By November of this year we will know the result of perhaps the most consequential and bizarre presidential elections in recent history. For months, people around the world have both endured and revelled in the divisive and bitter rhetoric that has ultimately proved to be politics at its most revealing, both for the candidates and the voters.
Hillary Clinton will have to work hard to overcome Donald Trump’s populist appeal. Her barrage of negative ads, whilst aimed at middle-ground voters who ultimately decide presidential elections, will ultimately have to be in combination with her own optimistic message. In order to win the necessary support, she must further contrast herself with Trump and also allow voters to feel they are casting their ballots for reasons beyond ‘she is the lesser of two evils’ or, worse still, that she is simply not Donald Trump.
Indeed, Trump’s candour, arrogance and politically incorrect mentality are central to his appeal; and so any negative ad that simply replays what Trump says in public in the hope that the undecided will use reason, may in fact be a lost cause. Such is how different this campaign is to the one waged four years ago. These negative ads see no 47%-style secret film; gaffe-prone Romney was gaffe-prone when talking in private or on the spot. Much of Hillary’s attack ads this year are of Trump’s planned speeches. However, it is these moments -some planned, some unscripted- that are driving the emotional zeal of Trump’s support and are what have carried him to victory thus far. It seems that in order to overcome such an emotional surge, largely expressed by a working class who have felt ignored during the economic recovery, Hillary will have to find a strategy in partnership with negative ads that will fill the emotionless void of many of her supporters and undecideds who simply do not want Trump, and not just rely on her message of look at what Trump has said now.
It is not the first time this year we have seen campaigns fought against emotion and sober reasoning. The weeks leading up to the UK’s EU referendum saw a great surge of an angry working class, who have felt ignored, express their discontent by backing a campaign based on its own brand of emotional patriotism and a faith in the likes of Johnson and Gove. In voting Leave, people were not (at least for the most part) expressing their dissatisfaction with the complexities of neoliberalism, or even largely with the oft-quoted important issue of sovereignty. Instead, the decision was based largely on feelings- revolving around immigration, taxation, ambiguity of the word ‘control’, and the promise of a future Independence Day and thus a creation of subjective patriotism. While the Remain campaign, with their barrage of quotes by the IMF and the Bank of England, and other institutions meaningless in the minds of the electorate, failed in creating a patriotic zeal founded in emotion. Whilst the Leave campaign certainly had its share of facts and statistics, it was the Remain camp that had to rely on temperate statistics, analysis and awkward assurances that the current situation was good, or at least, better than it would be in a post-Brexit Britain.
However, it is not just the right that has relied on an emotion-based strategy. Obama’s victory in 2008 was in large the result of a belief that he represented- and thus was best to bring about- change, whilst an objective analysis may very well have cited the already seasoned Hillary Clinton as the best chance for bringing about a reversal of the Bush-era, rather than the inexperienced holder of ‘Change We Can Believe In’ with only two years in the Senate to his name.
Even after what many on the left would describe as a disappointing presidency -where Hope and Change turned out to be largely campaign rhetoric- campaigns are still being waged, and won, on a platform of Hope and Change. Despite not winning the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders did better than anyone initially expected by offering still an optimistic vision of the future, putting him in contrast to Mrs Clinton as Obama had done in 2008, with his message of ‘A Future to Believe In’, hoping to inspire the same optimism behind Obama’s long-shot victory. And such results are not limited to the United States; Britain, though less emotional generally in politics, has seen its dose of optimism in campaigns founded in feelings rather than stone cold facts. Last year saw Jeremy Corbyn win the Labour leadership election, defying the odds like both Obama and Trump. Whilst he remains a well-experienced politician -having been an MP since 1983- Corbyn’s brand of ‘Politics of Hope’ was largely the result of voters feeling he was the antithesis of all that they saw wrong in politics. He was voted leader despite stone-faced warnings from fellow candidates and party members that such a move would prove catastrophic for the Labour party and make winning a general election impossible. Whilst they have run up a series of successes during his time in opposition, and they have yet to be tested with a general election, the current in-fighting and disorganization (to put it mildly) inflicting the Labour party may be sombre result of voting based on heart rather than brain.
If Hillary Clinton is to win in November, she must put forward an optimistic vision for the future of the United States in conjunction with her aggressive attack ads on Trump. However, coming from a career-politician whom voters do not seem to trust or generally care for, this is not the easiest of tasks, even when in contrast to Trump’s campaign based on fear and bigotry. In order to win, she will have to combine her essential credentials with a ‘Morning in America’ message in order to win both the minds and hearts of voters.