On the national level and in Vermont, the Democratic Party had the vastly superior organization. They were solidly networked from grassroots to leadership. They had more paid staff, more field offices, bigger phone banks, more robust GOTV efforts.
Now that it’s all over, those seemingly bulletproof advantages didn’t make a damn bit of difference.
Here in Vermont, as I wrote (and VTDigger’s Jon Margolis sees it the same way), you might as well have had no campaign whatsoever. If we’d had the election a year ago, Phil Scott would have beaten Democrat X by five to ten percentage points on the basis of (a) his popularity and name recognition, and (b) the unpopularity of Governor Shumlin.
And after a campaign of unprecedented length and expense, Phil Scott won by eight percent. Big whoop.
Elsewhere, the 2016 election shuffled some names, but the political landscape remains virtually unchanged. The Dems continue to hold the non-Phil Scott statewide offices and the Legislature’s partisan balance barely moved. For all of Scott’s assertions to the contrary, this was no mandate for his agenda — it was a mandate for him personally. The Republican platform got precisely nowhere except for his candidacy.
The Democrats’ ground game, their warchest, their deep and experienced staff? Meh. The electoral fundamentals held true. A liberal-leaning electorate leaned liberal — except for Phil Scott. The VTGOP continued its exile in the wilderness — except for Phil Scott.
All the twists and turns of the campaign we dutifully followed? Noise. The fundraising reports and TV ads we dissected? Fluff.
I’m beginning to wonder if traditional politics isn’t ideationally bankrupt. Political tactics seem to have precious little effect. Perhaps voters have simply tuned out the TV ads and mailers* and phone calls and social media efforts, not to mention poll-tested messaging and imaging. Most of the big money is spent on stuff that just doesn’t move the needle.
*I presort my mail in the garage. Candidate mailers go straight into recycle with the credit card offers and unsolicited catalogues.
Perhaps we need to fundamentally rethink the nature of political campaigning. And no, I don’t mean taking the same old crap and sticking it on Facebook or Twitter or InstaChat or ZiggyBot or whatever platforms I haven’t even heard of that are wildly popular among Millennials for the next 15 minutes.
The one thing that does work: a candidate who comes across as authentic, for better AND for worse.
That might be a nice guy from a construction firm or a gruff progressive number-cruncher* or a sharp-tongued Ivy League professor** or a cranky socialist from Brooklyn or a narcissistic rich guy from Manhattan who didn’t give a damn what anyone thought.
*Doug Hoffer, thanks for asking
What it’s not is a candidate who’s been focus-grouped and manicured, his or her positions carefully arranged for maximum appeal. Those people just look phony, even if there’s a real authentic person behind that consultant-crafted facade.
We are all so immersed in media that we are thoroughly familiar with the tricks of the trade. We’re accustomed to tuning out TV advertising, whether it’s pitching Viagra or Your Next Governor. We’ve been called so many times by pollsters and bots and fundraisers and earnest volunteers that more and more of us are opting out.
To judge by the results of 2016, the old political bag of tricks doesn’t work any more. And all the obsessive, perpetual fundraising? Most, if not all, of that money was squandered on tactics and media that didn’t move the needle.
Authenticity is a rare commodity in politics. It is also the most precious of commodities in this age of knowledgeable, experienced media consumers.
It’s difficult to simply dismiss the value of the consultant’s trade. But the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that politicians would be wise to do just that. And, rather than honing their personas and policies to fit the polls or the current hot prototype, they should maybe figure out exactly who the hell they really are and what, exactly, they want to accomplish, and then bravely set forth on their chosen path.