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In 2016, the messenger trumps the message

George Washington desperately wanted to be the commander of the Continental Army.  However, he thought it was beneath his dignity to personally lobby other members of the Continental Congress.  Instead, he simply showed up wearing his military uniform from the French-Indian Wars.  Subtle, he was not.  But when the discussion turned to who should head the Continental Army, all eyes turned to the 6’3” Washington looking splendid in his tailored uniform.   The moment converged with the man on the chart of destiny.   The messenger was the message.

An incredible amount of polling and messaging goes into presidential campaigns and more often than not, it’s money well spent.   However, during certain periods in time when nerves are frayed, the culture war is hot and the stakes seem particularly huge, the tweaking of messaging and debating every comma in a talking point pale in comparison to the messenger.   Jimmy Carter is not known for many (any?) great speeches or debate moments, he won because of what he embodied: the anti-Nixon.   A new figure, seemingly incorruptible, moderate in tone and politics bursting on the scene as America was coming out of the Vietnam War and Watergate.

{mosads}Imagine for a second that in 2008, Hillary Clinton had run on “Hope and Change” and Barack Obama had run on “experience” and “electability.”    It doesn’t compute because neither messenger embodies it.   It just so happened that the American public, exhausted by the Iraq War and punched in the stomach by the economic meltdown, wanted what Obama embodied. 

Like many, I was stunned when Donald Trump said John McCain was not a “hero” and predicted his demise.   And I thought it was impossible that an American politician could use the word “socialist” in his description of himself and wage a serious campaign.  Yet Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has become a legitimate candidate.  It’s taken awhile for me to come around to this, but now I realize their supporters don’t really care about the details of what they say.  They are messengers for an anger, an anxiety and a desperation felt by tens of millions of Americans.

That’s why we’re seeing the limits of a campaign strategy built around money (think Bush, Clinton) or the selling of “experience” (Kasich, Christie, Bush, Jindal).  In this environment, the message and the politician who by design or accident (mostly accident) seizes the zeitgeist is the most likely to energize voters. 

Pundits that look at Trump and Sanders’ surprising success in this political season talk about their “outsider” status and how voters are “tired of the establishment” and “want someone new.”    These explanations are fine, but they don’t quite capture it.   Neither of these candidates are very “new.”  Sanders has been in Congress for almost three decades.  Trump has been a public figure for 30 years, as well.  Nor are they really “outsiders.”  An outsider doesn’t become a mayor, congressman and senator.  An outsider doesn’t cajole city officials and woo the investment community to build a real estate empire.

I think what’s going on with these two is that the lines on the chart of destiny are meeting:  the moment is meeting the men.   And all they have to do is be themselves.    Think of the personal qualities that they share: 1) they are uncontrived. Sanders’ “get of my lawn” old man persona is genuine and the anger behind it real.  Hillary seems to only get angry when her polls drop.  Trump’s combination of ego, nastiness and hubris are just who he is.  Many Americans are in a nasty mood.   2)  They demonstrate no respect for their political parties, parties which are very unpopular right now.  Sanders wasn’t even a Democrat until last year.  Trump wasn’t a Republican until last year.   This is appealing to many people and it’s not something they have to tout.   3)   In political philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s formulation, they are “hedgehogs” not “foxes.”  They embody big ideas: – “Make America Great Again” – “Stop Wall Street.”  The rest are just details. 

Like other “the messenger is the message” candidates, they are underestimated and even ridiculed by media elites.  So were “messenger” candidates Jimmy Carter (a “country rube”) and Ronald Reagan (an “amiable dunce”).   

Ultimately, a “messenger” candidate still has to have a campaign infrastructure, still has to manage the mundane of electoral politics like actually turning out your voters.    But when a moment in time meets the right messenger, it can be unstoppable… for better or worse.  

Schlein is senior vice president at Dezenhall Resources, one of the nation’s leading crisis communications firms and former Capitol Hill staffer.  He can be reached at   

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John McCain

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