Authentic New Hampshire 2016

Words and Photos by Dean Pagani. Reporting from New Hampshire. (C)2016.

The 2016 presidential race demonstrates the chaotic power of Internet culture over traditional American politics. Instant, open-ended communication is making it more difficult than ever for candidates and their advisors to shape messages, and making it almost impossible for journalists to analyze the direction of the campaign through the lens of what has come before. While the Internet as a tool makes it possible for campaigns to micro-target likely voters, that same tool has stripped away the power to present political messages as undisputed truth. Power has been conferred to voters to be real time fact checkers, shapers of conventional wisdom and judges of authenticity.

The ubiquity of information has diminished the role of the news media to create conventional wisdom even as more outlets and individuals identify themselves as purveyors of news(Click to enlarge).

Two days after the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary, the two remaining Democratic candidates for president met for a debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Bernie Sanders, the U.S. Senator from Vermont, stood on stage as an equal with Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady, U.S. Senator from New York and Secretary of State. He had tied her in Iowa and soundly defeated her in New Hampshire. Even he admitted his amazement. Doubt about Sanders’ viability as a national candidate made it difficult for anyone to see him, or refer to him as what he was at that moment - the frontrunner.

Two nights later, the six Republicans remaining in the race for president, met for a debate in South Carolina. There too, Donald Trump, the most unlikely of all Republican candidates, led the field. Though it was easier that night for the news media to describe Trump as a frontrunner, lessons taken from past presidential campaigns made the label an uncomfortable fit. Conventional wisdom continued to suggest that at some point, something would happen to restore traditional order replacing Trump at the front of the field by someone with a record in elected office. As we now know, that never happened.

The John Kasich campaign bus and the change message of 2016.

Ohio Governor John Kasich digging it out in Plymouth.

Standing in line to get into a Trump event in Concord, New Hampshire, Martin Luther King Day weekend, two average middle-aged couples in front of me, spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear their list of complaints against the America they find themselves in.

Concord, New Hampshire. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 21 degrees F.

Nothing seems to be working was the general theme. The government in Washington does not work. Politicians are in it for themselves. The rich get richer. The new healthcare system is useless. No one is looking out for us. At least Trump understands this, they said, and he will try to fix it. The couple anticipated the Trump rally would be interrupted by protestors. They excused the bad behavior in advance by assuming any demonstrators would be young and would therefore not have learned the lesson yet; that no one - and especially government - will ever be there to help them when they need it. Someday they will learn.

The lines were equally long several weeks later at a Sanders event in Portsmouth, but in Portsmouth, Sanders was not simply promising good management, he was promising a revolution. If he wins, Sanders promised his supporters, he would fight the monied interests of Washington and make government work for everyone. But he would need help.

All of the 2016 candidates recognized voters are angry and looking for someone who can promise them a new direction, or at least the sense that a new direction has been chosen, the direction makes sense, and the candidate is worth following. Interviews with voters show this, polls show it, the candidates’ message points reflected it, and the election results so far confirm it.

The second part of the equation is the bigger scene in the picture and may explain the unexpected embrace of Sanders and Trump. Voters are searching for authenticity. The voters of 2016 are rejecting the practiced, pitch perfect, poll tested language of standard politicians. They can hear through it. Without the help of news reporters and analysts, voters are deciding for themselves who means what they say and who is saying only what they think their audience wants to hear.

(Ironically, this new reality of campaign communications has yielded Sanders and Trump whose credentials as members of the two parties they identify with are open to debate).

Jeb Bush preaching the importance of experience and "servant leaders" in Salem(Click to enlarge).

In 2008 and 2012 the Obama campaign was given great credit for harnessing the power of the Internet and specifically social media to mobilize a movement. Some viewed the digital campaign strategy as a historic step away from the television ad based campaign. That may be the case, but it may also be true that 2016 represents the first national campaign in which the Internet culture makes it almost impossible for candidates to shift their messages for multiple audiences.

Information flows too freely. It is available to everyone anywhere. Every voter is Every speech, every remark by a candidate can be instantly compared against all others.

Ted Cruz. The Pasta Loft, Milford, N.H.(Click to enlarge).

Ted Cruz was criticized for appealing to religious voters in Iowa, shifting toward the secular in New Hampshire and returning to religion in South Carolina.

Hillary Clinton was cited in South Carolina for appealing to black voters by embracing the president when she in fact once campaigned against him.

Marco Rubio was indicted by Chris Christie in New Hampshire for relying on tired talking points, but when the press tried to reward Christie as a surging candidate, he was rejected by the voters and forced to end his campaign.

Marco Rubio on the rise before a poor pre-primary debate.

Chris Christie a momentary late surge. Two days later he withdrew from the race.

And so the message heard first in New Hampshire in 2016 is surely about the state of the economy and the unease the average voter feels about his or her future. This requires a candidate with a plan. Sanders had one, and regardless of its feasibility, people understood it.

Trump has few specific plans, but he offers the perception of competence. Under Trump we will have the best and the greatest everything. We will win so much “you will get tired of winning.” His plan is: Why wouldn’t we be the best and the greatest at everything we do? We are going to stop being incompetent and that - in the end - is what voters are asking for. Somebody who will make things work like they used to.

The Clinton campaign's appeal to women voters failed the candidate in New Hampshire(Click to enlarge).

There is also a lesson about strategy for candidates for any office. From city council to the White House. Promises are no longer enough. Wedge issues are no longer enough. Well crafted stump speeches no longer work by themselves. The full transparency of the Internet culture has made traditional political campaign rhetoric as old fashioned as a gas powered car. It purifies the conversation, removes the news media filter, and makes it possible for any candidate with a sincere plan and an argument to emerge from the field.

“Make America Great Again” and “A Future To Believe In” were the slogans of the two most surprisingly successful candidates in the 2016 presidential election. They worked because the candidates had a distinct authenticity behind their message. The voters believed.


Dean Pagani

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