One savvy political marketer’s take on what happened in the election

Michael Bassik, EVP & MD at MDC Partners

Michael Bassik has a unique take on what happened with the 2016 presidential campaign that brought Trump a win. He was a student political organizer in college then went into political advertising for several candidates, so when he says that Hillary Clinton lost because she didn’t advocate for change, those in charge of upcoming campaigns might want to listen.

“If you look at the campaigns that have been successful over the past few decades, they have run of the people on a platform of change. Clinton on the path to building a bridge to the 21st century; Bush on restoring moral values to the White House; Obama: hope and change; Trump: drain the swamp."

Bassik continued: "These are men of the people who said, ‘I will go and change everything you know about the way we govern.’ You compare that to the individuals who lost, individuals like Romney and Kerry, and now Hillary who ran on experience, who ran on a stable hand. Gore ran on experience, a stable hand. You could argue that this is of the people versus the elites, but you could also argue that it's stability versus risk."

A political background with marketing savvy

Bassik, the president of global digital operations, managing director at MDC Partners, came from a political background, having run Penn for Gore and Students for Gore in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, then interning at the Clinton White House. As an intern at American Online, during the election cycle of 2000, Bassik discovered his love for politics and technology, so he decided that he wanted to sell political candidates advertising on the internet, a new concept before candidates had websites and sent emails.

He caught the eye of AOL and spent three years after graduation with the company running its political advertising division.

“We pioneered many of the technologies that are being used today, especially the concept of voter file targeting on the internet and big data targeting,” he said. “We were sort of big data in politics before either of those things were on the radar.”

Bassik moved to DC after AOL, starting a political consulting firm. He ran advertising for John Kerry’s presidential campaign and Hillary’s first presidential campaign, among others before pivoting away from politics towards public affairs, then corporate communications. In 2011 he saw big data as an opportunity and founded a company called DSPolitical, like a DSP for politics as he called it, now the largest data-driven political advertising firm on the left. Prior to joining MDC, Bassik ran the digital business of PR firm Burson-Marsteller.

So what happened this election?

Bassik sees the election through the eyes of marketing and communications, and from that perspective he saw that this was the second time that Hillary Clinton misread the mood and mindset of the electorate. He saw it in the difficulties she faced in the primary and the general election. The fact that she ran on experience rather than change hurt her.

“We see time and time again that when things get comfortable, the electorate often times wants to shake it up after a period of relative comfort. I don't want to make it about the electorate sort of getting bored and saying, ‘Let's take a risk.’ I think that what you can actually see is the candidates who have been successful in modern history are those who ran for the people, with the people, on a message of change versus running as themselves, as the establishment, on a platform of experience,” he said.

He added that politics is a zero sum game, where the person who won on election day did everything right and the one who lost did everything wrong. At least that’s the perception. One other perception is that paid media in politics is recession-proof, that it will always be important. Trump’s light use of paid media versus his social and earned media policy was smart.

“What Trump did is what we often counsel our clients to do, which is to think of media not just in terms of paid media, but to think of it in terms of paid media, own media, and shared media. In this instance, Trump brilliantly leveraged his ability to generate earned media, so much so that for every mention of Hillary, Trump had two or more mentions,” said Bassik.

“That he was able to use the media through his use of social media, through his often outlandish statements, to own the narrative and to control the message, no matter how crazy it may have seemed what he said, the media would cover it incessantly.”

Bassik said we knew exactly where Trump came from this election – his distrust of the media, his charge to build a wall, his cries for change – whereas we never grasped what Hillary really stood for or what she wanted to do. Trump’s skillful use of media to deliver his message helped galvanize his followers. Clinton’s message was more controlled and she stuck to her script while unconventional candidate Trump said whatever popped into his head.

“In the end I think voters voted for who they trusted would actually be able to execute the vision that they laid out. Would it be the guy who in the end you believed he was going to change things or would you be voting for the person that you thought was going to be scripted and steady and stable? That didn't resonate with people who felt as though Washington has betrayed them, that immigrants are coming for their jobs, that the global economy has left America behind, and that feels as though we have ceded power in the world to other superpowers,” Bassik added.

Who gets the credit?

Bassik said there will clearly be a lot of second guessing as to what happened for those on the left. For the winning side, he said it’s difficult to figure out who to hand the credit to, rather that it was a series of events, from Trump’s relentless attacks, to the FBI examining Hillary’s emails, to Trump letting things play out near the end of the campaign, to the backstage workings of Kellyanne Conway and the campaign.

Seeing that Clinton won the popular vote will make things more difficult for the Democrats as they look to what went wrong.

“Ultimately it comes down to, as it does in so many election years, does the nominee have coattails? In this case it's hard to place all the blame with Hillary, but it certainly would seem as though the lack of support for her translated down the ballot in many tight Senate and House races as well. That indicated that people wanted significant change in Washington and they did not want to continue to support an establishment class in Washington DC,” said Bassik.

Coming from a political veteran like that, the Democrats might want to change their marketing tactics when the next election season comes around. Since the results, the Canadian immigration website has since crashed.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.