William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.
Far be it from me to criticize fellow campaign operatives in the thick of political races, but is any campaign other than Donald Trump’s even trying to make news in this Republican presidential primary season? It sure doesn’t seem like it.
I know it can’t be easy to break into the headlines with Trump, the 800-pound press gorilla, doing his daily Hulk Hogan imitation in the ring. But the fact is that someone other than Trump has to start finding ways to create and drive news cycles, or this contest is going to be over by March.
There have been one-off statements not having to do with Trump that have made it onto the political pages — Jeb Bush talking about his daughter’s struggle with drug addiction made news — but only Trump has been able to build and sustain anything close to a compelling narrative for the public to follow in the long term. So far, this has to be the most one-sided free media campaign in U.S. history.
And Trump is getting stronger.
In fairness to the political communications teams out there, it’s exceedingly difficult to break through once your campaign has been written off by the news media as incapable of winning. And about a dozen of the Republican primary campaigns qualify for that designation. I’d be shocked, for example, if any significant news outlet had even a summer intern covering former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. When you barely register in the polls, not even self-immolation will draw a camera. The frustration can be maddening.
But with today’s media tools, one would think that somebody in the race other than Trump would develop a breakthrough YouTube video or Snapchat sensation or old-fashioned press stunt worthy of starting a new conversation. Or are campaigns today so consumed with analytic data that they’ve just plain forgotten how to be interesting?
Taco Bell’s public relations team once floated a giant target in the middle of the South Pacific. If Russia’s Mir space station hit it on its descent to Earth, everyone in the United States would get a free taco.
Any of those guys still around?
Publicity for publicity’s sake isn’t the goal. Drawing attention to one’s clear and hopefully compelling message is the idea. Sometimes that involves taking risk.
Or is there just no there in some of these campaigns?
I walked into a campaign office earlier this century and casually asked the team, a good one, what its message was. This was a well-funded campaign that had been operating for months. It had phone banks, TV ads, yard signs. It had branded pill boxes and emery boards for senior centers. But a message? It was as if I had asked for help finding a set of keys. Aides were peering under couches: There’s got to be a message here somewhere ...
We know Trump’s core message. Elect me, and come hell or high water, I’m going to put this country back on top the way it used to be. Don’t worry about the details now; I’m a man who gets things done. Bumper sticker version: #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.
Can anyone identify another campaign’s core message?
Maybe this is what happens when campaigns become too myopic and data driven (or when candidates eschew risk in the hope of a cabinet post or TV contract). They spend too much time running algorithms and not enough entertaining.
Trump has no such problem.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.