Part II: Trump vs. Clinton debate – is political communications the biggest loser?

Now that the last of the presidential debates is done, I wanted to take a look at this political campaign from a communications point of view.

Whatever your political affiliation, the issues-based presidential debates of the past seem like a relic of a bygone era. Yes, there was always some mudslinging and character assassination, but in this election season things have moved – or sunk – to a whole new level.

In the first two debates, substantive discussion on the issues that should matter – the economy, healthcare, the debt crisis, immigration and foreign policy – took a backseat to smears, name-calling and baseless allegations.

Politico

Politico

In last night’s debate, however, there appeared to be an attempt by Trump in particular – with the help of a masterful moderator – to rehabilitate himself and try to add substance to his rhetoric. Any attempt to reposition himself, however, was undone by his refusal to confirm he would accept the results of the election. That is a moment that breaks two centuries of norms. It truly is a moment in history, and not for the right reasons.

So what changed since the last election cycle?

As I mentioned last week, it is not unreasonable to point a finger at the impact of reality television, both in terms of how those in the public eye now think they should behave, but also in terms of audience expectations of what is acceptable discourse. The ubiquity and popularity of reality television has given the public a thirst for spectacle and a need for endless entertainment. In Trump’s own words, he is planning on keeping us “in suspense” as to whether he will accept the election results, as if the election were somehow about to culminate in a season finale cliffhanger.

AP Photo

AP Photo

I would also point a finger at social media on a number of levels. Our new comfort level with articulating our thoughts in 140 characters or fewer and engaging in semi-anonymous online hate-debates has had the effect of over-simplifying concepts that defy simplification. Discussing the nuanced points of climate change or the US tax code in a series of one-liners is never going to result in a meaningful dialogue. Social media has also proved to be a haven for conspiracy theorists and trolls who peddle baseless theories as fact – election-rigging and a liberal media collusion being just two of the most prominent de jour.

I’d suggest that what many people now accept as political “facts” are more likely to come from social media or those with an opinion rather than a trained professional journalist. This is a reality that is going to prove challenging for any communications professional looking to influence the narrative.

Much of the blame also lies at the door of both political parties. It is clear that the Republican Party has lost control of its own narrative. There are stark divides between different factions among the party’s grassroots supporters. A lack of coherence on immigration and a refusal to budge on socially conservative positions has made many Republicans effectively unelectable to significant portions of the population. It was telling how many would-be nominees ran, unsuccessfully, during the primaries – reflecting a party in the midst of an identity crisis.

Nature abhors a vacuum and if the GOP can’t unite behind one coherent platform and communicate their positions clearly and consistently, then the door is open wide for extremists and opportunists to manipulate the party narrative for their own agenda.

AP Photo

AP Photo

But the Democrats should also take heed. Clinton has been described as one of their most unpopular nominees ever. She fought a bruising battle with Bernie Sanders that revealed a brewing split amongst left-leaning Democrats and those firmly in the middle. That party would do well to pay close attention to the painful lessons inflicted on the GOP in this election season.

As I said last week, there is no undoing the Trump effect – reality television and social media are not going anywhere. We are in a new age of political communications where candidates no longer compete just with each other; they are also competing for media attention and mindshare. Personality and relatability matter more than ever. Both Trump and Sanders were able to gain an edge during the primaries by sounding authentic, providing a fresh voice and tapping into the very real voter frustration with the status quo.

The issues Americans say they care about are the issues that matter, but how politicians reach and persuade voters has changed dramatically. The reality is that those in the business of political communications will need to do a wholesale re-evaluation of their approach to campaigns and find new ways to resonate with voters and convince them they care.