Tearing up the campaign handbook, Trump-style

Just when you thought the 2016 US presidential election campaign couldn't get any weirder, Donald Trump fired off three tweets in the middle of the night urging voters to check out a sex tape allegedly featuring a former Miss Universe. His night-time Twitter spree was true to form.

The Donald took to Twiiter at 3am following the debate against Hilary Clinton to berate a former Miss Universe (Pic credit: AUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
The Donald took to Twiiter at 3am following the debate against Hilary Clinton to berate a former Miss Universe (Pic credit: AUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
The Wall Street Journal’s analysis of the presidential nominees’ social media activity showed that Trump has a dubious monopoly over late-night tweeting. 

This behaviour again focused attention on the unorthodox election strategy the Republican nominee has taken throughout his candidacy. 

One former speechwriter at the White House told me he had torn up the campaign handbook and broken every rule and yet he was only half a point behind (at the time) in the polls. 

The post-debate Miss Universe episode embodies a critical question from Trump’s candidacy that campaigning strategists and communications professionals need to answer. 

Despite himself, a much-maligned ground game and inferior campaign finances, he is pushing the Democratic party, with its rich recent tradition in campaigning and technological innovation, to the wire. 

How is he still competitive? Does he know something we don’t?

Hillary Clinton is described by many as a highly beatable candidate: the unpopular establishment choice in a climate of change. 

One journalist, formerly of the White House press corps, observed that, with her negatives, any normal Republican campaign would be home and dry. 

But since the Republican primaries, all bets are off. 

A volunteer for establishment Republican candidate Marco Rubio’s primary campaign told me they could not compete with Trump for TV coverage so they tried to do something outrageous to grab the limelight.

It backfired because voters didn’t accept that Rubio could act like a clown, while Trump got away with the same tactics.

The volunteer conceded that the presidential election is not the same game. 

But his point reveals something about consistency in brand and message that extends beyond politics.

Trump alone is the chaos candidate – unlike other candidates, voters expect (and some demand) him to cause controversy and outrage. 

For so many reasons, the prospect of Hillary directing voters to a sex tape is unimaginable.

Trump’s campaign, a headline production line, has gained unprecedented airtime: unedited rallies at peak times and frequent Fox News phone-ins are two examples of the controversial candidate gaining billions of dollars-worth of free coverage. 

Whilst his approach might make for good television, it doesn’t necessarily make a president. 

He was late to engage strategic experts in any methodical way, and he dismisses campaign chiefs as if they were football managers. 

His core supporters chime that his scattergun approach has an air of authenticity. 

Far from being a positive, his perpetual rashness undermines any co-ordinated effort to consistently build momentum with swing voters.

Despite one candidate tearing up the campaign manual, the textbook nominee looks set to win and, if she doesn’t, perceived election wisdom will have been confounded. 

Even if Clinton does return to the White House, tomorrow’s campaign strategists will ask veterans of 2016 with consternation: how did that man push her so close?

Jack Barber is an Oxford graduate reporting on the US presidential campaign from Washington DC and the inaugural winner of Hanover Communications’ Mackay Award 

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