Trumped by experience
In every election, the press make the same mistake. They decide that this election, this time, people will vote for their new exciting celebrity candidate. They are, almost always, wrong.
And so it is with Donald Trump.”The Donald” has been the most over-hyped candidate in this year’s presidential race. That has become an obvious opinion to hold, but often for the wrong reasons I sometimes feel. Sure, he holds ludicrous opinions. But so did John McCain, and certainly so did George Bush. People who mocked Trump’s chances because he’s an idiot don’t need to go far into America’s history books to find morons, mad men, and people who are afraid of ideas.
No, Donald Trump was a ludicrous candidate for the simple reason that he had never run before. Election campaigning is a very specific skill, and a very specific experience. Unless you have done it before, you are unlikely to know what it involves. Almost every candidate who isn’t an incumbent US president or VP has no experience of it on this scale, and only senators and governors in big states have anything to compare it to.
My experience is that those who have never done these things really have very little understanding of what they will involve. Let’s take a slightly surprising example. In 2009, I found myself involved with one of the campaigns for rector of Edinburgh University. I was student union president at the time, and had persuaded Iain Macwhirter to stand. Iain is the most insightful commentator on Scottish politics in the mainstream media. He is a former host of Westminster Live, and has an astonishing insight into the whole gammut of political issues. Furthermore, he was amazingly willing to dedicate himself to the campaign. He got up early in the morning to do announcements in lectures, he attended society meetings, he worked his socks off to prove himself worthy.
But, throughout the campaign, this national political expert relied closely on advice from the shambolic student activists who had concocted his run. Iain had never stood in an election before. His learning curve was steep and, if I’m honest, he made a couple of mistakes along the way. And this, remember, is a humble man, willing to take advice despite being one of Britain’s leading political analysts running in the relatively parochial election to be rector of a university.
Now imagine someone with less political understanding or experience – Donald Trump – running to be president of the United States. Clearly the idea is ludicrous. He had no idea what he was getting into (just as almost all of us have no idea what such a campaign would involve). Yet because he happens to have had success in an entirely different field – the business of ripping people off – many in the media toyed with the notion that he might have a chance.
Now, there are a couple of examples of politicians being elected once they are famous – Arnie, Al Franken, even Reagan when he came in as governor. But these people are the exception rather than the rule. Given our media’s obsession with celebrity, it is amazing how how few succesful candidates are famous. And almost no major party nominee for president (excepting the odd General) has been as much of a novice as Trump.
But, of course, this is not some bizarre afflectation of the New World. We see the same phenomenon in British politics. When Esther Ranzen ran for Parliament, the press went mad. She didn’t even keep her deposit. When Tamsin Omond ran, she was given acres of space in the Standard. She got 123 votes.
In the 2007 Holyrood election, this principle was tested to its root – Scottish Voice stood with no real manifesto but with high profile figures who they saw as ‘well qualified’ for election, including millionaire businessman and former Scots Guard Archie Stirling. The press nearly wet themselves with excitement at this new right wing (for no policy implies the status quo, which is conservative) force – they provided wall to wall coverage of all their campaign events, and drooled over how wonderful and experienced all of their candidates were. But the party was hammered. Almost no one voted for them. Because being a millionaire doesn’t mean you know how to win votes.
To win votes, you need to have a vision that voters can share. You need to ask people to vote not for you, but for themselves. And Big Men like Donald Trump, with no experience of running elections, are almost invariably incapible of doing this.