Road to the White House (2)

This page – which runs from Feb/March 2016 – catches up the most recent headline developments in the races for the Democratic and Republican nominations for President. For a more complete backstory, click on the site search for individual terms, i.e. Presidency – Trump – Clinton – Sanders – GOP – Bush – Democrats – (Days with the search term in the headline are displayed first).

The first page, with previous entries, is here.

I’m currently doing a weekly election podcast, with Lawrence Donegan, on You can listen or download them on iTunes here.

Most recent Overnight Note posts:

Trump still in race but doubts remain after bitter second debate

Trump defiant as campaign starts to unravel after lewd audio tape emerges

Wheels may be – finally – coming off Trump Train

Clinton polishes her presidential credentials in first debate

What have we learned? – Sept 11

National security forum muddies crucial issues

Trump doubles down on immigration

Trump heads to Mexico before immigration speech

‘Regretful’ Trump back on-message? – Manafort quits campaign

Ukraine link dogs Trump adviser

Crucial weekend for Troubled Trump campaign


Here are some of my most recent blog posts for FirstWord on the campaign:

Words Matter (first debate) – written September 27

Ad mix expands as race tightens – written September 6

Stand back… – written August 14

Historic convention turns on two First Ladies – written July 27

The Unconventional Convention – written July 20

Ohio Takes Centre Stage – written July 13

Can Love Trump Hate? – written June 21

It’s All Over Bar The Shouting – written May 23

Is The Trump Train really off the rails? – written April 13


March 17 

After the latest installment of primaries, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are again tightening their grip on the Democratic and Republican races for the nomination respectively.

But the New York Times writes that they may be winning votes, but hardly hearts.

Even as they watched the two candidates amass large margins on Tuesday, historians and strategists struggled to recall a time when more than half the country has held such stubbornly low opinions of the leading figures in the Democratic and Republican Parties.

“There is no analogous election in the modern era where the two top candidates for the nomination are as divisive and weak,” said Steve Schmidt, a top campaign adviser to George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. “There is no precedent for it.”

For home-town GOP candidates Marco Rubio and John Kasich, there were mixed fortunes. Rubio called it a day after losing Florida to Trump while Kasich’s victory in Ohio led to him saying he’d stay in the race until the convention in Cleveland in July.

His #NeverTrump presser a few days ago on Trump’s rhetoric was passionate, honest and too late..

Meanwhile it looks like the next scheduled Fox debate next Monday won’t happen after both Trump and Kasich said they wouldn’t take part.

March 12The whole world is watching.

Twenty Contests and Two FuneralsFirstWord March 12

If the race to the White House were a normal campaign, a column like this would quickly become a trend snapshot: who’s up, who’s down, who’s spending more, which ads and messages are working, which aren’t, writes Steve McGookin.

And a month would usually be a decent interval from which to be able to draw some reasonable conclusions about the overall direction.

But (and how many times recently have you read an article that begins “if this were a normal campaign…”) the simple fact is there’s almost too much material being produced between one point and the next.

Since last month’s column, there have been primaries or caucuses in another 20 states, multiple debates with dubious discourse, a couple of candidates have called it a day and there have been two high-profile political passings – Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and revered former First Lady Nancy Reagan – which will have an impact on both the tenor and substance of the argument.

Oh, and the Republican front-runner got into a spat with the Pope. Remember that?


You could be forgiven (excuse the metaphor) if it slipped your mind, since one of the emerging characteristics of this campaign is that nothing – even something that might traditionally have spelt the end for a candidate – has much of a shelf-life in the public consciousness anymore.

The first column in this series – way, way back eight very long weeks ago – explored how Donald Trump had turned traditional politicking on its head by relying mainly on free media. Now, it seems, we’ll get to see whether his unprecedented crusade can subvert another advertising truism – that negative ads work.

The Washington Post reports that when voting started at the beginning of February, only 9 per cent of TV ads were negative against Trump. By the first week of March, that had reached nearly half.

