The Intersection: Nov 2016

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When Mobilizing Voters, Which Matters More: Message or Money?

A candidate running for the White House has to run the table on the three M’s in politics: money, message and mobilization (or momentum). Each is directly connected to the other, and usually all three are needed to get a win. Anything short of that gets you the consolation prize of the popular vote. This is especially true for candidates who hope to break the mold and make history such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

With the vast majority of the vote counted, and only the state of Michigan outstanding (New Hampshire was finally called this week), Donald Trump is the president-elect. When it comes to the three M’s, some argue that Trump defied conventional wisdom by losing two out of three categories (money and mobilization), but still won by large margins in key battleground states. This election outcome may speak to the ever-growing importance of message, not money, in driving voter mobilization in today’s campaigns.

In an environment with a wide variety of media platforms, the most attractive candidate (in this case, the candidate that can draw the most attention), has the greatest chance to have their message heard through cable TV news outlets and on social media. Normally, a candidate’s communications can attract financial support from donors who feel their message is a winner, further enabling the campaign to spread their ideas via paid broadcast media, such as TV and radio ads. This is a very traditional, but also dated framework.

In 2016, Trump turned the three M’s on their heads and Clinton, guided by questionable strategy in hindsight, failed to fill the void. The Trump campaign relied solely and completely on his message as the mobilizing factor for voters throughout the campaign – from the primaries through the fall campaign. There was never any talk of a vaunted Trump ground campaign or get-out-the-vote effort. Trump’s message, a reported $2 billion plus in free media by the end of the campaign, and a consistent social media presence fueled his victories.

Clinton’s combined campaign effort raised nearly $700 million, outspending Trump by nearly $400 million according to However, in an age where the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns raised nearly $5 billion total, $2 billion in free media was more than enough to offset Clinton’s fundraising advantage. Remember, Jeb Bush had a tremendous money advantage over Trump as well, and he along with his 16 Republican colleagues lost to the New York real estate mogul in the primaries. The indictment against Bush was that he was a lackluster candidate with no message. Others may say the same for Clinton, who was further damaged by an ever-persistent and growing controversy over emails.

In theory, money should help make up for any shortcomings when it comes to message in 2016, especially when the opposition’s message directly offends a candidate’s core base of support. However, that can only happen if resources are deployed in a way that identifies and maximizes turnout of a campaign’s core supporters, especially in the face of increased voter turnout on the other side.

While turnout was slightly down overall in the 2016 presidential race compared to 2012, Clinton lost more than 5 million voters compared to slightly more than 1 million for Trump. Even with that loss of support, she still managed to win the popular vote. Unfortunately, the bulk of Clinton’s voter drop-off came in critical states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – longtime strongholds for national Democrats. Political pros often say that a solid get-out-the-vote effort (i.e. a strong ground game) can make up 1-2 percentage points. However, that is under ideal circumstances, chief of which is having a precision ground game to start.

During the campaign, Clinton openly admitted that she is not the political superstar that the last two Democratic presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – have been. However, in a media world where regular people are dedicating less time to understanding the world of politics and public policy, the ability to deliver a message is more important than ever. Voters want to hear strong messages that resonate with them. Give them that and, ground game or not, recent history reflects that voters will find their way to the polls.

Corey Ealons


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