Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

Did Donald Trump The Media Once Again?

Two days ago, in the midst of the Democratic National Convention, Trump held an extended press conference – it lasted over an hour – that once more showcased his uncanny ability to run circles around the media.   Trump began the conference by pointedly noting that “It has been 235 days since Crooked Hillary has held a press conference” – an observation not lost on the press.  Say what you will about Donald – he’s not shy about mixing it up with journalists.  Thereafter the press conference turned into Donald performance art – he took all questions, and responded in his usual rambling, bombastic, speak-first-think-later mode.  And, as is generally the case, he made news that led most of the major media outlets that day.  In this case it was his response to a question regarding whether he had any knowledge of Russians hacking DNC emails.  I want you to listen to his response to this question. This is the portion, particularly the last 17 seconds, which was replayed endlessly on television and radio for the next 48 hours.

After this statement, Trump went on to say, “”They probably have them. I’d like to have released. ..Now, if Russia or China or any other country has those e-mails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”  However, this follow up remark didn’t get as much press coverage.

Almost as soon as he finished the last sentence in the video about the media, my twitter feed exploded in righteous indignation.  According to the denizens of my twitterverse, Trump  had just invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account!   How could any real American countenance such an act?  In the hothouse environment of social media, the ramifications of Donald statements expanded wildly.  Had he committed treason? Was this a felony?  Could he be prosecuted?  According to many commentators, The Donald’s statement immediately disqualified him from receiving national security briefings – if not from running for the Presidency at all. (Senator Harry Reid suggested Trump be given false security briefings.) Mainstream media outlets joined the fray running stories with headlines proclaiming Trump had invited Russians to meddle in U.S. politics.  Clinton’s campaign was only too happy to pile on, claiming that Trump’s statement was a clear indication of his disloyalty to America.  During his speech at the Democratic Convention, former CIA director Leon Panetta made direct reference to Trump’s remarks as evidence that he was unfit to be president.

Meanwhile, Donald’s campaign put out a statement arguing that Trump was merely asking the Russians to release Clinton’s missing emails if they had them.  This excuse went nowhere with Trump’s critics, who dismissed it out of hand and continued their full-throated prosecution of what they viewed as his clear invitation for the Russians to conduct an illegal act and hack Clinton’s emails. As is his wont, rather than roll his comments back, Trump used twitter to double down on his initial comments:

He later claimed that he was being sarcastic when he made the comments, but the denizens of my twitter feed were having none of it.

At first glance it would seem that this type of negative coverage would prove damaging to Trump’s campaign.  But I don’t think that’s the case – in fact, I think it probably helped him. Here’s why.  If you are wearing partisan blinders, remove them now, and then go back and listen to the video excerpt I posted above. Try to listen to it as if you were my neighbors, Joe and Jane Sixpack – a hardworking couple who have only a mild interest in politics, use social media just to keep up with their kids and religiously avoid cable news talk shows.  Their political leanings run moderate, they love watching The Big Bang Theory and Love It or List It, and they are only now beginning to tune into the presidential race.  My guess is that this excerpt is not going to trigger a deep conversation on their part about whether Trump broke treason laws.  Instead, to the degree that it triggers any response at all, I think Joe and Jane Sixpack will be reminded of Hillary’s missing emails and will link that back to her email server problems.  And that probably will be the end of the conversation about this event – they will file it away as one more data point regarding her untrustworthiness and move on.

I understand the need for hard-core partisans to frame media events, like Trump’s press conference, within a preconceived world view.   But for most Americans who only tangentially pay attention to politics, Trump’s excerpted comments will likely be viewed for what it appears to be on first listening, without any effort at deeper analysis: a straightforward question referring to Hillary’s missing emails. Yes, I realize that partisans don’t see it this way – but their views on Trump are already baked in.   It is the less ideologically committed voters who both sides need to appeal to, and my guess is they aren’t going to see Trump’s statement as a sign of disloyalty.

I long ago gave up trying to decide whether Trump consciously thinks through his media strategy, or he is simply acting on instincts honed through years of being in the media spotlight.  But whatever the motivation, this most recent press conference, and the ensuing debate over his remarks, is the latest reminder of how he has successful parlayed overblown media coverage into his current position as the Republican nominee for president.  Months ago, when Trump first announced his candidacy and it was clear his polling numbers were on the rise, I made a gentle plea for pundits  to try to cover him as just another candidate, rather than giving him the outsized exposure they had been prone to do, and that he so craves.  Alas, as always, my voice went unheard, and here we are.

Next up: how Trump’s four-point post-convention poll bump proves the event in Cleveland was a total disaster.

The Kaine Mutiny?

Last Friday I was on Vermont Edition,  hosted by the always great Jane Lindholm, to discuss the “Full Bernie” – a retrospective on the Sanders campaign.  During the call-in portion of the show, more than one Sanders’ supporter phoned in to complain about the DNC rigging the nomination system, the media’s treatment of Sanders’ candidacy and also about Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her vice presidential running mate.  Callers suggested that Kaine represents everything that is wrong with Clinton’s candidacy: he’s more moderate than her, and is on the wrong side of key issues, such as trade, and he isn’t particularly charismatic. In their view, Elizabeth Warren, or Sanders himself, would have been the wiser choice. According to Vermont Digger, many delegates expressed similar disappointment with the selection of Kaine: “In a poll of nearly 300 Sanders delegates to the Democratic convention, nearly 90 percent said they are dissatisfied with Hillary Clinton’s selection of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to be her running mate.”

One needs to be careful about drawing conclusions based on a handful of callers to a radio show, of course, but a recently conducted Vermont state poll shows that in the Green Mountain state, at least, a large minority of Sanders’ supporters are not yet ready give up the dream and coalesce behind their party’s nominee. According to the poll, which was in the field July 16-23, only 54% of Sanders supporters say they will back Clinton in November.  About 30% said they would vote for someone else (they didn’t specify who) and only about 5% of Sanders’ supporters indicated they would back Trump – the same number saying they would support Gary Johnson.

Of course, one might expect this lingering opposition to Clinton in Bernie’s home state, and the poll doesn’t indicate the state will go Republican any time soon. Nationally, polls suggest a greater willingness for strong Sanders’ supporters to vote for Clinton.  According to a Pew poll, of the 20% of Democrats who were “consistent” Sanders supporters throughout the campaign, fully 90% now say they will back Clinton.  (Keep in mind that Pew, unlike the Vermont poll, did not offer respondents an option other than Clinton or Trump, so this may be overstating their support for Clinton.) Although the comparison is not quite the same, another Pew poll conducted before the convention suggests that 80% of those Republicans who initially backed another Republican now say they will vote for Trump.

So why does it appear Democrats are more divided than Republicans, as evidenced by some Sanders’ supporters decision to stage a walkout after Clinton won the nomination, and to occupy the media headquarters afterwards, and by their continuing efforts more generally to disrupt proceedings?  In part, I think it is because of the intensity of the “Bernie Bros” opposition to Clinton, and their corresponding passion for Sanders and what he stands for.  For the true-blue Sanderista minority, supporting Clinton and Kaine amounts to repudiating the very principles that animated the Sanders revolution.  In Sanders, they found the authentic vehicle for expressing their deep-held political opposition to the political establishment and the rigged system that keeps them in power.  In this respect, they are holier than the Pope; that is, they view themselves as more true to Sanders’ cause than is the candidate himself, and they are going to make sure the public understands this, no matter how disruptive they are. I expect they will continue to make their presence known during Hillary’s speech tonight. It will be interesting to see how she reacts to these interruptions. My best guess is she is going to extend the olive branch at the start of the speech, and also talk about how Sanders’ supporters represent the vitality and diversity in the Democratic Party.

On the Republican side, as I wrote in my earlier post, you did not see the equivalent outbursts among the delegates once the debate over the rules was settled on the first day. And most delegates seemed to react negatively to Cruz’ non-endorsement speech – a different type of opposition than what we are seeing among Democrats, where Bernie has wholeheartedly embraced Clinton. The reason the Republicans appear less divided below the elite level, I think, is that those opposing Trump do so not out of any commitment to another candidate, or any set of ideological principles or issues, but because they just don’t like Trump.  But the fatal weakness of the #NeverTrump movement is the same flaw that allowed Trump to win the nomination in the first place: Republicans felt little passion for any of the 16 alternatives.  And so, rather than try to disrupt the convention, most have either made their peace with Trump or decided to mow their lawns instead.

The difficulty for Democrats, and why I think their divisions are more troubling at this point, is that this active opposition to Clinton suggests an intensity of preferences that may make it harder for the small but vocal group of Sanderistas to ever pull the lever for her.  In a close race, even if only 10% of Sanders supporters sit this out, or vote for Stein or (gulp!) Trump, it could make the difference come November.

