August 26, 2016

As a veteran (albeit amateur) watcher of presidential campaigns I pay very little attention to the kinds of things the mainstream media can’t seem to help itself from focusing on: polls, polls, and, yes, more polls. Can one say that polls are useless as a gauge for what might be actually going on? No, of course not. But polls released in August, 2 1/2 months before Election Day, “national” polls, polls that cite “registered voters”, and polls that rely on 2102 turnout demographics (as pretty much all the media-driven polls are doing right now) are not worthy of the paper they are released on. Can they detect trends? Perhaps, but only if they follow the same criteria over and over again.

Me? I look at the behavior of campaigns, because that’s where it’s really at (and most interesting). Campaign insiders don’t care about the national, mainstream media polls. Oh sure, their spokespeople might use them as talking points on the cable news channels, but most, if not all, campaigns employ their own internal pollsters, and it’s those pollsters who help drive a campaign’s general strategy, actions, and activities based on what they are seeing.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, from folks I know who really and truly know this stuff at both the state and national levels, two weeks ago the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was essentially tied, but no one knew for sure – there were too many variables in the mix. The reasons for this were five-fold:

1. The 2012 turnout models being used by pollsters having no basis in reality compared to 2016 primaries
2. The lack of an incumbent in 2016 indicating a “change election” – very difficult to predict
3. The high negatives of both major party candidates – who will turn out for whom?
4. The “great unknown”: unaffiliated voters or traditional non-voters who will come out for Trump
5. The unknown number of voters who, for a variety of reasons, won’t admit their supporting for Trump

As my contact told me, this is a truly “once in a lifetime” election, and anyone who can tell you what’s really going on three months out is kidding themselves.

So let’s forget about the polls for a moment and look at the behavior of the Trump and Clinton campaigns over the last few weeks. You had a shakeup in the Trump campaign (of course they won’t call it a shakeup, but anytime a campaign replaces a Paul Manafort with the likes of a true conservative firebrand like’s Steve Bannon and a “mainstream” campaign veteran like Kellyanne Conway, that’s a shakeup). I half believe the Trump campaign saying that Manafort’s primary role was to work the GOP backrooms to ensure there was no monkey-business at the Cleveland convention and that, having succeeded in that regard, they wanted a different mix to strategize the stretch run of the 2016 campaign. Still, there’s little doubt that following Cleveland the Trump campaign was flailing around a bit, trying to find a cohesive message and identity, not to mention a general campaign strategy.

The change in the Trump campaign since the arrival of Bannon and Conway has been nothing short of amazing: having Trump use a Teleprompter to refine his message, the reach-out to African-Americans, and a trip to flood-stricken Louisiana that caught both the White House and the Clinton campaign flat-footed showed a remarkable ability to (as they say in political campaign-speak) “pivot”. Trump’s speech at the Detroit Economic Club and the follow-up speeches in Florida and Milwaukee in the wake of the racial violence there was not just fortuitous, but – a very important quality when it comes to political campaigns – an opportunity. Within just ten days’ time, the Trump campaign went from a plodding, uncertain operation to a deft and efficient machine.

As for the Clinton campaign, one has to realize that Hillary is a creature of 1990s machine politics, and her campaign is a reflection of that. Top-heavy and full of veteran Democratic operatives, at its core the Clinton campaign relies on a handful of trusted confidants whose sole concern is to protect the Clinton image and its interests at all cost. They trust no one, they listen to no one. As a result, she simply can’t bring herself to learn anything from what happened to her in 2008, when Barack Obama’s campaign, full of piss-and-vinegar upstarts who never could have imagined their candidate doing anything more than putting himself in position for a VP gig and 2016, showed a deft yet aggressive touch in painting Clinton as Washington establishment and their guy as someone who would shake that establishment up (sound familiar?).

Clinton’s campaign, being protected by the DNC and Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, insulated by their friends and cohorts in the mainstream media, and never really pushed by Bernie Sanders, never felt challenged during the primary process and, as a result, was never forced to think on its feet, anticipate, and respond accordingly – qualities absolutely essential in a general election campaign. Rather than play the aggressor’s role during Trump’s ascendancy, it instead chose to sit back and let “Trump be Trump”, figuring that his high negatives would counterbalance Hillary’s, and that in the end the vaunted Democratic ground game in November would be sufficient to take the battleground states Hillary would need to reach 270 electoral votes. Big mistake.

What the Clinton campaign didn’t anticipate was the daily drip-drip-drip of the WikiLeaks release of e-mails hacked from Clinton’s home-grown server. It didn’t count on their candidate being so flat-footed in countering charges leveled against her in the most softball interviews possible (the Chris Wallace Fox News Sunday performance being only the most obvious) about her e-mails. All this did was help reinforce the public’s perception of her carelessness (if not criminality), and allow the goings-on at the Clinton Foundation while she was Secretary of State to enter the daily 2016 campaign narrative.

Before I go further, remember one thing: political campaign operatives hate surprises. Surprises mean having to play defense, and if you’re playing defense that means you’re not on offense and in a perpetual reactive mode. Campaign operatives want to dictate the narrative, not respond to it. It is essential that in politics this principle be understood above all others: He who dictates the narrative holds the high ground on the field of battle. Once again: He who dictates the narrative holds the high ground on the field of battle.

