The challenge for Dems? Winning attention vs. Trump

The challenge for Dems? Winning attention vs. Trump
© UPI Photo

Democrats taking on President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE in 2020 will face a major challenge in trying to compete for airtime and headlines with a president who dominates the news.

As the Democratic field comes into view in the coming weeks, strategists and consultants say candidates need to think creatively about how to go up against Trump, a master manipulator of the news who will have the added advantage of the presidential bully pulpit.


“It will be challenging,” said Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster. “He’s a master of his own brand. He does understand it. And he’s not afraid to lean into it.”

During the 2016 presidential race, Trump monopolized news cycles, calling in to television and radio shows on the fly, taking to Twitter whenever he desired and breaking with conventional politics in general.

More often than not, he created his own narrative: Intimidating opponents at campaign events with names like “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted,” making unorthodox remarks on immigration and other policies while appearing seemingly everywhere.

When the news cycle was unfavorable to him during the campaign, he sought to change the conversation, a pattern he has continued while in the White House.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again Don't expect Trump-sized ratings for Democratic debates Ocasio-Cortez on Biden: 'I think that he's not a pragmatic choice' MORE had a tough time keeping up.

Her media appearances were planned well in advance, and her tweets were drawn up by a committee of aides and advisers. Clinton’s speeches hardly ever seemed off the cuff.   

A longtime adviser to Clinton said some lessons can be learned from the 2016 Democratic nominee’s experiences.

“It’s best not to try to get in a wrestling match with him, because he realizes it’s not about winning on points, it’s about winning by creating a spectacle,” the adviser said. “And a slugfest doesn’t satisfy the desire of many people to move beyond the politics of confrontation and collision to the higher ground of consensus and compromise.”

Opponents to Trump in 2020 have an even more difficult hill to climb than Clinton, since they face an incumbent president. The challenge, Democrats say, won’t be in simply responding to Trump’s rapid-fire tweeting and name-calling, but in coming up with ways to drive their own narrative.

“It will be much easier for Trump to get his message out than it will be for a lot of folks,” said Anson Kaye, a strategist at the media firm GMMB who worked on former President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 and also served on Clinton’s paid media team in 2016.

“The trick will be who can match his ability to deliver a message, connect with a target audience and animate [supporters].”

Kaye and other strategists point to Obama, who was able to build momentum and generate excitement around his campaign in 2008. When he began to pack gymnasiums and win endorsements, the cameras followed.

More recently, Democrats say Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrat backs up Ocasio-Cortez: Migrant shelters 'are like concentration camps' Ocasio-Cortez marks one-year anniversary of her primary win Democratic lawmaker says treatment of migrants at border 'not American' MORE (D-N.Y.) has been able to successfully break through the noise of a seemingly endless Trump news cycle.

The freshman lawmaker, 29, has shown a mastery of social media.

When she was attacked by conservatives for a video that showed her dancing on a rooftop when she was in college, she responded by posting another video of herself dancing outside her Congressional office.

“I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “Wait till they find out congresswomen dance too.”

Ocasio-Cortez has her own nickname — “AOC.” And she has more than 2 million Twitter followers, a remarkable number for someone who was unknown just a year ago.

“She has such an authentic voice, a nonpolitical voice,” Lake said. “It’s really part of her power. She doesn’t take the bait.”

Ocasio-Cortez can’t run for president yet because of her age, but she’s not the only Democrat who has showcased an ability to get attention.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) has won headlines, social media followers and fans with viral speeches, and Lake describes his decision to take a road trip across the country ahead of a possible presidential bid as “refreshing.”

“It’s new and it communicates change,” she said. “It’s the modern book tour. We need to look for more unique ways to break through.” 

Going back to 2016, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again Don't expect Trump-sized ratings for Democratic debates MORE (I-Vt.) showed an ability to win attention and pack buildings, even with a message that has changed little during his decades in politics.

Seeking to go toe-to-toe with Trump can lead to problems.

On Tuesday night, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Pelosi: Congress will receive election security briefing in July Trump says he spoke to Pelosi, McConnell on border package MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump goes after Democrats over photo of drowned migrants Schumer displays photo of drowned migrants on Senate floor in appeal to Trump McConnell-backed Super PAC says nominating Roy Moore would be 'gift wrapping' seat to Dems MORE’s (D-N.Y.) joint appearance in response to the president’s Oval Office address was mocked in some quarters, though it also won high ratings.

“The Chuck and Nancy visual tonight launched a thousand memes while they were still talking,” MSNBC’s Brian Williams said Tuesday on his program “The 11th Hour.” “There was an ‘American Gothic’ meme, there was a ‘Your mother and I are very upset you stayed out so late’ meme. … This visual from tonight goes down in the pantheon.”

Clinton and a series of GOP candidates who battled Trump in the 2016 Republican primary failed to defeat him even as they sometimes took the insults back to him.

The Clinton adviser said it may be difficult for Democratic candidates not to take on Trump “because they’re appealing to an activist base that wants to ‘take it to Trump.’ ”

Still, the adviser said Democrats may be wise to run their own campaigns rather than getting into a tit for tat fight with Trump to gain attention.

“I believe in the long run there are benefits to running a campaign based on vision and optimism,” the adviser said. “There’s likely to be less competition, for one thing, and there may be a silent plurality of support for the politics of meaning versus the politics of mean.

“Such a nonconfrontational approach may not win the day in earned media, but it could win the race, one small step at a time. And insofar as it is counterprogramming, it could get some earned media of its own by virtue of its distinctiveness.”