Hillary Clinton’s stock is falling. Even her prominent surrogates and media advocates are conceding that Donald Trump has a serious chance of becoming the next president. The two historically unpopular candidates are neck-and-neck in national polls and Clinton has fallen behind in crucial swing states like Florida and Ohio. Meanwhile her primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, is surging, boasting an 87 percent approval rating among his electorate and enjoying a nationwide favorability of +18 to Clinton’s -14.
Any Democrat worried about the outcome of the 2016 election should be analyzing that discrepancy. All during the primary, the news media and Clinton’s surrogates pushed the narrative that she was the strongest general election candidate. Now is the time for establishment Democrats to take their cues from Sanders and his supporters. If she maintains her current course, Clinton probably cannot win this election.
The difference in campaigning styles between Clinton and Sanders was obvious during the primary. While Clinton has struck a guarded and almost reclusive posture, Sanders took as many media appearances as he could manage. He appeared so regularly on major networks to deliver his substantive policy message that phrases like, “One-tenth of one percent” and “Why is that we’re the only major country in the world…” became almost cliché.
Trump, too, engages with the media often. However Trump lacks the intellectual capacity and attention span to make even a basic substantive remark. His appearances are just the typical Trump self-promotion and his despotic intimidation of the press keeps the entire mainstream media suitably in line. But he’s out there so much more than Clinton that his surging poll numbers may be owed to people thinking he’s the only person running.
Part of this, surely, is because the media hangs on Trump’s every word. Clinton’s rallies don’t get nearly as much coverage, but her schedule is also far more lenient than Trump’s and she usually doesn’t say anything provocative enough for a headline. She instead resorts to agreeable platitudes that have very little substance, exemplified by the title of her new book, “Stronger Together.” Her ads rely almost entirely on Trump’s own words to indict himself, in many cases offering no words whatsoever of her own.
Sanders would be running a much different campaign. In fact, Sanders is running a much different campaign. His political project, Our Revolution, has endorsed dozens of progressive candidates in down-ticket races all across the country. He took a decisive stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline; Clinton, who has come under fire from the left for her oil industry sympathies, has taken no stand. Sanders even appeared on MSNBC to offer advice and give a more substantive pro-Clinton argument than Clinton herself has been able to give:
“Mr. Trump, do you really think that billionaires need a massive tax break? Mr. Trump, do you really think that when the entire scientific community tells us that climate change is real and a threat to the entire planet, that you think it’s a hoax?… You want to abolish the Affordable Care Act for 20 million in this country off health care… You go issue by issue and I think you expose him for the fraud that he is.”
In 30 seconds Sanders addressed more substance than Clinton has the entire cycle. He drives at the core of an issue and speaks in direct language that young people more readily respond to. The direct approach also works for Trump – though again, for Trump the direct approach means little more than self-aggrandizement at all costs. Clinton instead calls Trump an insensitive bully and focuses on high-dollar private fundraisers.
Such a strategy may be good for filling Clinton’s campaign coffers, but they are emblematic of the disconnect between establishment politicians and ordinary voters. Clinton has serious issues generating enthusiasm among the Democratic base and she is widely distrusted. Trump is an even bigger liar and is almost certainly even more corrupt, but he’s far more adept at deflecting those accusations than Clinton is. He has maintained populist rhetoric during his campaign while Clinton stumbles with gaffes like putting Trump voters in a “basket of deplorables.”
Many commentators, including some very liberal ones, are already blaming Sanders for an eventual Clinton loss. The criticism usually goes that he was too hard on her during the primaries and hasn’t done enough to persuade his young supporters to get behind her campaign. But it’s only Hillary Clinton’s fault that she accepted millions of dollars to speak to some of the most detested corporations on the planet. Instead of looking for excuses, Democrats should take a long, hard look at their candidate.
Today’s electorate has far too little quarter to give politicians. Spare media appearances, vague platitudes, and an overly rehearsed cadence aren’t going to gain their trust. Playing exclusively negative politics with Donald Trump isn’t a winning strategy, either. To give herself the best chance Clinton must speak frankly about real issues and take her message to the people – just like Bernie Sanders does. The only question is whether she has the health, wisdom and charisma to pull it off.