The presidentialcontest has become a battle between feelings and facts.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has utilized an endless supply of figures and proposals to persuade Americans that the country is making progress and could make more under her presidency.
That approach involves a largely upbeat assessment of falling unemployment rates and other measurements that don’t always match up with the worries of struggling or fearful Americans. It hasn’t demonstrably improved Clinton’s standing.
So at this week’s convention, frustrated Democrats renewed their effort to try to match Trump in the arena in which he’s playing.
On Tuesday night, they called on the national Democratic figure with the party’s most proven touch when it comes to connecting with the gut-level concerns of Americans: Bill Clinton.
He regaled an enthusiastic convention audience with his wife’s biography, reminding them — and those watching on television — of decades of work she did on behalf of the needy. He talked of her persistence in solving any problem placed before her, extolling her as a mother to their daughter, Chelsea, and, by extension, painting her as a protective mother figure for the nation.
“She’ll never give up on you,” he declared.
To drive home the contrast with Trump, Hillary Clinton has been airing ads that incessantly try to use another brand of fear against him — showing children idling in a living room while the Republican, on the television, criticizes women, a disabled reporter and others. What message would be sent by his election, the ad asks.
Trump’s opponents, whether Republican or Democratic, have spent much of the last year gaping at how little the New York businessman hews to the traditional niceties of politics, including sticking to facts.
But Trump is at his core a man who has made his fortune — whether it’s the $10 billion he claims, or far less, as some critics say — by marketing himself and his projects with a pitch at customers’ emotions. In this case, he’s marketing a vision of an America so troubled that, he hopes, voters will be compelled to override concerns about his temperament and inexperience and give him the job.
That approach led him, in his nomination acceptance speech last week, to repeatedly raise the specter of increasing crime, although the crime rate remains far below where it was in recent decades. He sought to raise pocketbook fears by saying that Clinton planned “a massive — and I mean massive — tax increase,” even though she has not proposed a broad-based increase.
He said that across the country, criminals here illegally were “roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” although the evidence does not suggest such a spree of violence. He said that Americans deserved relief from “uncontrolled immigration, which is what we have now,” although illegal immigration numbers have been declining.
As a practical matter, the fact that Trump is making an emotional pitch for voters seems to have partially absolved him for not having the facts to back up his arguments — because that’s not the turf he’s fighting on.
Clinton, however, has been more focused on facts — and her effort has been confounded because many Americans simply don’t believe her.
Kevin Eckery, a Republican political consultant from California, said that Clinton’s efforts to blunt Trump had been insufficient because she had brushed aside rather than acknowledged the concerns of many voters. In politics as in personal relationships, he noted, to be seen as dismissing concerns only breeds more anger.
“What Trump is doing is he is validating fear and also amplifying it,” said Eckery, who opposes Trump. “Feelings are stronger than facts — he knows it at a gut level. Everyone who deals with him on facts is not playing in the same playground he is.”
He characterized Trump’s efforts as akin to a businessman “talking down the stock at the company he’s trying to take over so he can get it at a lower price.”
President Obama expressed frustration with Trump’s approach on Friday, the day after Trump had told his convention audience of a country foundering on almost every front.
“The one thing that I think is important to recognize is this idea that America is somehow on the verge of collapse, this vision of violence and chaos everywhere, doesn’t really jibe with the experience of most people,” Obama said.
“I mean, I hope people, the next morning, walked outside, and birds were chirping and the sun was out, and this afternoon people will be watching their kids play in sports teams and go to the swimming pool, and folks are going to work and getting ready for the weekend. And, in particular, I think it is important just to be absolutely clear here that some of the fears that were expressed throughout the week just don’t jibe with the facts.
He cited crime and immigration rates that have dropped during his presidency.
“Obviously there are going to be different visions about where we should go as a country,” he said. “But we're not going to make good decisions based on fears that don't have a basis in fact.”
To voters who agreed with him, Obama’s remarks probably made abundant sense. But to voters fearful about terrorism or the economy, his reference to chirping birds may have sounded like mockery.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine made a stab at the confounding nature of Trump’s approach during remarks on Saturday, when he was introduced as Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
“America was not built on fear,” he said, citing an old comment by President Harry Truman. “It was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”
At that same event, in Miami, Clinton herself walked into Trump’s territory.
“Together we are going to take on the challenges that are hurting Americans,” she said of the Democratic team.
For the general election, that will require a nuanced dance from Clinton.
She will have to use what facts she can assemble to persuade the persuadable that America is gaining ground. And at the same time, she will have to convince voters she is very mindful of the fears that have led some to Trump.