Presidential candidates have long found ways to take their messages directly to the voters, by avoiding the filter of press coverage. But today, candidates have gone steps further, turning themselves into direct competitors with the media that cover them and creating an increasingly bitter conflict between the press and politicians.
The competition also explains why voters are suddenly seeing so many new approaches to political communications—approaches that can make politics feel both more democratic, and more chaotic. We are watching the end of one kind of political campaigning and the rise of a new “post-rhetorical” era. To understand what “post-rhetorical” means, and why campaigning now feels so different than even a decade ago, one has to look at the past, when the press and presidential campaigns weren’t at odds. In fact, they once cooperated for the mutually beneficial purpose of making news.
Presidential candidates used to campaign via retail politics, such as meeting voters face to face in diners or speaking to voters at train stops or other events, while the press gave print space and airtime to candidates, amplifying the rhetoric and messages of campaigns while also filtering political news for the public. Since candidates needed to use the press to connect with voters that they couldn’t meet in person, they gave the press access and information. In return, the press had campaign news to sell to advertisers and enjoyed the prestige of “winnowing” candidates—separating the legitimate candidates from the also-rans. Press and politicians—particularly winning politicians—cooperated with each other, and were mutually dependent.
Scholars call presidents communicating to the people via the press the “rhetorical presidency” model because presidents use rhetorical practice (communication) as a tool for governing. The era of the “rhetorical presidency” started first when Teddy Roosevelt wanted to get the public interested in his ideas and agenda. In 1898 he invited reporters to cover his “Rough Riders” as they prepared for battle in the Spanish-American War. By providing the press with a good story, Roosevelt also got their cooperation to get out his ideas about why he thought that the war was necessary. The press covered Roosevelt as a hero, preparing for battle. Once he was president, Roosevelt then used the press to “go over the heads of Congress” by using the press to speak directly to the people, hoping that voters would pressure Congress to enact his agenda. The press facilitated Roosevelt’s message distribution and Roosevelt found that he had a “bully pulpit” from which he could set the nation’s agenda. The rhetorical presidency—communicating with the public via the press—increased the power of the presidency itself, and in its time it was revolutionary. It helped to elevate the Executive Branch over Congress, establishing what scholars call a “second Constitution.”
The rhetorical presidency model worked for presidential campaigning too. Woodrow Wilson took advantage of the latest media technology in 1908 by recording his campaign speeches on phonographic records. Presidential candidates since Wilson have taken advantage of each new technology—radio, television, cable, internet—with the winner typically being the one who best took advantage of the new ways to communicate. The opposite was also true: presidential candidates who failed to understand how new communication technologies could work against their campaigns have tended to fail in their bids for the presidency. When JFK and Nixon debated on TV in 1960, Nixon’s failure to understand how TV would magnify non-verbal messages sank his campaign. Likewise, in the Bush-Kerry campaign of 2004, Kerry’s failure to understand the power of political blogs resulted in Kerry being “swift-boated.”
We’re no longer in the era of the “rhetorical presidency.” Cooperation between the press and presidents began to fray after Watergate, and was hastened along by the invention of cable news, the rise in “horse-race” reporting, and the fracturing of media. By 1988, the average presidential campaign soundbite had shrunk from 43 seconds to 9 seconds. Presidential candidates found that the press was filtering their messages more than they were facilitating them and they sought new ways to communicate with the public.
In our century, presidents, starting with George W. Bush, sought to cut the media out of the communication process, which laid the foundation for the “post-rhetorical” era. New communication technologies meant that candidates could make their own media networks and communicate their messages directly to the public.
Barack Obama was the first to perfect post-rhetorical campaigning. His 2008 run was the first to take advantage of newly available communication technology to communicate with supporters directly via text message, apps, email lists, and social media. As Obama campaign chief communications officer Anita Dunn explained after the election, the campaign sought whenever possible to “communicate around the filter.” The campaign announced important decisions like selecting Joe Biden as Obama’s running mate, rejecting public financing, and picking the location for Obama’s 2008 DNC acceptance address directly to supporters via email and text message. The press found out the news when everyone else did, which meant that they no longer had a monopoly over what was “news.” Never again would the press have the sole power to filter, amplify, and winnow presidential candidates.
Political campaigning since 2008 has operated within the logics of the “post-rhetorical presidency”—presidential campaigns compete rather than cooperate with news organizations. While candidate Hillary Clinton was known for being suspicious of the press, carefully controlling her campaign messages, Donald Trump attacked the press directly. During his 2016 presidential campaign and since he has threatened the press, called them “lying scum,” his re-election campaign has sued them, withheld information from them, prevented them from covering his events, stopped holding press briefings, and lied to them almost constantly. In so doing Trump has tried to take the agenda-setting power away from the press. All of this is the opposite of the kind of cooperation required by the “rhetorical presidency” model. As journalism professor Jay Rosen noted, Trump has tried to “break the press.”
Trump was able to break the press because political campaigns work on the same metrics as everything else in the attention economy: engagement. Trump’s campaign and presidential communication strategy was to use post-rhetorical messages—what he calls his “modern day presidential” communication style—to speak directly to supporters to keep them engaged. This enables Trump to set the nation’s agenda and frame reality. The post-rhetorical presidency model is asymmetrical, with power resting with the most engaging candidates. The press has been reduced to amplifying the news that Trump makes on his own vast direct communication network. Because Trump attracted so much attention, media companies were powerless to withhold news coverage. In fact, they did the opposite: During the 2016 campaign, the media gave Trump the equivalent of $5.9 billion in free airtime.
