Does Trump vs Clinton prove that style can’t beat policy in US presidential politics?

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27 September
15:10
September
2016

In the first-ever televised US Presidential Election debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, television viewers famously told polls that the young, handsome, charismatic Kennedy had clearly beaten Nixon, who they agreed looked sweaty and untrustworthy and seemed not to have shaved. But when you asked people who'd listened to the debate on the radio, that audience thought that Nixon had won.

The hypothesis back then was that the radio audience had listened to policy ideas while TV viewers were persuaded by what they saw. This tension between policy and style has always been crucial to American politics. But in a visual age of mass broadcast media it became even more important. Now, in a 24-hour media landscape with partisan media channels, social media and so on, it's even harder to disentangle personality from substance. They're inseparable.

This is particularly difficult in the Trump-Clinton case because there has never been an outlier candidate like Donald Trump. He is unprecedented: this extraordinary individual who appears not only to have no grounding in policy but to not even care about it.

Ronald Reagan didn't do detail but at least he had a big picture for America which his team could flesh out. Trump has nothing like that. Reportedly he gets very bored with policy to the extent that his staff has to put policy questions to him in a very concise, almost stealth manner. He's not even a Republican really, or at least not a modern one. Many in the party are utterly shocked that he's their 2016 candidate. So to the question of whether policy works for or against him, you have to ask 'What policy?'

Clinton is the exact opposite. She's a policy wonk and she's never happier than when she's discussing detail. She went into the first debate completely on top of the material and, more importantly, aware of how what she says will resonate with him. My impression is that she largely succeeded in getting a handle on Trump. By the end she grew in confidence while he looked sulky and under attack.

Hillary's aim will not have been to slamdunk him on the night. You have to remember, she is just about in the lead so she doesn't want to risk rocking the boat. The risk of going all-out to destroy him is that it can backfire on you. If he explodes, what does she do? He is the one who needs to move the polls. So instead her goal is to contain him, appear to be control and not cause anyone to doubt her. She seems to have largely achieved that.

But just as it's hard to attack Trump on policy, he is also impervious to attacks on his character. The electorate knows he's deeply flawed but it seems not to care, because he's offering something different. Trump is held to a different standard than Clinton is. You saw it when she questioned his temperament and he replied that "I have a winning temperament. I know how to win," as if he didn't even understand what temperament is. He is the most flawed candidate in perhaps 100 years and yet 40% of the electorate simply don't care. It's extraordinary.

So the question arises, is the appearance of a Trump a one-off event? We very well could have a President Trump in November. Does that mean a new age when not only is policy not important, but neither are conventional ideas of personality and presentation? We would have to completely revise everything we think about the American electorate, the parties, the Presidency… about America itself. 

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