Shortly after the 2004 Canadian federal election, in which Paul Martin’s Liberals won a minority government after a negative campaign on all sides, I observed that negative campaigning was insufficient to win an election:
I’m of the opinion that negative campaigning does in fact work, but you can’t win an election on negativity alone. This was the mistake that both the Liberals and Conservatives made: they spent all their time explaining how terrible it would be to elect the other guys, without making the case for themselves. In a nutshell, they both ran terrible campaigns — the minority result is, I think, proof that neither side was persuasive on their own behalf.
Governments tend to get elected on positive messages — Chrétien in 1993 with da liddle red book, Clinton in 1992 — even if they’re combined with a strong negative message. “We can do better than that crap, and here’s how” is much better than “This is crap, and they’re all assholes” — which may well be true, but it doesn’t necessarily make the case why someone should vote for you.
Earlier this year I suddenly remembered that I once wrote that, and worried that the Clinton campaign was about to make the same mistake. Yes, she had a detailed platform, and it was there for anyone who cared to look at it, but the key thrust of her campaign was that Trump was an awful human being who should not be president. You’d think that would be enough. They did. It should have been. But it isn’t, and it wasn’t. Remember: according to the exit polls, 12.6 percent of voters believed that Trump was untrustworthy and temperamentally unfit to be president, and still voted for him.
Paradoxically, for all the narcissistic rage and race-baiting and intolerance and thuggish behaviour, Trump at least made specific, clear promises that, while horrible or impossible, were easy to understand. His campaign was at least for something; ordinary people could point to him and say “at least he’s going to do something about all this.” Clinton was for a lot of things too. But her platform got lost in the weeds for a number of reasons, one of them being that it wasn’t simple or clear enough to cut through the other side’s Gish gallop. Her campaign didn’t keep it simple; Trump’s did. I can’t help but wonder whether that was a factor.