My colleague Adrian Michaels wrote recently how Trump was breaking the mould of conventional communications in that his lack of credibility doesn’t matter. And his continued performance at the polls suggests that nothing anyone says about him – for or against – matters much either.

In a profile of Trump’s unconventional media spokesperson Katrina Pierson, The Hill writes that: “While staffers for GOP candidates Ted Cruz and Scott Walker were fired for things they wrote on Twitter, there’s been no comparable trouble for Pierson. “It doesn’t seem like the Trump campaign is that concerned about what she says and how she says it, which is really rare,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Yet no one can claim the campaign’s message – however it’s defined – hasn’t been resonating, especially as the GOP establishment has ramped up its efforts against him in what the New York Times called a “desperate mission to stop Trump.”

Increasingly, there’s been big money behind attacks on behalf of the other candidates as those behind Conservative super PACs have been left wondering why their spending power appears so diminished.

A seven-figure ad buy on behalf of Marco Rubio, for example, led to ads like this one:

While another anti-Trump ad by a different PAC slammed him for hiring illegal workers:

Even something like this ad, which concentrates on his language, likely only served to reinforce the image his supporters have of him, which they frequently cite as a plus.

Eventually Mitt Romney, the defeated GOP candidate in 2012, was pushed into action, with a speech denouncing Trump and recording phone messages in support of his opponents.

Trump’s reaction?

No dynasty

But the embodiment of the futility so far of the anti-Trump forces has probably been the evaporation of the Jeb Bush campaign. After Trump took a risk during the South Carolina primary by attacking GOP orthodoxy – and the Bush family – in their well-worn post-9/11 narrative, Jeb’s campaign grew increasingly desperate, spending big to secure a firewall in a state where no Bush had ever lost.

But it was in vain, and an unfathomable and widely-ridiculed Tweet about his gun by the candidate didn’t help.

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian called it “a portrait of the American nightmare”, saying it “reveals that mainstream American politicians are giving up. They have no weapons to fight a politics so irrational it is a threat to civilisation. So let’s all laugh at this photograph. While we can.”

Overall, instances of people saying “You couldn’t make this up” have seemed to increase exponentially.

Wired magazine wrote a – very good – piece on the risks of “marginal media”: where what’s happening behind a candidate often takes over virally from their intended message.

It signed off thus:

Correction at 9:58am on 3/09/2016: Due to an oversight involving a haphazardly-installed Chrome extension during the editing process, the name Donald Trump was erroneously replaced with the phrase “Someone With Tiny
Hands” when this story originally published.

It sent Vox looking for other Trump-related extensions.

And remember the Cruz ad against Rubio that was pulled after 24 hours when it was discovered that one of the actresses in it was a porn star? Well, of course, she subsequently endorsed Trump.

Her quote about the new-found object of her affection pretty much says it all: “He’s the front-runner but he’s also kind of — especially in this last week or so become kind of an underdog.”

So we head into Florida and Ohio – the home states, and possibly the last stands, for two of the remaining four GOP candidates, Rubio and John Kasich – with Trump still striding ahead, but with the possibility of a brokered, or contested, convention in July still looming large.

In a memorable post-election victory speech in Michigan, Trump basically hosted a live infomercial, leading the National Review’s Rich Lowry to describe him as “the Billy Mays of the Republican Party”.

Trump has shown he is, indeed, a remarkable pitchman. And so far, like Mays, seems to be able to sell the American people pretty much anything.

But perhaps the most effective ad in the past few weeks, though, has been one not even from this campaign. ‘Confessions of a Republican,‘ alongside the classic ‘Daisy Girl’ commercial from the 1964 general campaign, helped LBJ define the “extremism” of Barry Goldwater.

Could something similar have the same effect now?

FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one is easily the most fascinating yet. He’ll be writing here regularly about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies until election day in November.

March 9Trump set for – yet – another big night.

March 2Trump and Clinton tighten their grip.