I have long argued that most Sanders’ supporters will, eventually, come around to Clinton.  It’s difficult to judge just how large the opposition to Clinton is, but based on media reports (and they are often conflicting), it appears to be more than a fringe of delegates, but nothing close to a majority of Sanders’ supporters in attendance. No matter what the numbers, however, tonight offers Clinton her best opportunity to bring the remaining holdouts around.  Let’s see if she can do it.

Postscript:  It appears this morning that the Sanderistas, although perhaps limited in numbers, are continuing their efforts to disrupt the convention.

What I Saw in Cleveland: Trump Rocked, But Can He Roll?

The measure of an effective convention is the size and durability of the boost (if any) it produces in the nominee’s support.  Early polling results suggests Donald Trump may have received a small boost in his support from the recently-concluded Republican convention, mostly from previously undecided Republicans, but it’s still too early to judge whether, and how much, it improved his chances in November. This hasn’t stopped pundits on both sides of the political aisle from rendering their own verdict, however premature, of course.  Here’s my take, based on my brief time in Cleveland, capped by a ringside seat (if sitting in the nosebleed seats counts as ringside) to watch Trump’s lengthy, and loud, acceptance speech.

The goal of any party convention is to unify the party behind the presumptive nominee, and to articulate the major themes on which the candidate will run in the general election.  For the most part, I thought Trump accomplished these objectives.  I flew into Ohio expecting to see a very divided set of Republican delegates, and braced for major demonstrations in the streets.  Neither expectation was met.  In fact, despite the media’s tendency to focus attention on dissenting delegates and other controversies (see coverage of Melania’s partly plagiarized speech), this was a relatively tame event. Once Trump’s team, allied with the Republican Party leadership, beat back an early effort to amend the rules to allow the delegates to vote their conscience, the battle for the nomination was essentially over.  The state roll call on Tuesday went relatively smoothly, with New York’s delegates, as announced by Trump’s son Donald, putting Trump over the top to become the party nominee.  Similarly, while Ted Cruz’ failure to endorse Trump received a lot of airtime on the cable shows, it wasn’t clear to me (I wasn’t in the arena for this) that it played all that well with most delegates.  In my view, Cruz’ decision not to endorse was made with an eye toward his bid for the presidency in 2020, on the assumption that he won’t be tainted when Trump is defeated come November. I suspect it will have little impact on the 2016 race.

Perhaps equally surprising, I saw little evidence of sustained protests against Trump on the streets.  To be sure, there were organized demonstrations held nightly at the public square a short distance from the Quickens Loans Arena, but they were largely peaceful and mostly out of site to delegates entering the arena.  Perhaps the most boisterous opposition I saw was by religious groups that evidently viewed Trump’s candidacy as a harbinger of a coming apocalypse.

There was an incident in which a protester tried to burn an American flag near the convention arena entrance, but according to the waitress I talked to in Flannery’s Irish Pub who saw the event, he wasn’t even able to ignite the flag – but did ignite himself – before police wrestled him down.  Protests that same night led to maybe two dozen arrests. The next day security was significantly beefed up in that area, including the use of mounted police, and I didn’t see any significant protests as I entered the arena that night.

On the whole, this man holding a sign proclaiming that “Trump eats farts” while posing for pictures with one of Cleveland’s finest pretty much sums up the tenor of the protests that I saw in Cleveland.

It may be that the highly visible security presence deterred more violent protests.  Indeed, security was tight all over.  As I headed to the courthouse to pick up my security clearance, a platoon of some 40 or more officers came sprinting by me.

There were uniformed officers and security in riot gear holding weaponry everywhere, and police used bomb-sniffing dogs to check for explosives in packages on the street.

To get into the security perimeter around the arena one had to pass an extensive security check, which was more thorough than anything I’ve gone through to get onto an airplane.  That included turning on smart phones to prove they were real.  For the most part, the process went very quickly, but it made me reconsider how much time I wanted to spend in the arena, since I didn’t look forward to going through security every time I had to reenter.

Security was a bit less stringent at the convention center a couple of blocks away from the arena, where the print media (of which I was, allegedly, one) were penned up to write their copy. Evidently we weren’t considered high priority targets for terrorists. Rather than spending time in my designated space with the international media in the far corner of the print press room, my wife – er, camerawoman – and I staked out a position in a pub just opposite the arena entrance where I could drink some local beer, send the occasional tweet, and watch the talking heads like Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd interact with the little people. It was a taxing assignment, but someone has to speak truth to power.

