Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. – Barack Obama (2008)
in 2016, Donald Trump of proved 2008’s Barack Obama was correct. Going into the general election this year, all of the structural elements of the US political landscape favored Hillary Clinton to win the Presidency. To win the White House, Donald Trump needed something to change the electoral playing field. And in the end, Donald Trump was the change that he sought.
He was the clichéd Black Swan event.
Well actually, Donald Trump not being Donald Trump was the Black Swan event that brought down the House of Clinton.
Way back when, when Trump became the presumptive nominee, I outlined why I thought he couldn’t win. (Obviously I was wrong). But shortly thereafter, I did list 9 scenarios that could cause the election to swing to Trump.
Amazingly, all of the scenarios, save (thankfully) those involving large scale violence, popped up during the general election campaign in one form or another. But most had a negligible, if any, impact on the campaign trajectory. Clinton’s health was a major talking point for about 24 hours after she collapsed at a 9/11 Remembrance and than it went away. Even the October Surprise Scandal wasn’t why Clinton lost. Granted it didn’t help, but at most all it did was to remind voters that she was Corrupt Little Bo Peep: where ever Clinton goes, scandal is sure to follow. But the revelations showed no massive drop in her support. The polling data showed Clinton’s numbers dropping only slightly.
Trump’s unfavorable ratings stayed consistently above Clinton’s and remained 10 points higher when election day rolled around. (Even today, his approval rating is the lowest ever recorded for an incoming President)
What did in the Clinton Campaign was the Black Swan Event of Donald Trump not being Donald Trump.
Consider: during the campaign, from the moment he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, every-time Donald Trump had the opportunity to pivot towards a more Statesman-like approach, he didn’t pivot. Whether it was his claims Ted Cruz’s dad helped Lee Harvey Oswald kill Kennedy; his response to Ted Cruz’s call to vote your conscience; getting into public arguments with Gold Star parents; joking about Hillary Clinton being shot; or having Tweet storms at 3 am attacking Rosie O’Donnell and/or one-time Venezuelan beauty contestants, Donald Trump had a pathological need to inject himself into the news, even if meant taking the spotlight off the Democrats’ numerous attempts at self-immolation. To paraphrase Chris Rock, Donald Trump wasn’t going crazy, Donald Trump was going Donald Trump.
Trump spent the vast majority of the last 4 months big-footing every major news story that was bad for Clinton. For example, in September, the father of Seddique Mateen (i.e. the ISIS inspired shooter of the Pulse night club) was spotted at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally. Following the rally, he spoke publicly about supporting Clinton. This was a perfect opportunity for Trump to let the focus of the news cycle be on how people with anti-inclusive beliefs and sympathetic to those who hate the American Way of Life support Hillary Clinton. That was a perfect opportunity to make people wonder if the Democrats were being soft on terrorism. But Trump didn’t do this. Instead, he decided it would be the perfect time to crack a joke about Second Amendment supporters stopping Hillary Clinton. And just like that, the focus shifted away from Clinton and towards Trump.
Even during the debates, Trump would lose focus and veer away from the topics being discussed to talk about what he wanted. It always had to be about him.
So when FBI Director Comey sent the letter to Congress concerning the emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer, everyone was waiting for Trump’s to unleash his standard incoherent reaction about Corrupt Hillary. If there was ever a moment when you would expect Trump to stand up and shout “J’accuse!”, this was it. All of Twitter was aquiver at the coming storm.
And then nothing happened.
Lots of folks were wondering what was going on with Trump. He was being unusually quiet. I joked that the campaign must have replaced his phone with a toy phone. Everyone just kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting…
But as that weekend passed and the campaign entered the final week, it became clear Trump wasn’t going to go Trump. Contrary to everything he did prior to that point, he remained calm and felt no need to be the center of attention.
This was the Black Swan Moment: Donald Trump stayed on message and wasn’t distracted by the media scrum attracted to the bright and shiny scandal. He ceded the public spotlight to Clinton. He even reminded himself in public, “‘Stay on point, Donald, stay on point’ … ‘no sidetracks, Donald, nice and easy, nice.'”
And that was all it took.
The Clinton Campaign’s strategy (such as it was) for the general election was about making this election a referendum: Could We Trust Donald Trump Not to Go Crazy? They used Trump’s volatile nature as Exhibit A as why he should not be allowed anywhere near nuclear weapons. Every time Trump went Trump and injected himself needlessly into some issue, the Clinton Campaign could sit back, shrug and say, Do you really want this for four years? Do you really want to risk a nuclear war because Trump felt insulted by a joke?” And it did work . Up to a point.
So when the email issue came back to the fore and Trump stopped being Trump for the last week of the campaign, the media had not choice but to cover the actual news and remind the public what the email scandal entailed. Clinton was suddenly the center of attention and the GOP nominee wasn’t doing anything to shift attention away from her and to him.
Without Trump bigfooting the October Surprise, her campaign could offer no reason why the country should vote for Clinton that didn’t involve a variation of “She’s no Donald Trump”. The public already knew that. Voters had been told, repeatedly, why they should vote against Trump. But the Democrats failed to show voters why they should vote for Clinton. Because the entire campaign became predicated on contrasting Clinton to Trump, when Trump failed to do something wacky, the Democrats were forced to present reasons why people should be voting for Clinton beyond her not being crazy Trump.
The decision by Trump’s campaign (and big props to Kellyanne Conway) not to do anything when the email story returned was the one thing Clinton’s campaign could not afford to happen. Democrats were completely unprepared for this reaction. All they could do was play a prevent defense and hope they could ride out the storm. Clinton’s campaign was reduced to hoping Trump would eventually revert to form and be the loud, brash Trump they needed so people would decide Clinton was the lesser of two evils.
By contrast, the Trump Campaign clearly sensed circumstances were changing and the aura of inevitability was falling from Clinton. They realized they could win was if the dynamics of the campaign changed. So Trump, unlike the Democrats, didn’t wait for someone else to change them.
He was the change he was waiting for.
And that is why Donald Trump won the election.