Until two weeks ago, the Clinton campaign dictated the narrative: Trump was a hot-head. Trump’s mouth was a human highlight film, too careless, reckless, and dangerous for anyone seeking the Oval Office. They really didn’t have to do anything: they knew their sycophants in the mainstream media would do their work for them. While they sat back and watched in amusement, the mainstream media raked Trump over the coals for things he would say as an aside or off the cuff, no matter how inconsequential or innocent it might have been in intent. In short, Hillary’s campaign didn’t have to play offense as long as Trump’s campaign stayed on the defensive. While Trump’s events (you could call them nothing but) played to thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic supporters, Clinton’s campaign pretty much kept her out of the spotlight, emerging only occasionally for small, highly-staged gatherings or appearances in high school gyms where a few hundred supporters could gather to watch her read a twenty-minute speech and then disappear for days on end.

Which was OK – after all, they owned the narrative, they held the high ground in the field of battle.

The arrival of Bannon and Conway to Trump’s campaign changed all that. Virtually overnight, the wildly unpredictable, entertaining, and amusing stand-up routine previously offered by Trump on the stump was replaced with the candidate reading – from a teleprompter, no less! – a carefully-honed and hard-hitting attack on Clinton as the embodiment of Washington corruption and inside political gain. While his speech at the Detroit Economic Club only hinted at what was to come, the reach-out to African-Americans (“What the hell have you got to lose?) made in Milwaukee was a bona fide shot not just over the Clinton campaign’s bow, but the entire Democratic Party’s most sacred turf as well. Then, as if to emphasize the point Trump was attempting to make, his trip to Louisiana showed him in a role most folks had never seen him in before: a leader, a man of the people.

And the major news networks and mainstream media had no choice but to cover it.

Why the Clinton campaign didn’t see this opportunity before the Trump campaign did is actually unfathomable. Or perhaps they did, but the candidate wasn’t willing to leave her fundraising and vacation in trendy Nantucket. In the end it will all come out for sure, but it was hard not to see the contrast between the billionaire candidate lifting boxes of toys out of a semi while his Democratic counterpart schmoozed with the likes of Cher and the Obamas on Martha’s Vineyard. In campaign vernacular, it was an “optics nightmare”: a missed opportunity no veteran campaign should ever have allowed to happen.

Which is why the Clinton campaign was forced out of hiding for yesterday’s campaign event in Reno, Nevada where she played the race card without shame or hesitation. The Clinton campaign saw what was happening, heard the message being emphasized by the Trump campaign day after day, and knew it was beginning to draw blood. But it is here that the campaign’s inability to move both deftly and smartly revealed itself, and think back to what I wrote earlier: the Trump campaign was now controlling the narrative and holding the high ground on the field of battle.

I’m guessing the Clinton campaign might look back at yesterday’s speech as yet another lost opportunity. Rather than featuring the candidate in, say, Baltimore, or Ferguson, or Milwaukee, surrounded by a sea of African-Americans and taking the high ground to portray herself as a leader and what her party stood for when it came to race relations, it instead chose to roll her out in Nevada, of all places, and in front of a bunch of white folks, to rail against something most folks have never heard before, the “Alt-right” – a fringe group even I never knew existed. And here on display for everyone to see was the “bad” Hillary Clinton, the Hillary Clinton many people suspect as the real Hillary behind the candidate: paranoid, shrill, almost reptilian, spouting right-wing conspiracies to the point of almost tinfoil-hat stuff.

In short, Hillary blinked.

What we are seeing in front of us is two campaigns moving in different directions. Deep down, the Clinton campaign has to know the opportunities it has blown – opportunities that could have put the Trump campaign away. Deep down, the Clinton campaign has to know that between the flawed candidate Hillary is and the steady drip-drip-drip of the WikiLeaks e-mails that opportunities to show your candidate a compassionate, capable leader and champion of the people don’t come often. In this case, two times that opportunity presented itself, and both times the Trump campaign grabbed the momentum. Don’t believe me? Who do you think will be the candidate discussed ad nauseum by the mainstream media over the coming weekend?

Mark my words (and here you just gotta trust The Great White Shank): the mainstream media has gone out of its way to paint Hillary and her campaign in the most positive of light, and they will turn on her if they don’t start seeing a return on their investment. You’re already starting to see it: as much as they’d like to, even the most rabid partisan can’t turn a blind eye to the obvious “pay for play” scandal enveloping Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State. My guess is they are probably giving her until the first debate with Trump (something I’m still not entirely sure will happen) to turn this thing around, and if it doesn’t, well, they’ll bury her. Or, at the very least, stop propping her up.

There came a point in the 2008 campaign where the mainstream media simply couldn’t keep the Clinton campaign afloat any longer: the upstart Obama campaign and the sharp contrasts it successfully drew with the Clinton campaign made it virtually impossible to ignore. Unless things change radically in the next few weeks – say, if the Trump campaign were to make a huge misstep – that point in time will come again. As the saying goes: “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.” The Clinton campaign is playing with fire right now, and if both they and their candidate are not extremely careful, they are liable to be burned again.

Don’t watch the polls, watch what the campaigns do. The Great White Shank won’t steer you wrong.

Filed in: Politics & World Events by The Great White Shank at 23:44 | Comments (2)
  1. Good analysis and nice site (came over from CTH). Although I dont think the Hillary pimps pretending to be journalists at NBCCNNABC.. will ever turn on her.

    Comment by Roger — August 27, 2016 @ 12:56 am

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Roger! See ya over at the Treehouse!

    Comment by The Great White Shank — August 27, 2016 @ 10:19 am

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