In summary

Robin Swanson, Democratic strategist: Unless the Democratic nominee and Democratic Party find a candidate who connects with voters on an emotional level and creates a brand that sticks, we’re looking at another four years of a president who has mastered the con like no other.

By Robin Swanson, Special to CalMatters

Robin Swanson is a Democratic strategist based in Sacramento at Swanson Communications, robin@swansoncomm.net. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Every day for the past two weeks, I have walked by the mail-in ballot sitting atop the to-do pile on my desk. As a political consultant who works on campaigns for a living, I don’t usually have a lot of unanswered questions when it comes time to vote, and I don’t feel like I need more information this time to make a decision, either. 

But I did hesitate much longer than usual to send in my ballot. According to the widely respected Political Data Inc., I wasn’t alone in waiting to cast my ballot. Only 20% of mail-in ballots were returned as of Saturday. 

I realized that the problem I was having was no different than any other Democratic voter this cycle: we want to beat Donald Trump so badly that we are gaming the odds on what candidate is best equipped to win in November.

But the problem is that if we actually encourage primary voters to vote that way, with their heads and not their hearts, we will lose the presidency to a reality show con-man. Again.

That’s because Donald Trump is really good at two things: seizing on voter’s emotions (mostly the angry kind), and branding. And while I don’t think Democrats should emulate his vitriolic framework, I do think the winning candidate will focus less on making a case of why she or he is electable and more on making an emotional connection with voters.

Though Democrats boast an impressive array of candidates that run the ideological spectrum, it’s both a blessing and a curse to be a “big tent” party.  

The fact that we’ve presented voters with a Baskin Robbins-sized choice of flavors (29 declared initially) hasn’t provided our base with the clarity and enthusiasm we need to win an election. Of those candidates, 23 have participated in at least one debate, with 11 debates on the schedule through March.

And with those debates, for interested observers, there’s very little mystery left about any of these candidates, even with newer entrants to the race. 

But because voters have spent countless hours watching debates that sometimes devolved into food-fights about whose campaign funds are the most pure, and who spent time in “wine caves” with whom, we’ve wasted precious time to actually connect with voters on an emotional level. With so much chaos, we also haven’t developed our brand.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is impulsively, reactively and instinctively driven by emotion, tweet by screed-inducing tweet. And he brings people on that journey with him. 

In fact, he has been running the same con for decades: making a spectacle of firing people on national television, parading women around in swimsuits to compete for a cheap crown and sash, and flaunting opulence as a lifestyle brand before the internet and self-promoting brand ambassadors ever existed.

He seasoned this craft over decades and knows how to incite a crowd to violence or reinvent a crowd size when it doesn’t fit his imagined narrative.

Though he deserves some credit for being able to fake it till you make it, ultimately it’s his expert ability to manipulate people’s emotions that wins the day for him.

We also don’t have to look too far in the recent past to find Democrats more palatable examples of candidates who mastered branding and connecting with voters on an emotional level: take a quick look back to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.  

From Obama’s “hopey-changey thing” to Clinton’s ability to “feel your pain,” it’s clear why those two men rose to our nation’s highest office.

So as Super Tuesday approaches, we could sit here and analyze polls, and who has the momentum out of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. 

But unless our nominee and the Democratic Party find a candidate who connects with voters on an emotional level and creates a brand that sticks, we’re looking at another four years of a president who has mastered the con like no other.

So I mailed my ballot today. And I voted with my heart.

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Robin Swanson is a Democratic strategist based in Sacramento at Swanson Communications, robin@swansoncomm.net. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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