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.
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).
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 factcheck.com. Every speech, every remark by a candidate can be instantly compared against all others.
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.