clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hillary Clinton’s press secretary on why beating Trump in 2020 is harder than you think

Trump’s mastery over the media means opponents can’t coast on his unpopularity. Team Clinton learned that the hard way.

Final Presidential Debate Between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Held In Las Vegas
A scene from the October 19, 2016, presidential debate.
Pool/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

With the 2018 midterms in the rearview mirror (mostly), the Washington conversation has moved on to analyzing what the results mean for President Trump’s reelection chances in 2020. There’s no doubt that Republicans were drubbed in the House elections, and that the blue wave was powered by Trump’s extreme unpopularity. Does that mean Trump is about to get swept out of office?

I’m not so sure. Midterm elections aren’t exactly predictive of a president’s reelection chances — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama got crushed in (respectively) the 1994 and 2010 midterms but then went on to win handily in 1996 and 2012. Moreover, the 2016 elections showed that Trump is actually a much harder opponent to beat than a lot of Democrats seem to assume.

To understand why, it’s worth reading this tweetstorm from Brian Fallon, the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign’s press secretary. Fallon’s core argument is that you can’t coast on Trump’s personal unpopularity when he’s on the ballot: His ability to generate news coverage by being deliberately offensive will drown out your policy message, making it impossible to get people excited about your campaign.

Fallon doesn’t say this explicitly, but a number of his tweets sound like admissions that what the Clinton campaign tried to do — counterpunching and attacking Trump’s most offensive utterances to stay in the news cycle — was basically a failure. It failed, he argued, in part because it didn’t understand how that strategy would come across in newspaper headlines and on cable news:

Fallon’s conclusion is that Democrats need to nominate someone who “commands a media ecosystem apart from Trump,” an “inherently fascinating” person who “can talk about economic inequality or universal health care and have it actually break through because the messenger is authentic and intriguing.”

There are some hints as to who he has in mind: He references “social media videos in the car,” which calls to mind Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign in Texas. But I’ll leave it to you, reader, to determine whether Fallon is right about that — or if someone else would be better positioned to challenge Trump’s dominance of the headlines.