PHILADELPHIA ― If Donald Trump fails on Tuesday to Make America Great Again, he can at least take solace in having Made It Cool To Be A Nerd Again.
Not in half a century has a presidential nominee made knowledge of policy details such an integral part of the sales pitch as Hillary Clinton has ― and all thanks to a Republican nominee so uninterested in the world and the mechanics of governance that most voters question his basic competence.
“We haven’t seen anything like this before,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute who describes Trump’s campaign as “defining deviancy downward.”
“You just assume that people who win presidential nominations are going to have some knowledge about policy,” Ornstein said.
This has allowed Clinton, who for years has been criticized as uninspiring and grating in her speaking style, to invite voters to consider her knowledge, her resume and her temperament ― with the confidence that Trump will be viewed as lacking in each of those areas.
Clinton’s public appearances, her debate answers and even the leaked excerpts of her paid speeches show off a command of facts and figures in a wide array of domestic and foreign policy areas. Responding to audience questions at those speeches, Clinton would offer answers of several hundred words apiece, on topics ranging from health care to the World Bank to the political situation in Egypt.
“She is a super-wonk, and that sometimes makes for not the most interesting stump speech,” said Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, adding that against pretty much any other Republican opponent, things might have gone differently this year.
“Normally,” she said, “you have two candidates that, even if people of different political parties disagree about who would be better, they don’t disagree that they’re competent to do the job.”
We haven’t seen anything like this before... You just assume that people who win presidential nominations are going to have some knowledge about policy. Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute scholar, on Donald Trump
For decades, political consultants have made it their mission to cast their candidates as more relatable, more likable, more have-a-beer-with-able than their opponents. Of course, charisma has long been important for aspiring leaders, but the supremacy of image over substance in presidential politics probably began in earnest with the 1960 presidential election.
That year, a telegenic Sen. John F. Kennedy squeaked out a victory over the far more experienced sitting vice president, Richard Nixon ― who famously rejected CBS’ offer of makeup prior to the first-ever televised debate.
Ronald Reagan’s team took modern campaigning to the next level, blocking out appearances as if they were movie scenes to take advantage of the skills their candidate had honed during his years in Hollywood.
The new style skewed presidential campaigns even further in favor of candidates who appeared likable over those who touted their managerial skills. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeated a sitting president not by showcasing his intellect, but by telling voters he empathized with their plights. Eight years later, Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, had the more impressive resume, but was seen as wooden and off-putting. Texas Gov. George W. Bush was more engaging, and voters in enough key states decided that was important.
Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley says the only previous competence-based campaign in recent times was 1996, when an ornery Bob Dole took on the incumbent President Clinton. “Dole was very gruff and unlikable in 1996, but he was marketing himself as a competent legislator,” Brinkley said.
Dole, of course, got crushed. “It is unusual to run a campaign anchored on competency rather than likability,” Brinkley said. “It’s very hard to get people excited for you when they don’t care for you.”
In 2008, when the question of likability came up in the Democratic primary, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama famously said that Hillary Clinton, then a senator from New York, was “likable enough.” Obama won the nomination and the presidency, even though on paper Clinton was far better qualified.
I'd have a beer with Donald Trump, if he drank. The stories that would come out of that would be amazing. But I wouldn't let him into my home for dinner with my wife and daughter. Mo Elleithee, director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service
Eight years later, Obama is barnstorming the battleground states on behalf of Clinton ― and selling her qualifications. “You can go on her website. It’s full of plans, full of details, full of how to pay for it. She’s done her homework,” he told a packed college gym in Jacksonville, Florida, last week. “She will be smart and she will be steady.”
Obama repeated a point he has made frequently: that Trump is fundamentally different from either of the Republican nominees Obama himself faced. “When I ran in ’08, I ran against John McCain, and disagreed with him on a whole bunch of stuff. But I didn’t fear for the republic. I just thought I would be a better president,” Obama said. “This is different. This is somebody who would do damage to our democracy, who is uniquely unqualified and shows no interest in being more qualified.”
In any case, Mo Elleithee, director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, says the “would you have a beer with this person” test is not exactly right when it comes to picking a president. A more important question voters ask themselves, he said, is: Would I invite this person over for dinner?
“I’d have a beer with Donald Trump, if he drank,” Elleithee said. “The stories that would come out of that would be amazing. But I wouldn’t let him into my home for dinner with my wife and daughter. That’s a more intimate setting.”
And even that question, he added, assumes a certain base level of competence on the part of the candidate. If that level of competence seems absent, then a lot of voters will not need to think about it any further, he said.
That’s apparently what happened in Trump’s first presidential debate with Clinton, when he showed to nearly 84 million television viewers his lack of familiarity with a variety of issues, combined with a grade-school demeanor. That Sept. 26 event was the point when Trump’s numbers started falling.
“It’s a year where doing your homework, really caring about solutions, about policy, has mattered,” Palmieri said. “She’s not as cool as President Obama, but she’s every bit as capable. And this time around that’s going to bring a lot of people to her side.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.