We get letters, we get letters … It’s no secret that the 2016 race has divided Republicans and conservatives, especially in the activist and commentary classes. That’s not as true among voters, according to polling, although Donald Trump still has had some trouble holding Republicans together so far in the general election. That will narrow down considerably as Election Day approaches. The question will be whether the split disappears entirely, and whether Trump can bring in enough voters outside of the GOP to compete for the victory.
In the meantime, what’s the role that conservative media should play in the election? Should the focus be on cheering on the Republican nominee, or presenting a realistic picture of the race and the policy issues — on which there are several gaps with movement conservatism? Let me put on my senior editor hat and share one missive we received today (edited for clarity and grammar) complaining about the coverage:
I have to say I thought this was a conservative place, but I see with Trump running, all the true colors of all here have been shown. You all want Hillary elected by the way you talk about the GOP candidate. So I can no longer read your b******t. If this site truly believed in conservatism it would not tear its candidate down on an hourly basis.
Well, we do believe in conservatism — more so than Republicanism, and the two are not totally synonymous. I can’t speak for my colleagues on this, but this strain of thought has an inherent contradiction. Trump ran against Republicanism in the primaries and flat-out stated that movement conservatism wasn’t relevant. He made it clear that he wasn’t “its candidate” in either context. Is it that surprising that conservatives remain skeptical of his motives, even while acknowledging the realistic choice we face?
Furthermore, the coverage thus far at Hot Air hasn’t been uniformly or even substantially anti-Trump, although our colleagues at RedState have made that editorial position clear. Allahpundit is #NeverTrump but has hardly been hysterical about it; I have claimed Trump-skeptical status but specifically rejected #NeverTrump affiliation. Larry and Jazz have offered a friendlier perspective on Trump, and John has been in between. It seems that any analytical perspective on the Trump campaign and the polling sets off some readers, along with producing the absurd and childish “you want Hillary elected” refrain — despite more than ten years of extensive reporting on, criticism of, and explicit opposition to the Clintons.
So what should be the role of conservative media? In 2012, we ended up buying wholesale the RNC and Romney campaign arguments about grassroots enthusiasm, biased polling, and big rallies — and wound up with egg on our collective faces. As I recall, the same readership demanded answers as to why we didn’t treat those claims with more skepticism and analytical detachment, and they were correct to call us on that.
This is really about the credibility of our movement, as well as the industry known as “conservative media.” For facts are coming to light, which at the very least cast serious doubt on the truthfulness of some of the fundamental claims/promises Trump made to our people that caused a chunk of them to flock to his candidacy. …
As conservative media, I would argue we have an obligation to our fellow conservatives to alert them to what is happening here, even if we’re staunchly pro-Trump. Because if this isn’t malfeasance it’s incompetence, and it will do more to help get Hillary elected than anything #NeverTrump is capable of if the Trump campaign doesn’t right the ship.
I think we’ve already proven becoming water carriers and shills for the Republican Party doesn’t serve the conservative cause. So let’s see if telling the truth works.
Telling the truth involves applying lessons learned in 2012 to today’s cycle. My book Going Red was an in-depth effort to find the answers to the debacle of 2012 to prevent a repeat this year, so this is not just a one-off riff for me. In my column for The Week, I explain what the lessons and misconceptions from that cycle and 2008 mean, and why telling the truth now matters:
Republicans viewed Obama’s victory in 2008 as a triumph of mass marketing, rally-based campaigning, and no small amount of media manipulation. They saw the Obama campaign’s forays into social media strictly as vehicles for national messaging. In 2012, the Mitt Romney campaign oriented its efforts along the same lines, while insisting that polling was biased based on turnout models that favored Democrats. Pundits on the right followed suit with “unskewing” efforts that showed Romney leading in alternate turnout models.
What this missed was the ground organization put together by the man Republicans derided as the “community organizer in chief.” The 2008 campaign used social media not merely as a channel for national messaging, but to identify potential supporters in neighborhoods in every key swing area. They turned these people into ambassadors, learned how national issues played in each community, and skillfully tailored messaging and issue priorities to build emotional bonds with these voters. The prodigious fundraising of Barack Obama allowed his team to build a vast peer-to-peer model of voter engagement for exactly that purpose.
Those emotional bonds — plus a deep investment in get-out-the-vote resources — produced a significantly new turnout model in the 2008 presidential election. Four years later, even with President Obama enjoying much less popularity than before, the same campaign apparatus easily reconnected those emotional ties to people who saw their 2008 vote as a personal commitment that defined who they are. That drove the turnout model in Obama’s favor; despite a lower overall turnout, the demographics turned out to be remarkably similar to 2008.
Republicans lost a winnable presidential election in 2012 because they learned the wrong lessons in 2008. Unfortunately, the myth of rallies being more reliable than polls still has not faded. Donald Trump’s rallies are far more impressive than Hillary Clinton’s. Clinton is also stomping Trump in nearly every important poll. Both of these things are true. Only when Republicans accept this can they hope to beat Clinton.
It does not help in 2016 to fall into the same traps we did in 2012. It behooves conservative media to exercise what Peggy Noonan called “heroic fairness” in covering the election — to Trump, to our readers, and to the truth.
In the interests of telling the truth, I’ll disclose now that I plan to vote for Donald Trump. Perhaps I’ll write a separate post explaining how I made that decision, but the short version is that Hillary Clinton must be stopped and he’s the only way to make that happen. Even so, the truth is that the Republican campaign is going very poorly, and while there’s still time to right the ship, that time is running short. My posts about the race are intended to demonstrate that in hopes of generating enough correction to result in the defeat of the Clinton Restoration. Simply glossing over the glaring problems in the campaign and regurgitating the sunny talking points won’t work, as we learned the hard way four years ago.