In 2020 we can clearly see that we’re in the post-rhetorical era of campaigning, and we can see new norms for this strategy taking shape. The post-rhetorical campaign model is a combination of retail face-to-face politics and direct communication with supporters. Campaigns are still using traditional media for amplification, but they are trying to mitigate the media’s ability to “winnow” and “filter” as much as possible.
So far, we’ve seen three different post-rhetorical models in 2020 and one candidate who is still using the “rhetorical presidency” model.
First, Trump and Sanders are both using what we can think of as the post-rhetorical “extreme energy” strategy. This strategy requires campaigns to have the ability to speak directly to supporters—called “vertical” communication—and counts on supporters to be energized to spread the campaign’s messages to other voters—a form of “horizontal” communication.
Since 2016, both Trump and Sanders have taken advantage of the horizontal energy of their supporters to drive their messages. The campaigns have amplified messages from supporters and then relied on outrage for those messages to go viral. This strategy makes sense because both Trump’s and Sanders’ campaigns are “outsider” populist campaigns that infiltrated a major political party, attempting to remake it in the candidate’s image. An outsider campaign like that requires an energetic horizontal and vertical strategy to be viable.
Campaigns take risks with this strategy because it is difficult to control the horizontal messages that circulate on your campaign’s behalf. For example, some Sanders supporters have used hostile, swarming techniques to attack supporters of other Democratic candidates online, which could hurt the Sanders campaign when it needs to attract those supporters for the general election. While some Democrats have asked Sanders to discipline his supporters, Republicans have not sought to hold Trump accountable the behavior of his fans, rejecting standards as mere “political correctness.”
For voters, the risk of such “extreme energy” horizontal communication is that it’s hard to know whether it is authentic. One wealthy benefactor supported some of Trump’s 2016 campaign’s horizontal “meme magic,” and the Mueller investigation found evidence that internet personas funded by Russia supported both Trump and Sanders’ campaigns in 2016, with U.S. intelligence officials now warning that Russian trolls are active on behalf of both of their campaigns again in 2020.
By contrast, Elizabeth Warren used what we can think of as a post-rhetorical strategy of “connection.” Unlike Trump and Sanders’ campaigns, Warren’s campaign was not based in outrage. Instead, Warren’s campaign sought to use a positive message to go around the news filter through a horizontal “selfie” campaign. Warren spent hours talking with voters and taking photos with them after her speaking events, which allowed her to hear directly from voters and connect with them about their concerns. Voters then posted their selfie photos online, which spread Warren’s messages horizontally. Warren’s campaign strategy was deliberately joyful and relied upon connection and engagement. It sought to gain attention and engagement through the authentic joy people felt about spreading her message through posting selfies.
The risk of this strategy for the campaign became obvious when voting started. While voters may have liked Warren, connection was not a sufficient motivation to show up to the polls and vote for her. Extensive research shows that a negative emotion like outrage can motivate voters, but it’s less clear if a positive emotion like connection can. That being said, Warren used the attention gained through her horizontal strategy to effectively fundraise and spread her detailed policy proposals. In this way, the horizontal campaign supported and complemented her vertical campaign—as well as her overall campaign message. In hindsight, her campaign strategy may enable future campaigns to get the press to focus more on policy ideas rather than merely on personality or the horserace.
The third post-rhetorical model we’ve seen might be called the “Billionaire” strategy, used by Mike Bloomberg, and to a lesser extent Tom Steyer. Bloomberg paid for a vertical, top-down campaign. The former New York City mayor went around the news filter by purchasing nearly a half a billion dollars in paid advertising, hoping to connect with voters through abundant message saturation. Typical of an outsider negative campaign, Bloomberg’s ads featured lots of attack ads on the incumbent. The horizontal element of Bloomberg’s campaign was also paid for—the campaign created scripts for paid campaign workers (“deputy digital organizers”) to use with their social networks. In addition the campaign paid for the creation of viral meme messages that winked at the fact that they were paid for.
One problem for the Bloomberg campaign was that a paid-horizontal strategy did not read as authentic. Another problem was that it’s difficult to control so many paid campaign workers or to check on their “work” due to the private nature of their networks. Reports emerged of Bloomberg’s paid-horizontal memers negating the campaign-provided vertical messaging by instructing their friends to vote for other candidates after they shared Bloomberg’s paid message. For the electorate, the obvious and serious concern about the “billionaire” strategy is whether a wealthy person should be allowed to buy a position of political power, which would strike at the very heart of the American democratic process.
The exception to these post-rhetorical campaign models may be former Vice President Joe Biden, who has continued to use the rhetorical presidency model, combining retail politics with earned media coverage and endorsements from high-profile supporters. In his comeback surge in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, he seemed to rely on the backing of other politicians, from U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn to U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had endorsed him. Biden’s surprise success on Super Tuesday may have been a result of voters’ exhaustion with post-rhetorical politics. It’s unclear whether Biden can win this way—he will surely have to build some version of his own post-rhetorical strategy if he wants to control his message and speak directly to his supporters.
It can be fascinating to watch campaigns develop new strategies to sideline the press. But these strategies also raise serious meta-questions about the political process and its future. What are the consequences for society of having presidential candidates with unlimited access to communicate with the public? Should the press have any power to set the agenda, police rhetoric, or winnow and vet candidates? And if the press doesn’t have that power, then who should? And how could the process work? There are lots of questions with these emerging presidential campaign strategies, but few clear answers.