Trump’s all air war, Clinton’s all ground game

Donald Trump was the most successful 'outsider' candidate in the recorded history of politics.

PUBLISHED :Monday, Nov. 7, 2016 12:00 AM

TORONTO—One day to go. What did Trump and Clinton do right, what did they do wrong?

First things first: Donald Trump will lose, when the final ballot is counted, but he has changed politics. Everyone—me included—said he couldn’t win the GOP nomination, and he did. Everyone said a racist, sexist, dirty old man couldn’t be a viable national candidate. But he was.

Trump—that bilious, bigoted billionaire—has turned the political conventional wisdom upside down, like it or not and you can probably expect to see other candidates aping him in the future. That’s not good, but it’s a fact.

That’s what Trump’s biggest achievement, in the end: he was the most successful “outsider” candidate in the recorded history of politics. He made all of his myriad opponents—in the Republican Party, in the media establishment, in the U.S. political consulting business—look like fools. Despite their experience, despite their money, despite history, Trump prevailed when no one thought he ever would.


That represents his biggest achievement: winning when everyone thought he would lose. But he made one critical error, too.

Trump comes from TV. TV made him and TV will break him. He did the thing that TV people so often do: he equated ratings with popularity, but they’re not ever the same thing.

Donald Trump—with his racism, and sexism and his “locker room talk”—was basically a human car crash: everyone tuned in to watch him, sure. But they tuned in to see him crash in a ditch, not to see him win the race. That was his big mistake: thinking eyeballs equals votes. He was a human Gong Show.

Ratings are not the same thing as popularity. Getting noticed is not getting respect. In an election campaign, which is essentially a weeks-long popularity contest, you always want to be the one who is liked (ask Justin Trudeau).


While many Americans certainly disliked Hillary Clinton, they ended up disliking Donald Trump more. What won him the primaries is the same thing that lost him the general election.

That’s Trump. What about Hillary, who (full disclosure) my wife Lisa and I worked for in three states?

Well, her campaign made us sign a comprehensive confidentiality agreement, so I’ve got no secrets to share. I will only point to what you are now seeing, with your own eyes, on this historic day: Trump was all air war. Clinton was all ground game.

What does that mean? It means this: Trump was terrific at Twitter, and at being noticed. He was a consummate genius at getting the media to pay attention to him, even when the media hated him. But you can’t win a general election with Twitter and crazy talk, folks. You just can’t.


Hillary won because, unlike Trump, she (a) didn’t take unnecessary risks, (b) she worked her ass off, and (c) she had the best on-the-ground organization. You know: knocking on doors (which we did in New Hampshire). Stuffing envelopes to thank donors (which we did in New York). Helping out down-ticket Democrats (which we did in Maine).

Polls transfix the news media. It is their crack cocaine. But polls only measure public opinion—they don’t measure the aforementioned on-the-ground political organization. Lisa and I saw it with our own eyes, many months ago: Hillary had the most formidable get-out-the-vote organization in the history of the world. She was always going to win because of that.

That’s what she did right. But what did she do wrong?

Before she ran, I said to my former boss Jean Chrétien—who knows the Clintons well—that I thought Benghazi, Whitewater, and all that sort of scandal stuff could hurt her. Chrétien, always the smartest political mind around, disagreed.

He suggested the problem would be the stuff that happened outside politics: the money Bill and Hillary got for speeches, the money that poured into the Clinton Foundation. How right he was! HRC was almost beaten by Bernie Sanders—and knocked around so many times by the press—because she was paid lots of money for speeches to Wall Street bankers, and because her foundation seemed to be trading donations for access. Big mistake.

People feel public service should be about service, not avarice. Trump’s campaign zeroed in on that theme in the campaign’s dying days with a huge ad buy. But it was too late. Hillary will still win, because her opponent makes Gordon Gekko look like Ghandi.

That’s what the two presidential candidates did right, and what they did wrong. In the end, however, Donald Trump simply made more mistakes than Hillary Clinton.

In politics, as in life, that still matters.

Warren Kinsella is a Toronto-based lawyer, author, and commentator. He has been a special assistant to former prime minister Jean Chrétien. 

The Hill Times