This article appeared in the Toronto Star on September 18, 2016.
Watching the circus that is the presidential election south of our border has long been a Canadian pastime, especially since Donald Trump rode that escalator to announce his candidacy.
As a former political communicator, I have watched, with not a small amount of sympathy, as Republican operatives have tried (with limited success) to defuse scandal after scandal their candidate himself has created.
Donald Trump’s campaign careens daily, thanks to a candidate who seems more interested in building his personal brand, selling branded steaks, and stoking angry supporters than in becoming the head of state for the most important nation in the world.
While Trump’s campaign has been described as unfocused, bigoted, incendiary, juvenile and just plain mean-spirited, you will struggle to find anyone describing Trump’s campaign ‘good.’ By all accounts, it has been a disaster that has Republicans terrified of the down-ballot consequences.
And yet, after a summer of near-constant missteps and scornful media coverage, Trump’s campaign rattles forward. Polls this week have shown predictions of his campaign’s death were greatly exaggerated; that there may now be a path to an Electoral College win for him.
All of a sudden, he is now, based on polling, within striking distance of Hillary Clinton.
There are three essential reasons for this, even though the thought of it is unfathomable to many political analysts.
The first is that the political divide in the United States has grown so large that many Republicans and Democrats would tolerate nearly anyone as their party’s nominee merely because that person was not the ‘other side.’ In today’s political environment, even Mother Teresa would struggle to gain cross-partisan support.
The second is that while the United States has experienced rapid economic growth in the last several decades thanks to globalization, not everyone has benefited to the same degree. Blue collar workers across middle America have watched as manufacturers, the bedrock of economic opportunity in many small towns, fled offshore. They have seen wages stagnate, opportunities dry up and the long-term outlook grow more and more anemic.
Not unreasonably, that segment of the population feels more than just disenfranchised; they feel they have been left behind. Fed up with the establishment politics they see as having led to the decline of the America they knew, it is impossible to underestimate the level of antipathy among these voters toward politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whom they see as harbingers of America’s continued woes.
However, even considering these factors, Trump’s potent mix of intolerance and incompetence should have sunk his campaign by now. But it hasn’t. And that’s because the third factor faces not him, but his opponent.
That factor is entirely a Hillary Clinton phenomenon. While much of the attention has been focused on Trump’s unpopularity, Clinton is not far behind. The Democratic nominee is seen as untrustworthy, secretive and cynical.
Events of the last several days — the ham fisted handling of a simple medical issue — give us a glimpse into why American voters are so leery of Clinton’s trustworthiness.
After Clinton fainted at a public event, her campaign’s first instinct was to obfuscate. After that failed to quell interest, her campaign officials blamed the problem on heat overexposure.
They neglected to mention the pneumonia diagnosis she had received a few days before; a diagnosis they only admitted after intense media pressure.
A textbook example of a self-inflicted story.
Too often, politicians, business leaders and other high-profile people fall prey to their instincts and try to shut down a story and minimize damage by dissembling and hiding.
It’s a strategy that never works. Giving evasive answers, using weasel words and avoiding the issue only generate more interest and pressure from the media, who sense something is amiss. And the drip, drip, drip of negative stories only compounds the problems the candidate faces.
After years of covering Clinton, reporters are keenly aware of her instinct to try to hide the entire story from them. Journalists react by continuing to dig, ask questions and press the campaign to come clean.
Every time another of the campaign’s stories unravels, it represents another strike against Clinton’s credibility. Her trust with the American people is at an all-time low, and the fact she struggles to connect with voters is largely a self-created phenomenon.
Should Donald Trump be elected president on Nov. 8 in spite of a campaign filled with gaffes, bullying and outright bigotry, the Clinton campaign’s mismanagement of the media will be a key part of the tale.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.