In The New York Times today, Amy Chozick and Patrick Healy write about the Clinton campaign's plans for general-election attacks on Donald Trump. I'm moderately optimistic, especially given what we read a few days ago at the Huffington Post about the amount of anti-Trump material that seems to be untapped:
Multiple Republican campaign sources and operatives have confided that none of the remaining candidates for president have completed a major anti-Trump opposition research effort. There are several such efforts being run by outside conservative organizations. But those efforts are still gathering intel on the businessman after having started late in the primary season....
"I think everyone was and is waiting for someone else to do it," said [a] Republican campaign official....
... it is treated as a truism among Republicans that a vast reservoir of damaging opposition research remains untouched. It's a suspicion that Democrats aren't challenging. Indeed, one Democratic opposition research said that they’ve spent the past eight months compiling material on Trump as he’s risen up the ranks....
That researcher estimated that of all the material they’ve compiled -- court and property records, newspaper clips and videos -- approximately 80 percent of it has yet to surface in this election cycle.
But Chozick and Healy say there's some concern in the Clinton camp:
Even as Democrats prepare to take on Mr. Trump, there remains deep anxiety that the messages may not break through.
In January, Clinton advisers were startled after Senator Ted Cruz of Texas released an ad that alleged that Mr. Trump had used eminent domain to try to bulldoze an elderly widow’s home in Atlantic City, making way for a parking lot to accompany one of his namesake casinos.
The woman won the legal battle and remained in her home, but the ad, which Mr. Trump disputed, did not dent his support.
I wonder if the problem was the ad itself. I have a theory about why a lot of attacks on Trump fail: They put Trump front and center, and he comes off as an exciting disruptor, a gadfly who gets under his enemies' skin. Attacks on Trump actually aggrandize Trump.
Let's look at that Cruz ad:
What do we see in this ad? Trump making money. Trump riding in a limo. Trump on magazine covers. Republican voters may hate eminent domain -- but Trump in this ad is just so gangsta. Of course this doesn't tarnish him very much. He still looks like the man.
Compare that with a heartbreaking ad that was used against Mitt Romney in the 2012 election:
The super-PAC's most searing ad was "Stage," in which a man named Mike Earnest describes building a 30-foot stage at the paper plant he worked at in Marion, Indiana. Romney-run Bain Capital had recently bought the plant. Days after building the stage, Earnest explains, a group of businessmen strolled onto it and told everyone at the plant they were fired. "Turns out that when we built that stage," Earnest says into the camera, "it was like building my own coffin. And it just made me sick."
The ad doesn't focus on Romney. The focus is on one of Romney's victims. Romney doesn't even show up until more than halfway through ad, and then only briefly, as a silent, menacing presence.
Of course, it was a lot easier to do this to Mitt Romney -- sure, he was a rich businessman, but he never exuded a sense of the good life. He never made people feel that his success might be contagious. Trump does that. That's why he's so hard to beat. And while Trump isn't literally spreading around the cash, his fans can at least laugh at his attacks on his enemies, and feel that they're getting back at the powerful themselves. (That's why it probably won't help Marco Rubio at the polls to imitate Trump's trash talk. The trash Trump talks feels liberating to a lot of people. Rubio is just reminding them how much they enjoy Trump's attacks.)
So when you attack Trump, you have to silence him. You have to make his victims the focus. Trump, in your ads, can't be the insult comic or the rich guy whose joie de vivre is unmistakable. He has to seem like a looming menace. Voters have to come away from the ads feeling empathy for whoever got in Trump's way. They mustn't come away feeling, even subconsciously, that it would be fun to be Trump.
You have to mute Trump. You have to neutralize what people like about him. Then the attacks might work.
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog