As has been noted many times, the general electorate is vastly different from a Republican primary universe. That is the most obvious reason why Donald Trump’s success might not be replicable in November. Negative information about Trump that GOP primary voters merely laughed off might actually hurt him among other voters.
But there are other differences between the primary and the general election, too. Mr. Trump’s GOP adversaries were caught unawares; Hillary Clinton won’t be. Although she is distracted by Bernie Sanders, there is little chance that she will underestimate Trump the way Republicans initially did. What is more, because of the large divided field, Republicans were never really able to settle on a coordinate a consistent attack to use against him. With [crscore]Elizabeth Warren[/crscore] essentially parroting Hillary Clinton’s talking points yesterday, it’s very clear that Democrats will be able to coordinate their message in a way that Republicans weren’t able to do.
Driving a narrative requires two big things. First, you have to settle on a compelling storyline. Democrats have to find information that — if voters were to learn about — would drive them away from Trump.
Once you settle on this message, you still have to find ways to make sure the right voters are actually hearing it. This can be done via paid or “earned” media, but one thing is for sure: It takes repetition for even a persuasive a message to sink in.
Let’s examine these two things to get a sense of whether Democrats are on the right track. Remember, the first step is to find the piece of negative information you believe will resonate with voters. According to the Washington Post:
Clinton’s aides say they have settled on the big story they want to tell about Trump: He is a business fraud who has cheated working people for his own gain, and his ideas, temperament and moves to marginalize people by race, gender and creed make him simply unacceptable as commander in chief.
I’m skeptical that Clinton’s team has “settled” on this “big story,” but they are clearly testing it. Presumably, the recent attacks come on the heels of extensive polls and focus groups, but those things exist in a vacuum. The real “test” is happening now.
This week, Democratic messaging involving Clinton and Sen. Warren focused on Trump saying in 2006 and 2007 that he hoped to profit from a housing crisis. The goal here is to incite moral outrage against a guy who profited from other people’s misfortune. Presumably, this would poke a hole in Trump’s populist “everyman” appeal.
This strikes me as the kind of attack that would work amazingly well on Mitt Romney, but I’m skeptical it’ll stick to Trump. It’s hard to expose somebody who isn’t hiding anything; hard to shame someone who is shameless.
Always one to “hang a lantern” on his problems, Trump simply employs jiu-jitsu, explaining that “I’m a businessman, that’s what I’m supposed to do!” This isn’t an absurd argument. Just as some businessmen thrive during down economic times (such as a housing crisis), Trump is suggesting that a nation should be able to endure (and succeed) in the face of tough times. In other words, Trump is going to use the same savvy techniques he used to get rich — and put them to work for us.
The good news for Democrats is that they appear to be approaching this the right way. They are testing attacks, and have the resources and message discipline required to drive a narrative. I’m just not so sure they have found their “silver bullet” yet.