How Donald Trump won the election with a simpler message

Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe spoke to esteemed US political strategist Bob Schrum about how Trump managed to win the election with a simpler message 

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters react to the result of the US presidential election in 2016. Pics: Chip Somodevilla, Spencer Platt/Getty

American politics, with its dramatic turns and bitter twists, is front-page news most days and dominates conversations.

Everyone has an opinion on Donald Trump, the US president who appalls, shocks and provokes.

In an age of social media, 24-hour news and wall-to-wall coverage of American politics, every word, address and even gesture matters and is turned over.

Bob Schrum, once deemed the most important Democratic strategist in US politics says the clock is ticking on Trump’s time in office. Mid-term elections will herald the beginning of his end.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, the political advisor, who also worked on election campaigns here, sets out why Hillary Clinton lost the White House race and why Trump won.

The celebrated speechwriter, who was a key speaker at this year’s Kennedy Summer School in New Ross explains why he thinks American politics evolves in cycles and why the current conservative wave sweeping the US will die out and Trump will be replaced.

“You get this kind of reaction after a financial crisis, but you have to be careful about overstating things,” he says.

Mr Schrum points to rallies in Boston last month, where a couple of hundred people promoted xenophobia and racism but where tens of thousands peaceful counter-protesters also turned up.

“In many ways, this reaction that America is going to cut itself off from the world, that it is going to keep out refugees — all of that which is embodied in Trump — has spurred a lot of grassroots activity that moves in the opposite direction.

“But I wouldn’t over-read this [the situation]. I think there will be a big reaction in 2018 in the mid-term elections. I also think if the 2020 [US presidential] election happened now, for Trump, he would have a very difficult time getting elected.

“There is all this noise about insularity on the ground and a conservative reaction, but in fact no major bill has passed [US] congress. The only thing that he has been able to do, and they are bad, is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord or using executive orders to hold back environmental protections.”

Mr Schrum served as an advisor for many Democratic presidential campaigns contests, including for the late US Senator Edward Kennedy. He wrote the famous speech Mr Kennedy gave at the 1980 Democrat convention where he conceded to then-president Jimmy Carter, declaring that “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die”.

The advisor recalls how the Irish-American senator, who made a key intervention in the North’s peace process, was magnanimous and worked across the divides in the US senate.

“He stood for the idea that in the United States that you have to advance economic and social justice together, you can’t choose between one and the other,” says Mr Schrum. “He also stood for the idea that despite ideological differences, that it is possible to get things done.

“So he was the liberal line of the Senate, was the conscience in many ways of the Democratic Party. We miss him in America today. There was no one who did what he was capable of doing and did all the time.”

So how should politicians, not just in the US, reach out to voters?

“You have to reach voters where they are, you can’t tell them where they should be,” he says. “One of the worst errors that politicians make is to believe that they decide what the issues and campaigns were about because the voters decide what the issues are about.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t inspire people and bring them to look at an issue that you have been thinking about. But it does mean that you can’t just impose your plan, your idea on what the campaign should be about.”

Mr Schrum believes this is partially where Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton went wrong during last year’s bitter race for the White House.

“I think she lost the message battle,” he says. “She over-relied on data analytics where they took all the voter history, people in critical states. They created a computer programme, with simulation after simulation.

“And she focused almost all of her advertising on criticising Trump. Only 9% of her ads ever mentioned jobs and the economy. That’s almost unheard of for a Democratic candidate.

“So Trump went out and said he was going to fight for people. He spoke to disaffected folks who falsely blame their problems on trade and immigration. And he told them he was going to become president and he was going to be their voice, that he was going to engage in a trade war with China, crackdown on immigration and that coal and steel were going to come back.”

Mr Schrum says Trump had a “very effective message” as a businessman who was going to fix the economy, especially so in Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Wisonsin, and Pennsylvania, while Clinton had a negative message and her mantra of ‘stronger together’ was more a “critique of Donald Trump than it was a sense of vision of what she would do as president”.

“I think that was a fundamental mistake,” adds Mr Schrum.

“Look at her advertising. [She said] Trump is a bum, he is unworthy, he is a misogynist, he is a racist, he says totally unacceptable things where people in areas for example outside Pittsburgh said ‘maybe that is true about him but maybe he’ll do something about the fact that my job is gone’.”

Mr Schrum was also a strategist and senior advisor to the Kerry-Edwards 2004 presidential campaign and the Gore-Lieberman 2000 bid as well as a consultant for the Tony Blair’s second-term campaign with Labour in 2001. So what makes a classic and influential political speech?

“Authenticity,” he says. “The speech has to be true to who the candidate is, a capacity to talk in ways that connects with people.

“So instead of just using abstract statistics, you discuss a problem in human terms, you picture it in human terms, and lastly, and not every candidate can do this, you need a capacity to inspire, to lift people up, to work their vision.

“I think one test of greatness in an American presidency, people often don’t talk about, is whether or not they enlarge that sense in ourselves, that they enlarge our conception of who we are as a country.

“JFK did that, Ronald Reagan did that.

“In those cases, their lever was words, they sent words into the battle for the American mind, the American spirit. The same thing is true anywhere in the rest of the world.”

Bob Schrum was interviewed ahead of speaking at the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross, Co Wexford this month

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