Mark Curtis's blog

“The Sunday Political Brunch” -- January 1, 2017

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(Charleston, West Virginia) – Happy New Year! As of today, I begin my fortieth year in mass media, much of that time spent covering politics at the local, state, and national levels. The year 2016 was like no other. One of the main reasons it was so fascinating is because so many people in the mass media business got it all wrong. Why did that happen? Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Bush League” – One of the first clues that this was going to be an “outside-of-the-box” year politically was what happened to former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL). He was the legacy candidate with name recognition, a solid resume, the most money, and the biggest organization. And there was the potential of a “Bush v. Clinton” rematch to atone for 1992. This race had it all. Yet, after South Carolina (only the third primary or caucus in the country), Bush was done. But the press missed the big story here and in the Clinton campaign, too) This wasn’t just a rejection of Jeb Bush; it was a repudiation of legacy and insider politics - a repudiation the likes of which we’ve never before seen in the United States.

“Trump ‘Trumps’ Publicity”—For all of its flailing at Donald Trump, the media was more like a high-wind, fanning the flames of a forest fire! Remember, even before the primaries began, Trump was getting a grossly disproportionate share of the publicity. There were 17 Republican candidates, but he was siphoning all the oxygen out of the room. This trend started from the day he announced, and continued through the debates and primaries and even through the general election. In many ways, the mass media was Trump's enabler, and he was more than happy to give them material. It turns out that was gold.

“Just Win, Baby!” – When coaches would ask the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis for advice, he would simply say, “Just win, baby!” That seems simplistic, but there is an old saying that winning is the best deodorant. Despite whatever flaws one might have, continuous winning gives a sense or momentum and inevitability. Trump was a strong second in Iowa; he won New Hampshire; and, then he won South Carolina. He then took eight of the next twelve contests, through Super Tuesday. And regardless of whatever he said - however provocative and outrageous - he kept winning. Trends matter; and - by and large, the media missed it. Many reporters and analysts I know firmly believed Trump would eventually trip and fall. (I thought the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes in October would be that moment, but I was wrong, too.)

“Record Debate Audiences; Record Turnouts” -- Another trend that should have received more coverage early on was crowd size. Trump was attracting huge crowds, including 40,000 people in Mobile, Alabama. Democratic upstart Bernie Sanders was also attracting huge crowds of 30,000 in Wisconsin and Oregon. Hillary Clinton’s crowds were far smaller, and considerably less passionate. I noticed this very same phenomenon in 2008, when she ran against Barack Obama: Her crowds were starkly smaller and less excited. I wasn’t the only one in the press pool who noticed this; yet it got scant coverage. But all through the 2016 primary season, there were two crucial phenomena at work: record debate viewership and ratings; and record turnout in almost every state primary or caucus. Trump was attracting millions who were disengaged from the political process. These were clues that Trump could really win; yet few saw it coming.

“The Bernie Factor” -- I have long mentioned what I deem the similarities in the appeal of Trump, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). While they are bookends of the political spectrum, they represented a lot of the same rebel, outsider, speak-from-the heart appeal. They worked without scripts or the safety net of a teleprompter. People in both parties (and many independents) found it engaging and refreshing. A lot of people - including friends in the national media - thought I was nuts when I kept calling Trump and Sanders “two sides of the same coin.” Sanders nearly beat Clinton for the Democratic nomination; and if many national pundits had agreed with me, they would have seen the possible Trump path to the White House. Back in February, 2016, I kept saying in interviews, “Trump could win this whole thing,” but a lot of people I told did not take me seriously.

“The ‘Trump Titanic’” – Trump can be his own worst enemy. Often what he says or tweets generates negative headlines. First, it was the wall on the Mexican border; then it was the total ban on Muslim entry into the U.S.; and, then it was his on-air spat with Megyn Kelly about Rosie O’Donnell, in the first Fox News debate. Every time these controversies happened, the prediction was that Trump would plummet in the polls and he would implode. But seemingly he defied gravity, and his poll numbers often increased. He was the Titanic that kept hitting the iceberg, yet never sank!

“My Analysis” – When I talk about the lessons the news media needs to learn from this election, I certainly include myself. As you may recall, I predicted Hillary Clinton would win the Electoral College, 272 to 266 over Donald Trump (a one-state margin). I correctly picked 47 of 51 states and the District of Columbia. I was only wrong about Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin (the last three of which decided the race for Trump). As a native of Wisconsin - and someone who still has a lot of family and friends there - I should have been more accurately in tune with the public mood. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, a lot of media mistakes are due to not listening to “people on the ground” about what matters most in their lives.

