As we finally head to the more serious phase of the 2016
presidential election, it might be useful to say a few words
about how politicians usually talk.
Some are surprised that figures such as Bernie Sanders and
Donald Trump can gain so much attention in the media, and
do well in polls, against more presumably “serious” candidates
who might actually win their party’s presidential nomination.
It should be no surprise at all, however. There are two main
reasons for this. First, the media, especially in the preliminary
stages of the quadrennial contest, dominate the process. Since
there have been no debates yet, the public is going to form its
opinions mostly from media coverage. The media, and
particularly media “news” coverage, is all about attracting
audience. Thus, almost like a law of gravity, the most colorful,
outspoken, controversial and telegenic candidates draw the
media coverage. Prior to Mr. Trump’s recent prominence, it
was Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul who got most media
attention, and prior to that, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie,
one of the most naturally-gifted political communicators since
Bill Clinton, was the media favorite.
On the Democratic side, prior to Mr. Sanders recent rise, it was
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, an outspoken advocate
of leftist views, who obtained the most coverage.
In fact, it was when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker surprised
the media with a “vigorous” speech in Iowa earlier this year
that he emerged as a first-tier candidate.
Meanwhile Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton continues to
avoid the press and any controversial comments --- and her poll
numbers decline. Similarly, early GOP frontrunner Jeb Bush is
not known for his oratory, nor for controversy, and his poll
numbers have declined.
There is a second, and perhaps more important major
reason why “direct” talk is working in the 2016 campaign. I
suggest that voters are fed up with “conventional politician
talk” --- that is, bland, unrevealing, non-transparent
politically correct and ultimately misleading expression.
Trump, Sanders, Warren and Christie instinctively avoid the
conventional way politicians speak publicly. It should be no
surprise then that they receive so much attention from the
public and the media.
In the next phase of the campaign, it’s going to be more
complicated. The debates will place the various candidates
side by side, and allow the public and the media to assess the
relative quality of their knowledge and judgment. It will no
longer be just a popularity contest, serious issues will be at
But a candidate who has communications skills as well as
standing and political weight will have important advantages.
The media role will decline, and the voter role will rise.
The “celebrity” figures of the preliminaries are likely to be
quickly forgotten, but the voters in 2016 will want clarity.
Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.