On the final night of the convention, I decided to watch the proceedings from the highest point in the Quicken Loan arena seats, to the left of the main stage, about level with the balloons clustered on the arena ceiling.  (My media credentials limited me to the upper balcony seating.)  On the way in I saw a gaggle of reporters surrounding someone who I assumed must be very important.  It was Don King, the boxing promoter. He had missed out on snaring a formal speaking slot, but that didn’t stop him from talking.

From my nosebleed seats the speakers seem quite tiny, but I had a fine view of the proceedings via the overhead screen.  The most anticipated speaker of the night, other than Donald, was his daughter Ivanka, and she delivered, both substantively and in presentation. To the extent that her comments on issues like equal pay and child care reflects her father’s views, it is a reminder of how Trump is willing, in some areas, to go against the Republican Party orthodoxy in a bid to reach out to more moderate voters.  Whether he succeeded is another question altogether.

When Ivanka introduced her father, the place erupted in applause and a glow of camera phone flashes as Donald walked on stage, his hair looking less unruly than usual.

Even though I was about as far from Trump as one could be, I’m pretty sure I could have heard his speech even had there been no amplification – he practically shouted it out, which may have been partly a function of his adjusting to using a teleprompter, rather than the more informal speaking style I’ve seen from him at his rallies.

As many commentators have noted, Trump’s speech painted a rather grim picture of the state of affairs in the U.S., beginning with his opening statement that “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life” followed by a lengthy recitation of facts and statistics chronicling just how bad the situation purportedly is. But that’s to be expected from a candidate who is running against the incumbent party – it would be more surprising if he painted a more upbeat picture. As he has throughout the campaign, Trump targeted his message to what he called “the forgotten men and women of our country. And they are forgotten, but they’re not gonna be forgotten long. These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.”  The reference to the forgotten men and women, of course, hearkens back to FDR’s use of that term in his famous radio address during the 1932 presidential campaign when he called for plans that “put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”  At the end of his acceptance speech, Trump repeated his claim that “I am your voice.”

As I watched the speech, one incident in particular stood out as a testament to Trump’s maturation as a candidate.  As security quickly surrounded the lone protestor who tried to disrupt the speech, Trump refrained from issuing his characteristic order to “Throw him out” which I had seen so often on the campaign trail and instead, after the protestor was gone, took the time – to great applause – to praise law enforcement for their hard work without ever directly referencing the disruption.

So, what impact will the convention, and Trump’s speech, have on the presidential race?  My sense is that, despite the media focus on a “divided party,” Trump accomplished his first objective, which was to unify the Republican Party behind his candidacy. (Contrary to the impression the media conveyed, when I heard delegates chanting “Lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton, it sounded less like an angry mob and much more like a rollicking party. Delegates were having fun with the chant – or so it seemed to me inside the arena.) And I think his message will resonate with that portion of the electorate that has experienced years of stagnant wages, and who are worried about growing economic inequality and security issues. But although he modified his stance on immigration to target countries rather than Muslims, and made a direct appeal on Thursday night to the groups, including African-Americans, Latinos and members of the LGBT community that historically vote Democrat, it is not clear to me how effective he was in expanding his electoral coalition beyond his current base of low-to-middle-income mostly white male voters.  And I am skeptical that he will be very successful in peeling off very many Sanders supporters to join his cause, despite his direct effort to reach out to them in his speech. But won’t stop him from trying, as evidenced by today’s twitterfest from Trump decrying the DNC email scandal.

The other unknown, of course, is how much of a boost Hillary Clinton will get when the spotlight turns to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week.  Ironically, despite all the media buildup anticipating a very divisive Republican convention, it is the Democrats who seem more divided at the moment, at least if the Sandersistas follow through on their pledge to bring 100,000 protestors to the City of Brotherly Love. My guess, however, is that Democrats will leave Philadelphia next Thursday more unified than they appear to be now, just as Republicans did.

Let me conclude by repeating what I told the camera crew from the Cleveland visitors bureau when they interviewed me about what I thought about their fair city:  everywhere we went people were incredibly nice and helpful, whether it was the man on the rapid transit train explaining how to get to downtown Cleveland, the judicial clerk who sent me to the correct courthouse to get my security pass, or the rapid transit official who let me jump the turnstile when I lost my farecard.   I know Cleveland gets a bad rap – burning rivers, Lebron James, Lebron James again, etc. (City Motto: We’re not Detroit!)  But from what I saw in the brief time I spent there, Cleveland Rocks.

 

 

 

 

Does Trump Have His Eye On Newt?

