, he would record parts of his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech for posterity.  No doubt he was less brilliant an orator in his old age, but it is still powerful:

Print media is inherently less emotional than television and video.  It’s a more intellectual, less visceral activity, to read an article in the paper than to watch someone on television.

If you just read transcripts of Trump’s speeches or debate answers, you will see they are incoherent nonsense.  He rarely speaks in complete sentences, he repeats himself, he interrupts himself. It only works if you can see him delivering it. That visceral reaction is the nature of charismatic authority.

This, more than anything else, is the key difference between televised and print campaigning. Print is intellectual, television is emotional.

Ok, so the title may not be specific enough. Trump seems to have many problems.  But I’m not addressing his financial, social, physical, intellectual, moral or psychological problems.  Lots of people have run successful political campaigns despite having those. I’m talking about his strategic problem that’s hampering his quest for the Presidency.

Trump’s strategic problem is that he can’t adapt.  He is a one-trick pony who has used his trick to the limit of its potential and now does not know what to do on finding it no longer works.

In the primaries, Trump employed an aggressive, brash style to get attention for himself and to mock his competitors. It worked very well.  I won’t lie; I thought it was very entertaining to see him relentlessly mock the career politicians.  They had never seen anything like it, and were unprepared for it.

The problem is, people have now gotten tired of the insult-comedy routine. It was funny for a while, but eventually wears out its welcome.  Add to this that the general electorate is less receptive to such an aggressive style than Republican primary voters, and it becomes clear Trump needs a new strategy.

The standard political hack term for this is “pivoting to the general election”, which is a nice way of saying: “tell the primary voters one thing, then tell general election voters something else.”  Or lie, to put it simply.

Mitt Romney provided the textbook example of this in 2012.  He said all sorts of Conservative-sounding stuff in the Primaries, then took it all back and came out with new, more liberal policies in the General election. It all seemed strategically sound in theory, and I think most strategists would say it was very well done, except for the bit where Romney lost the election.

As you can perhaps tell, I do not like the “pivot to the general election” concept.  It seems to show contempt for voters.  It is effectively saying “Ha!  Those stupid voters will forget what we promised earlier this year, and believe the new, contradictory set of things we are promising now.”  I like candidates who seem a bit more principled.

Trump is definitely not pivoting, but he is also not standing on principle.  He is just continuing to fight and insult people.  And people are tired of it.  They want to see that he is capable of doing something else, at least once.

The funny thing is, his biggest error may also have been his greatest opportunity to do this–but he missed it.

After he started his absurd argument with the Khan family, Trump could have surprised everyone by apologizing to them profusely.  If he had done that, completely and unreservedly, people might have said “Wow!  Trump actually can admit when he’s wrong!” and it might have come out being a positive for him.

But Trump couldn’t do that. Whether because he has some personality disorder that prevents him from ever admitting he’s wrong or just because he thought “My ‘Always Attack/Never Apologize’ strategy got me this far, I won’t drop it now”, Trump failed to do the right thing because he can’t do anything other than attack people.

In general, I try not to use sports analogies when discussing politics, because sports are zero-sum games, and politics has more dimensions to it than that.  But in this case, there is a fairly apt analogy with American football.

Teams with great offenses that can “throw the ball all over the field” and score tons of points will go on record-setting streaks and look almost unbeatable playing teams with bad to mediocre pass defenses.  Then they finally have a game when the quarterback and/or receivers timing is off, or the opposing pass defense is giving them a hard time, and they have nothing else they can do.  They fall apart.

Trump is like that.  He won the primaries with an aggressive, angry style against weak opponents, but now that he is in a contest where people want to see empathy and humility, he can’t adjust and do it.

All right, so maybe I did end up analyzing his psychological problems a little, after all.  It’s kind of unavoidable.

From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other.  I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.

The idea is that charisma is what wins Presidential elections.

Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.

I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win.  But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.

I was right. Obama won re-election.

But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him.  Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.

Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.

Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up.  Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.

Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.

But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”

You would need more than that, though.  Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable.  He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people.  He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.

To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.

I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.

In 2012, I made a lot of fun of Romney for being a “generic Republican”.  It was comical how vanilla he was.  And that was boring.  He was the politician from central casting; nothing memorable about him.

And I firmly believe that is the reason he lost.

Enter Trump.

Trump is not boring.  Trump constantly commands the press’s attention.  He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him.  And he almost never backs down from it, either.

In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explicitly says that he uses this technique to promote stuff.  Whether it’s promising to build the World’s Tallest Building or a wall on the Mexican border, Trump knows this is how to get free media coverage.

Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.

And as far as “optics” go, he is right.  Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration.  When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”

The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate.  He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:

 

In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong.  I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.

Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies.  They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.

That is where charisma comes in.  Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.

Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people.  Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.

And there is a lot of evidence to suggest Hillary Clinton can’t, either.

My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw.  It’s not that at all.  Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that.  It’s a very rare ability.

Most people are afraid of public speaking.  This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc.  But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.

That’s the bad news for the Democrats.  The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.

Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.

And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out.  Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.

But there is one thing that should give them pause.  And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.

The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate.  So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard.  He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)

Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.

And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?

I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September.  He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year.  He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.

Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.

Will he succeed?

Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.