Hillary Clinton is about to head into a general election battle against the most entertaining presidential candidate in a very long time. Her plan of attack is boring. And it's also exactly right. The strategies that worked against Bernie Sanders will work even better against Donald Trump — a candidate who's very different ideologically, but whose campaign shares many of Sanders's structural weakness in terms of overreliance on slogans, mega rallies, and aggressive white male supporters.
Clinton's primary campaign focused on policy detail, consultations with a wide array of stakeholders, data, and elite validators. Compared with Sanders's campaign, Clinton's was relatively dull. Journalistically, there wasn't much to say about it. And though lots of people were happy to vote for Clinton, relatively few seemed interested in attending her rallies or sharing her memes.
Yet even as Sanders created the more interesting storyline and drew the bigger crowds, he lost the election. Clinton did it through low-key strengths that happen to be valuable against Trump — oftentimes even more so.
Clinton is heading into the general not only with an edge in current polls but with a campaign — and a candidate — that is dramatically sounder on the fundamentals.
The details candidate
One of the clearest differences between Clinton's approach and Sanders's is that Bernie's campaign was overwhelmingly focused on a handful of big ideas — rally slogans — while Clinton's was drenched in policy detail. Over the course of the primary, her campaign generated 53 different policy proposals and put out more than 200 pages' worth of text detailing those proposals.
This was in part a divergent strategic decision on the part of the two campaigns, but it also reflected underlying differences between the candidates. Clinton is someone who, on a personal level, likes to immerse herself in details and at times demonstrated a clearer understanding of the content of Sanders's Wall Street proposals than Sanders himself did.
Mastery of details didn't matter to everyone — if you believe the existence of private sector health insurance companies is fundamentally immoral, then you're not going to worry so much about the fact that Sanders's cost estimates aren't accurate — but at times it made a real difference. Nobody doubts that on an emotional and intellectual level, Sanders is deeply committed to regulating the financial sector. But the fact remains that behind his speeches about breaking up big banks was a plan that would leave vast swaths of finance unregulated, while Clinton's more nuanced plan covered much more ground.
In contrast to Trump, Sanders at least had a meaningful track record of work and engagement on these issues. Clinton's next opponent is similarly detached from details but oftentimes doesn't even seem to know what side he's on.
- One day he's proposing a massive new wealth tax, and the next he wants a giant tax cut for the rich.
- Trump says he can reduce Medicare's spending on prescription drugs to less than $0 a year.
- Trump runs around lying about having opposed the Iraq War.
- As crucial legislation pends in Congress over Puerto Rico's debt crisis, Trump clearly doesn't understand what the situation is.
The underlying message here will be that even if you don't agree with where Clinton comes down on every issue, you can at least have confidence that she knows what the issues are and will embrace a solution that's somewhere inside the universe of plausible ideas endorsed by credible people. With Trump, there are no such guarantees. Anything could happen, including things that are completely illegal, unworkable, or dangerous.
A modern, professional campaign
Both Trump and Sanders embraced campaign approaches that, for different reasons, were effective in overcoming their core challenge of getting attention. Trump was a non-credible candidate in a crowded field. Sanders was an obscure senator going up against a juggernaut.
Under the circumstances, Sanders's neotraditional campaign of mass rallies followed by financial investment in television ads helped him successfully clear the crucial "who is this guy?" threshold.
Clinton's more contemporary style of campaign, which featured a bigger investment in a large data organization and extensive field operation, ultimately paid dividends in the form of narrow, organization-driven wins in tough races like Iowa, Nevada, and Kentucky while helping her maximize her delegate count from friendly states in places like the South and New York.
Trump's full-scale cable news assault let him dominate the airwaves during the primary and bludgeon his opponents into submission. But reporting by Benjy Sarlin, Katy Tur, and Ali Vitali reveals that Trump barely has any campaign infrastructure at all — no data operation, no team of researchers, no organized group of surrogates, essentially nothing beyond the minimum needed to handle the logistics of Trump's travel and television appearances.
This is going to hurt Trump increasingly badly as the campaign switches out of a primary season dynamic, where merely getting attention is a win, and into a general election dynamic, where the nature of what people are hearing about you — and who is hearing what — is much more decisive.
It's easy to dismiss the importance of endorsements. Sanders's campaign proved that you don't need any elected officials backing you in New Hampshire or Washington to score landslide wins if your message is a good match for the local demographics.
At the same time, Sanders's near-total lack of support among conventional political leaders really did hurt him repeatedly.
- It's the reason the social democratic candidate in the race couldn't count on nearly as much support from America's biggest and most politically influential labor unions.
- It's the reason his campaign could never convince most African-American and Latino voters that he was the candidate for people like them.
- Most importantly, at crucial moments it meant Clinton could use the formally neutral figure of Barack Obama as a shield to blunt Sanders's sharpest critiques.
This factor, even more so than the others, is going to be devastating to Trump in the general election. There are four men alive who've served in the Oval Office, and none of them think Trump is up to doing the job.
Several statewide Republican Party elected officials are refusing to endorse Trump, and many others are caught in the exquisite and highly public agony of supporting Trump while trying to not support the actual things he says and does.
It's true that in an era of sky-high polarization, the vast majority of Republican officeholders will endorse Trump and Republican voters will vote for him. But it's precisely because this is such a polarized time that the exceptions to the rule speak so loudly. Trump's severe difficulty in lining up real validation saying he can do the job in a non-catastrophic way sends a powerful and unequivocal message to every genuinely independent voter in the country.
The recipe for a win
The best news for Clinton is that these three factors form a self-reinforcing flywheel in the general election context.
Clinton's solid, detail-oriented nature projects a calming message to people who are not instinctively inclined to agree with her ideology: She knows what she's doing and she knows what she's talking about. Trump's inability to get those who best understand the stakes to agree that he's qualified to serve does exactly the opposite. You may favor low taxes and be skeptical of business regulations and abortion rights, but you can be sure the United States will survive four years of Clinton — and there are no such guarantees about Trump.
A disciplined, well-organized campaign will be able to press that message — pushing out serious policy documents speaking to a staggering array of concerns — while identifying who's been pried loose from Trump's coalition and needs a little more outreach to be converted. There is a long time between now and Election Day, and world events could shift the playing field in Trump's favor. But the organization that beat back Sanders's talking points and mass rallies is poised to do the same, in an even more definitive way, to Trump's slapdash operation.