Optimism: A Strategic Mistake

By ALEC CAMHI || August 14th, 2016

Evidently, there are two different Americas. At least, that’s what an onlooker might think after watching the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The Republicans painted a gloomy picture of America as a country with high unemployment, high crime levels, and weak national security, with those problems getting worse to boot. This left the door wide open for the Democrats to position themselves as the party of optimism and positivity, an opportunity of which they took full advantage. At their convention, Democrats spoke of an America full of hope and potential, a clear difference from the Republicans’ dark illustration of the state of the country. While it’s not inherently bad for the Democrats to position themselves as the optimistic party, they risk alienating a considerable part of the American public still disheartened by the direction of the country.

Admittedly, Democrats should be feeling pretty confident about their optimistic messaging right now. After all, the Republicans set a pretty low bar to surpass. The pessimism of Donald Trump’s convention speech was astonishing. Just in the span of a few minutes, he told viewers that “our president … has made America a more dangerous environment”, that “this administration has … failed [inner cities] on jobs”, and that “the damage and devastation that can be inflicted by Islamic radicals has been proven over and over,” setting a somewhat apocalyptic tone.1 On the Democratic side, the message was a sharp contrast. Not only did they repeat numerous times that “America is already great” – a not-so-subtle rebuke of Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan – but the tone of the speeches differed notably from that of Trump’s speech.2 First Lady Michelle Obama noted that every day, her African American family wakes up “in a house built by slaves” centuries ago, highlighting the progress that America has made on racial issues.3 Senator Cory Booker argued, “We are called to be a nation of love,” not just of “tolerance.”4 President Obama celebrated “all that we’ve achieved together” during his presidency, citing the economic recovery, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, and the Affordable Care Act, among other things.5 Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton praised the “the strengths we bring as Americans” in the face of the country’s challenges.6 The poll numbers make it appear that this strategy – drawing a contrast with the cynical tone of the Republicans – paid off. In the wake of her convention, Clinton has enjoyed a nice bounce: since July 25th, the first day of her convention, her RealClearPolitics polling average has surged from a 1-point deficit to an 8-point lead in national head-to-head matchups against Trump as of August 10th.7 She is also ahead in key swing states; her campaign is so confident in her leads in the usually-close states of Colorado and Virginia that they aren’t even spending on television ads there.8

Correlation does not equal causality, however. Much of Clinton’s bounce in the polls is also attributable to recent mistakes that Trump has made on the campaign trail. First, Trump made headlines by attacking Muslim gold star mother Ghazala Khan, wife of Khizr Khan, the Muslim gold star father who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Trump said that Mrs. Khan “maybe … wasn’t allowed to have anything to say” alongside her husband because of her religion.9 (In an interview before Trump made those comments, it was clear that the reason Mrs. Khan didn’t speak was that she was too grief-stricken.)10 Trump also stated in a press conference that Russia should try to hack Clinton’s deleted e-mails, a move that the New York Times called “essentially urging a foreign adversary to conduct cyberespionage.”11 If that wasn’t enough to cause his poll numbers to plummet, Trump then gaffed again in the Stephanopoulos interview and said that Vladimir Putin “is not going into Ukraine,” despite the fact that Russia already has military forces there.12 He then tried to walk this statement back to little avail, stating that he meant that he would be able to deter Putin from Ukraine if he were president. This, coming after statements suggesting that he would consider withdrawing from NATO (which would enable Putin to pursue serious expansion into former Soviet states),13 cast serious doubt in voter’s minds regarding Trump’s knowledge of foreign policy, further contributing to his declining poll numbers.

Thus, Democrats must be cognizant of Trump’s mistakes and how they could be influencing the polling numbers before they become overconfident in their highly optimistic tone. While it may be hard to see right now, not everything is going right for Democrats in this election. Take the economy, for instance. In 1992, James Carville, a campaign strategist for Bill Clinton at the time, hung a sign in the campaign’s headquarters to explaining the campaign’s core message. The second of three bullet points read, “The economy, stupid,” and since then, “It’s the economy, stupid,” has become an exceedingly popular phrase among political junkies when discussing the most important issue in deciding elections.14 Essentially, when the economy is strong, the incumbent party has an easier time retaining power, and when the economy is weak, the opposite is true. And in America’s current economic situation – one of recovery, but sluggish recovery – Democrats risk being viewed as out-of-touch with the plight of struggling Americans for whom the economy is still not at full strength. This spells trouble for them. Indeed, a poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal from July 31st to August 3rd, which showed Clinton up by nine points over Trump nationally, still showed that voters preferred Trump on the economy by a four-point margin. Although Clinton has closed the gap on that issue since June (when the same poll showed her trailing by 10 on the economy), this nonetheless indicates that voters may be looking for an alternative to the status quo. The poll isn’t particularly kind to Clinton in that regard, either: Trump has a whopping 22-point advantage over Clinton in the category of “changing business as usual in Washington.”15 On top of that, the RealClearPolitics polling average as of August 10th shows that about 65 percent of voters believe the country is on the “wrong track,” while only 29 percent believe that the country is going in the “right direction.”16 This is another liability for Clinton. While she preaches a message of such optimism, the polls seem to show that Americans aren’t particularly optimistic about the direction of the nation.

Does this mean that Democrats should completely abandon their messaging? Of course not. But dialing it back wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world, either. Yes, the polling looks awfully good for Clinton right now, but the election is still three months out, and current economic conditions don’t necessarily spell great news for the incumbent party. Many Americans are still struggling to reap the benefits of the economic recovery, so Democrats need to be careful how rosy a picture they paint in order to stay in touch with the concerns of struggling Americans. With Trump digging himself such a deep hole and not showing any signs of “getting on message” like establishment Republicans so desperately want him to, Democrats don’t need to roll the dice with a risky message. As long as they manage not to seriously alienate any groups between now and November, Clinton should coast to victory just fine.




  1. http://www.mercurynews.com/elections/ci_30155961/transcript-donald-trumps-acceptance-speech
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/28/obama-hillary-clinton-convention-speech-trump
  3. http://time.com/4421538/democratic-convention-michelle-obama-transcript/
  4. http://time.com/4421756/democratic-convention-cory-booker-transcript-speech/
  5. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-obama-2016-convention-speech-transcript-20160727-snap-story.html
  6. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-hillary-clinton-convention-speech-transcript-20160728-snap-htmlstory.html
  7. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_clinton-5491.html
  8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/08/04/showing-growing-confidence-clinton-campaign-and-super-pac-pause-ads-in-colorado-and-virginia/
  9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/07/30/donald-trump-responds-to-the-khan-family-maybe-she-wasnt-allowed-to-have-anything-to-say/
  10. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/02/politics/who-is-khizr-khan-trnd/
  11. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/28/us/politics/donald-trump-russia-clinton-emails.html?ref=topics
  12. http://time.com/4432282/donald-trump-vladimir-putin-ukraine/
  13. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-21/trump-says-u-s-may-not-defend-nato-allies-against-russia-attack-iqvw8gki
  14. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/us/1992-campaign-democrats-clinton-bush-compete-be-champion-change-democrat-fights.html
  15. http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/nbc-wsj-poll-clinton-jumps-nine-point-lead-over-trump-n623131
  16. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/direction_of_country-902.html

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