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:
After 16, no one thinks holding up a mirror to Trump - or engaging him tit for tat- is a winning strategy. However, sticking to a plan of ignoring Trump is a lot harder in a one-on-one matchup than for House challengers running individualized races— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
The challenge is, it is extremely difficult to be more newsworthy than Trump - with his provocative-by-design utterances- on any given day. This makes it difficult for even laserlike focus on strictly policy-focused messages - like preexisting conditions- to "win the day"— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
No cable news producer will devote their "A block" to a report on Trump attacking Judge Curiel for being Mexican-American and then pivot to a straighthforward package about the Democratic nominee's plan to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
Because the "A block" segment in this scenario was rightfully hard-hitting on Trump for making racist comments about a judge, any producer feels compelled to then have an equally hard-hitting segment on the Dem nominee even if they didnt do anything remotely as controversial— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
This is how contrived - or overblown - controversies are born. In time, the Dem realizes that rollouts on expanded EITC wont cut it, and will leave the network correspondent traveling with them forced to come up with some new hook to talk about, say, emails, or DNA tests, again— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
But - aha! - guess how the Dem nominee in this scenario can reassert control over their news destiny. It turns out the rollout of an expanded EITC does not get anyone on the assignment desk's attention, but firing back at Trump at does.— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
This creates a sugar high of satisfaction - a false sensation of being on offense for once, rather than being on defense about some contrived controversy. But the joke is on you, because in reverting to an exchange of salvos, you are playing Trump's game.— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
You can give a thoughtful speech documenting Trump's many examples of acting racist. But at his evening rally, he will - with no supporting evidence - simply call you a racist back. And the next day's stories will read "Candidates trade barbs".— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
This is why I tend to think that the theory that "all Democrats need to do is nominate a bland, inoffensive guy and let Trump beat himself" is wrong. An uninteresting character is most susceptible to being sucked into the vortex because they cannot command attention on their own— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
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.