Ad bonanza as campaign gets down and dirtyFirstWord Feb 12

The first nominating contests are in the books. After months of talk, actual voters have cast the first actual votes. The bad news for the GOP is that the so-called “establishment” is 0-for-2.

We’ve had an angry row between two candidates over some campaign dirty tricks (and a subsequent allegation that the winner “stole” the election), a couple of interesting endorsements and a particularly damaging debate performance.

The fields on both sides have been winnowed a little and we’ve learned a bit more about how some of the candidates that are left might perform from here on out. And the answer is, really, no one knows. With five months until the party conventions, literally anything could still happen.

When it comes to getting their various messages out, though, the reassuring sound of money is coming through loud and clear.

More than $70million was spent on ads in Iowa while as New Hampshire – more than usual this time around – found itself a make-or-break contest, it was, simply, swamped.

North of $100million – more than 50 times, yes, five-oh times, the amount from four years ago – was spent by candidates and PACs on broadcast and cable TV ads in the run-up to the Feb 9 contest. The bulk of that was spent of behalf of Republicans seeking to differentiate themselves and gain the all-important momentum that can translate into fundraising and on-the-ground support heading into the next round of crucial primaries.

The tight grouping tucked in behind Donald Trump – the “still alive five” – showed that didn’t happen, but one candidate who has definitely benefited ahead of his home state primary on March 15 was second-place finisher Ohio Gov John Kasich.

And he built his position through a combination of an ad blitz and old-fashioned retail politics. Kasich glad-handed his way through more than 100 town hall meetings across the state, while according to, “since mid-November, an ad mentioning Kasich… has aired an average of 18 times a day in the television market including the Granite State.”

His New Day for America Super PAC, meanwhile, effectively targeted his direct second-tier rivals, such as New Jersey Gov Chris Christie. Who Kasich chooses as his next target could be crucial.

Christie himself, despite being endorsed by the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, finished sixth and subsequently suspended his campaign, saying attack ads and the large Republican field had been partly to blame for his performance.

Before his exit, though, Christie might well have left a significant, lasting impact on the race, as his sustained hits – some called it a “suicide attack” – on Marco Rubio during the final GOP debate before polling day might prove hard for the Florida Senator to shake off in weeks to come.


So now we head to South Carolina, where Republicans vote on Feb 20th and Democrats a week later (somewhat confusingly, the Democrats vote in Nevada on Feb 20th).

And if that’s not all too much to take in, there might even be a late, independent entrant into the race.

GOP heads for bare-knuckle brawl in Palmetto State

Bush has never lost a primary in South Carolina and Jeb is already “carpet-bombing” the state with ads. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has two new spots attacking Rubio and Trump.

Trump had already returned the favor. (Cruz’s anti-Rubio ad, incidentally, was pulled after 24 hours when it turned out one of the actresses was a porn star.)

So get ready for a bare-knuckle bruiser in the Palmetto State. Local paper the Charleston Post and Courier has an interactive encouraging readers to report instances of political dirty tricks. Our guess is it’ll be pretty busy.

For now, though, the mainstream media’s fascination with Trump – fresh from settling his lawsuit against Univision and leading in the SC polls – shows no sign of abating; nor does the extent to which he pushes the envelope.

His recent response when a supporter shouted an insult about Ted Cruz had some running to see if George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television” still stood.

Funny or Die produced a mini-movie starring Johnny Depp as Trump, based on the mogul’s book The Art of the Deal (or the “Art of the Dill” as Trump backer Sarah Palin may have called it).

Joking aside, though, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow put it on the night of the New Hampshire result – recalling that in 1996 Pat Buchanan also carried the state but was then heavily defeated by eventual GOP nominee Bob Dole – Trump’s win could either be a similar high water mark, or it could represent the “ascent of a kind of nativism” in the Republican party.

“If Donald Trump is starting here to become a Republican nominee,” Maddow said, “we’re a different type of country in terms of what our major parties stand for and, I think, we’re a different kind of country in terms of where the mainstream and the fringe find their medium.”

The coming few weeks should give us a much clearer picture of which road we’re taking.