Election 2016: WTF was that?!?!


Whatever your politics, the 2016 Presidential elections sent shock waves reverberating around the world. Whether you think The Donald’s countless outrageous statements as a candidate were a savvy manipulation of an angry electorate or a true expression of his character (or both), they surely represent a level of discourse to which we have not previously sunk, right?

Well – let’s take a look at the battle between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800.

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You knew these two were gonna clash. Adams was a feisty, generally disliked New England firebrand of a lawyer, who was deeply jealous of Jefferson and spent most of his life ruing the day he agreed to let Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence – hell, he had insisted on it and Jefferson, that wily bastard, had reluctantly agreed. Adams had an air of crude, arrogant self-righteousness about him, to the extent that some wag with advanced Photoshop skills likened him to a modern pol with an overactive Twitter account:


By contrast, Jefferson was a plantation-owning Virginia gentleman, a true Renaissance man who mastered architecture, horticulture, philosophy, linguistics and a whole bunch of other neat stuff. You want respect? Look where he ended up:

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The guy is literally carved into a mountain next to George Washington. The saintly but introverted intellectual leviathan. All true. But also true is his long affair with Sally Hemmings, one of his more than 100 slaves (which he mostly inherited, to be fair). Jefferson was supposedly kind to Hemmings, but he never freed her, and, well, when you OWN the woman, the concept of consent seems pretty academic.

Somehow (it’s a genuinely interesting story, but I’m already way distracted from my actual point, which I promise to get to shortly), these guys ended up on the same ticket in 1796, and Jefferson served as VP under Adams until the legendary election of 1800.

Using political surrogates, they, shall we say, went low. Jefferson hired the first paid American political hatchet men, John Callendar, who embraced his role with gusto. He declared that Adams had “that strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness, a hideous, hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

I’m not a historian, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment.

Hell, even Karl Rove was impressed:


Not to be outdone, the Adams camp fired back that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Way to stick to the issues, fellas.

As a footnote, Jefferson paid dearly for his “innovation” of using a paid attack dog. Callendar eventually went to prison for slander, and when he got out, he felt that Jefferson wasn’t sufficiently grateful. Callendar took his revenge by publishing a series of articles that revealed the Hemmings affair (it had only been a rumor before then), claiming that Hemmings was the mother of FIVE of Jefferson’s children.

Incredibly, Jefferson and Adams later reconciled, exchanged 158 thoughtful and weirdly affectionate letters, then died on the same day – July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after signing the document which caused the original rift (not strictly true but it makes for a better narrative, and after the 2016 election, who can say what “true” really means anyway?). On his deathbed, Adams evidently said some version of “at least Thomas Jefferson survives.” A lovely sentiment that turned out to be wrong – Jefferson had actually died a few hours earlier.

I’ll skip over the even more vitriolic election of 1828 to get to my point, which is:

It’s all about messaging.

I was born in 1957, about three years before television changed the course of American politics (and everything else, come to think of it), by showing Richard Nixon to be a sweaty, reptilian-eyed weasel, in stark contrast to JFK’s cool swagger, easy smile and grace under pressure in the first televised debate.


Since then, or at least until 2008, it’s been all downhill for the Democrats. And here’s why: they suck at messaging.

Painful as it is, think back on the campaign just concluded. Donald Trump said he was going to “Make America great again.” What was Hillary Clinton going to do? Um. Er. Ah. Oh, right, she was going to … be like Barack Obama for another four years. Or, keep the good stuff but do it better. Or fix the problems that she helped create. Or something like that.

Forget your political preferences. Which is the more inspiring message?

When I was at Hill, Holliday, I once heard Pat Caddell, the one-time Democratic operative turned professional sourpuss, declare that political advertising was just like product advertising, except there were no restrictions on what you could say, and you had to sell your entire inventory for four years on one day. Which would make any marketing manager run for the nearest bottle of antidepressant.


After watching the Democratic convention this year, I turned to my wife and said, “if Hillary doesn’t come up with a compelling reason to vote FOR her and not just AGAINST Trump, she’s gonna lose.”

Why? Because Trump already owned the negative. He’d been working it for years. No one was going to take that position from him, especially since he felt exceedingly unburdened by facts, even by political standards – assuming we survive his presidency, historians will look back on his “birther” twaddle with the same bemusement we now regard the Adams “hermaphrodite” insult. Of course it’s ridiculous. If you’re looking at facts, so is the notion that Hillary was responsible for the deaths in Bengazi, or that the Clinton Foundation misused their funds and funneled ill-gotten gains to their own wealth, or that she killed Vince Foster, or even that there was a smoking gun somewhere in those emails that she was supposedly trying to hide. But the truth is not important – he created a narrative, kept doubling down on it over and over, and it became part of the vernacular. Every time I tried to challenge it with a Trump supporter, I got blank stares and crickets. It was all utter nonsense – but it was great messaging.

Negative messaging works because humans have a much greater emotional response to negative news than positive news. In the financial services world, studies prove that investors are four times more angry at their advisor when their stocks go down than they are happy with them when they go up. (The irony for advisors is that most of this has nothing to do with them – no one has ever been any good at consistently picking stocks, which is why indexed funds routinely outperform managed funds over time). Years of steady growth may earn you a polite smile. But even a short bear market brings on a wild-eyed, spittle-flying psycho that would embarrass even Peter Capaldi in In The Loop.


When one candidate owns the negative, it’s very difficult to out-negative him. I thought Hillary’s exposure of Trump’s egregious ickiness at the debates was effective enough – but there wasn’t really any room for additional negativity. Trump still almost hung himself with “that makes me smart” and “nasty woman” and that Darth Vader breathing and hovering, but that wasn’t her – he’s such a DB, he almost took himself down.

Hillary needed two things, pertaining to messaging. First, she needed a credible response to the emails, and, despite having plenty of time, never came up with one. She also needed an inspiring message. When you come up with a good one, you can get anyone elected – even an actor (“It’s morning again in America”), or an inexperienced community organizer (“Yes we can” and its “Hope and Change” analogue). Even Trump’s positive message (“Make America great again”) was better.

I’ve spent the days since the election arguing with people on Facebook and in real life to stop hoping that the electoral college doesn’t vote for Trump and start understanding the anger of the people who elected him, despite knowing exactly how hateful his messaging was (is?). Think about this – 20% of his own voters considered him unqualified to be president! It would’ve taken just a small number of votes in a few states to change the results. And Hillary did win the tabulated popular vote. So yeah, messaging could’ve made the difference. Fail.

During my lifetime, Republicans have convinced poor and middle class white voters that, despite all evidence to the contrary, their interests are better served by what used to be considered the party for the rich and elite. Reagan and his media geniuses (the first right wing empire Roger Ailes built, long before Fox “News”) used social issues rather than economic ones to create an army of Reagan Democrats. Bill Clinton and Obama were able to inspire black voters in record numbers (at least those who were able to avoid GOP attempts to limit voter access) but, except for Jimmy Carter running as an outsider against a weak, tainted-by-Nixon Gerald Ford, that’s it.

Why are Democrats so bad at this? I dunno. We’ll see if they’ve learned anything in four years, when they run against President Pence (don’t get me started).