We have entered a political lull between the period in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became their party’s presumptive nominees and the party conventions signifying the kickoff to the general election campaign. In a bid to drum up items of interest during this slow news period, the media will spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about who the two candidates will choose as their vice presidential running mates (along with a healthy dose of Clinton’s email woes) – an exercise that both candidates will be only to happy to encourage.  These stories will contain the obligatory reference to John Nance Garner’s quip that the Vice Presidency is not “worth a bucket of warm piss”, and then will play the speculation game by pointing out the ways in which various potential candidates do or do not help the president win the general election.  We’ll see references to which vice presidential candidate best “balances” the ticket – geographically, or with certain voting blocs (women, religious groups, etc.), or to compensate for a candidate’s perceived lack of expertise in certain areas.

All this begs the question: is there any evidence that the vice president pick even matters, in terms of influencing the general election?  Generally speaking, the short answer is no – at least not in terms of the overall presidential vote.  There is some evidence that a vice presidential candidate chosen from a swing state could be electorally consequential by boosting a presidential candidate’s support there. But the effect, if it exists, is likely quite modest. However, as I suggested to Deutsche Welle (DW) reporter Michael Knigge,  as with many aspects of this election, prior research may be – I stress may be – less relevant this time around.  This is particularly the case when it comes to Donald Trump’s vice presidential choice.  The reason is that Trump, perhaps more than almost any major party nominee in modern history, lacks any governing experience at any political level.  Beginning at least with the Carter-Mondale relationship presidents have increasingly integrated their vice president into their policy advising process.  As a consequence, the vice presidential choice has been increasingly likely to turn on how well the presidential candidate believes his vice presidential nominee will help him or her govern, as opposed to boosting his electoral chances. Dick Cheney wasn’t selected by Bush because he could deliver Wyoming and its three Electoral College votes – he was chosen because he possessed the foreign policy experience George W. Bush lacked, as Bush makes clear in his memoirs.  Similarly, Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was not made in order to bring Delaware into the Democratic column in 2008.  Instead, Obama was hoping to capitalize on Biden’s years of experience in the Senate.  And even candidates who are chosen in part for electoral reasons, as Al Gore was in 1992,  often provide needed governing expertise as well.  In his memoirs, Bill Clinton notes that he had weekly lunches with Gore throughout his presidency:  “Al Gore helped me a lot in the early days….giving me a continuing crash course in how Washington works.”

Trump, in his public comments, seems to recognize that he needs to select someone with governing experience, preferably working in Congress. It seems, however, that as vice presidents have become an important part of the presidential staff, personal compatibility with the presidential candidate has become an increasingly important factor influencing the selection as well.  In listing the qualities that ultimately led him to offer the position to Cheney, Bush said, “I wanted someone with whom I was comfortable, someone willing to serve as part of a team, someone with the Washington experience that I lacked… .”

At first glance, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is reportedly the front-runner to become Trump’s running mate, seems to provide the type of congressional experience that Trump will sorely need if he’s to get his legislative agenda through Congress.  Even Gingrich’s harshest critics acknowledge that he is smart, and a savvy player of the Washington game. But Gingrich has also acquired a reputation for erratic behavior and a penchant for floating big think, but perhaps impractical ideas – see his proposal during the 2012 campaign for establishing a moon base by 2020.   More importantly, perhaps, Gingrich seems to suffer from some of the same weaknesses Trump exhibits – a lack of self-discipline and a penchant for rhetorical excess that often attracts media attention for the wrong reasons.   And his personal life – particular his marriages – isn’t likely to sit well with conservative voters who are already suspicious of Trump’s right-wing credentials and moral rectitude.

Electorally, it is not clear that Gingrich brings much to the ticket. It is true that Gingrich won his home state of Georgia easily four years earlier during the race for the Republican nomination, which might matter if Democrats try to turn that state blue – a long-shot proposition at this point.  However, there are lots of more important swing states out there (see: Ohio) and politicians (see: John Kasich) who would make a better choice for electoral reasons alone.  The problem, however, is that many of the Republicans who bring the most electorally, including Kasich, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, have expressed no interest in being Trump’s running mate.  Gingrich, on the other hand, seems perfectly willing to climb aboard the Trump presidential train.

One important quality that Gingrich does possess, at least according to press reports, is that Trump likes and trusts him, something that is evident in Trump’s comments about Newt during their joint appearance at a rally yesterday in Cincinnati.

 

Who knows?  A Trump-Gingrich presidential ticket might create the type of creative synergy not seen since….well, since ever.   Or, the two might create a combustible mix of inflated egos and excessive rhetoric that will end up self-destructing on the campaign trail. Either way, it would be one hell of a ride.