Where do you think the press went off the rails? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

© 2016, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

Photo courtesy: shybox.com

“The Sunday Political Brunch” -- December 25, 2016

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(Fort Lauderdale, Florida) – Merry Christmas, everyone! This Christmas I was thinking about what gifts we need to give to political folk after this crazy election season. I’m playing Santa Claus this year, so let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Trump’s Tinsel” – For Donald Trump, we wish the gift of humility. He’s going to be President, so maybe he can temper some of his supreme confidence (that some think is pure arrogance). Trump would be wise to know where his expertise lies (business and economics) and where his weaknesses are (military and foreign affairs). Saying he does not need the daily intelligence briefings is reckless and cavalier. Those generals and admirals will prove invaluable to him, so he needs to listen to them.

“Clinton’s Advent” – If Hillary Clinton is to have one more shot at the White House, she needs two things: an ineffective Trump, and her own good health. I don’t wish any President to fail - since if the leader fails, the nation falters – so we wish Mrs. Clinton good health should she wish to take another shot in 2020. This is not an endorsement, but rather an acknowledgment that I think she has one more chance, if the stars align. Still, convincing her own party to give her that chance will be tough.

“National Press Corps” – For my brethren in the press corps, I send the gift of free airline tickets anywhere outside of the beltway, just not on the campaign plane or bus. The problem with the traveling press corps (and I have many friends in it) is that they are kept inside the campaign bubble. Yes, they go to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; but when the campaign stop is over they are back on the plane and gone. They rarely – if ever – get to speak with ordinary people and small business owners in American cities and towns. This is the main reason why so many pundits got this election wrong and never took Trump seriously. Go talk to average folks of all creeds and colors, and you’ll get the pulse of the nation!

“Biden’s Bidding” – Ditto from the Hillary Clinton gifts above. I am certain that Biden now wishes he had run in 2016. He has hinted he may run in 2020; but - as in the case of Clinton - he needs a Trump flop and for his own health to hold. Again, we wish Vice President Biden good health should he have the “fire-in-the-belly” to run one more time.

“Alec’s Antics” – For actor Alec Baldwin, we wish a four-year supply of hair spray. His Saturday Night Live impersonation of Donald Trump is a riot. (The woman who does Hillary Clinton is good, too, though I suspect that character will fade. Larry David as Bernie Sanders was the best of all.) I know Trump doesn’t like how Baldwin mimics him, but I hope the President-elect develops a better since of humor about it. Former President George H.W. Bush at first did not like impersonation that comedian Dana Carvey did of him, but later invited Carvey to the Bush White House to entertain the First Family. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

“Speaker’s Spoken” – For House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), we wish the Green Bay Packers will give him a football helmet. He’ll need it! Ryan is in a tough spot. He will be under pressure to run Trump’s agenda through the House, where a lot of Republican members owe Trump no favors (unlike the Senate, where GOP control was sustained by Trump’s coattails). Trump and Ryan have had a stormy relationship, although last week in Wisconsin at his thank-you rally with Ryan, Trump said of Ryan: “He’s like a fine wine. Every day I appreciate his genius more and more.” We’ll see.

“You Can’t Get There from Here” – For the Democratic Party, your gift is a Rand McNally Atlas, or maybe the more modern MapQuest, or Google Maps. The Democrats didn’t have a math problem this year (as they won the popular vote); but rather they had a map problem, because not enough of those votes were in the right places to win the Electoral College. It was almost assumed the Democrats would win Wisconsin and Michigan, so the Clinton-Caine campaign spent relatively little time there when compared to Trump-Pence. Speaking of which, Trump’s pick of a “rust belt” governor in Pence now looks brilliant, because he’s a guy that knows why voters in his region are so upset about the economy

“Kumbaya” – For the Republican Party, we send the gift of sheet music for the song “Kumbaya,” as they may need it. In 1976 and 1992, Democrats sent a new President to Washington to join a House and Senate where they already held strong majorities. In both cases, it was a disaster. Intraparty fighting over things such as foreign affairs and health care reform spelled disaster. Democrats formed a circular firing squad and mortally wounded their own party. In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter and also swept control of the Senate. In 1994, the GOP took control of both the House and Senate for the first time in forty years. Republicans may be gloating now, but if the White House and Congress don’t get along, watch out!

“Wishes for Success” – To both parties and especially to the new President and the new leaders in Congress, I send a sincere wish for success. The public is in a foul mood. People want their borders fixed, with organized and legal immigration. Voters want the economy to improve – and not just for those at the very top. In recent years, I’ve lived in two economically- depressed states: Rhode Island and West Virginia. Both have great colleges and universities, but few jobs. The most common complaint I hear from parents is that “Our biggest state export is our kids!” One is a solidly blue state, the other now rock-rib red. Let’s hope our lawmakers will work together to help all economically-depressed areas – such as Rhode Island, West Virginia, and others – prosper again.

What gifts would you give politicians this year? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

© 2016, Mark Curtis Media, LLC

Photo courtesy: istockphotos.com

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