In 2012, the Obama campaign had a clear strategy: quickly define Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire, a vulture capitalist who didn't understand or care about the struggles of everyday Americans. Utilizing pointed ads early in the race, Obama's team created an image of Romney that he never quite shook, and indeed made worse when he affirmed it in the famous “47 percent” video.
This was smart politics. Ads early in the race are more effective because the audience is more malleable; they've yet to form a permanent picture of the candidates in their minds. As a race drags on and voters are exposed to more media coverage, the ability of campaigns to influence perceptions decreases. The Obama campaign understood this and took advantage of it. “We defined the race and Governor Romney before the conventions, and he was digging out of that hole for the remaining months,” said David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist and media adviser for Obama.
There are rumblings that Hillary Clinton's campaign is looking to borrow Obama's playbook against Donald Trump. Byron York writes in The Washington Examiner: “Now, there's talk in the political world that Hillary Clinton and Democratic strategists are trying to do the same thing to Donald Trump – to define him, and the race, before the conventions and put him in a hole he can't dig out of. Democrats are running millions of dollars in ads portraying Trump as dangerously unfit for the office of president.”
A Politico report this week confirms that this is indeed what Clinton is hoping to do. “Just hours after the voters were cast in the final Democratic primary,” Gabriel Debenedetti writes, “the Clinton cam pain started reserving advertising blocks in eight battleground states on Wednesday, marking the presumptive Democratic nominee's first significant attempt to define Donald Trump.”
And of course Clinton is already pounding her Trump-isn't-fit-for-office narrative on the campaign trail. In her first major general election speech two weeks ago, the message was unmistakable:
“Donald Trump's ideas aren't just different, they are dangerously incoherent. They aren't even ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies...This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes, because it's not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because someone got under his very thin skin.”
So, is this a wise strategy? It certainly can't hurt. There's virtually no downside to unleashing a torrent of ads early in the campaign. The truth, however, is that it may not even be necessary. Trump is so far beyond what anyone would consider a normal candidate, allowing him to define himself is nearly as effective.
In the last three weeks alone, Trump has alienated the country and his party by attacking a Mexican-American judge and insinuating that President Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate who may or may not have been complicit in the Orlando massacre. And even if we set aside the racism and the ethno-nationalism, Trump's ignorance of the relevant issues is so glaring, so cartoonish, that a general electorate can't help but regard him as a dangerous buffoon. After a year of campaigning, Trump has yet to string together two or three coherent sentences on any topic of practical import. There's no indication that he knows – or is interested in knowing – what he has to know in order to be president. And he appears to be proud of this fact.
A candidate this horrendous doesn't need an external party to define him as “temperamentally unfit.” Trump is managing that on his own, and the recent polling numbers suggest the broader public has noticed. Again, Clinton has nothing to lose by helping Trump self-destruct, but there's no reason to panic either way. Romney was a legitimate threat and a serious candidate. Trump is an embarrassment. The best thing to do at this point is to encourage him to keep talking.