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Bob Rae
Bob Rae

Bob Rae

U.S. election: Never underestimate the politics of celebrity Add to ...

Bob Rae is a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, teaches at the University of Toronto, and is the author of What’s Happened to Politics?

When the Ontario provincial election was called in the summer of 1990, the first overnight polling results were so bad my advisers wouldn’t tell me what they were. Just before the campaign started, the pollster who worked for us said the New Democratic Party’s “ceiling” was 30 per cent, and we should see our effort as one of getting us as close to that number as possible on voting day, Sept. 6, 1990.

After the first couple of weeks of the campaign, the so-called overnights had improved dramatically. After four weeks, they showed us in the lead, for a time over 40 per cent. I asked the pollster what had happened to the ceiling. “It’s not an exact science. I guess.”

We are all the products of experience, and that election (which the NDP won, sending me to the premier’s office) has forever shaped my conviction that things can change, opinions shift in the face of events and choices, and those who assert with certainty what will happen in six weeks based on today’s numbers are full of hot air. A year ago, with the last federal election a few weeks on, the three major parties were only a few points apart; the Liberals were in third place. As we all know, Justin Trudeau went on to win a majority government, and the federal Liberals’ popularity continues to soar.

One would think that pundits and pollsters would show a little more humility in the face of such experiences when discussing political events south of the border. One journalist friend told me a year ago that “Trump is unelectable,” and proceeded to show me statistically why it simply could not happen. From a different political vantage point, many said the same about Mr. Trudeau. We were solemnly told that public opinion had permanently altered, that Stephen Harper had effected an “unchangeable” revolution, and that Mr. Trudeau was “unqualified” to be prime minister. Both Mr. Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair were serious politicians with gravitas. The fight would be between them. How wrong that all was, and is.

Hillary Clinton’s election is not inevitable, and neither is Donald Trump’s. Some momentum has shifted recently toward Mr. Trump, and that will be even more true in the wake of Ms. Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis. Since her bounce from the Democratic convention, her campaign has been lacking spark, imagination, or warmth, and while the “ill health, low energy” propaganda has been over the top, the video of her sudden departure from the ceremony marking the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, speaks for itself.

Anything can happen in November. The Democratic twittersphere says “but her margin in the electoral college ensures victory,” to which one can only reply that if Mr. Trump continues to show some momentum, the shift in the electoral college will eventually reflect the shift in public opinion.

How is this happening? As Timothy O’Brien pointed out in Trump Nation, the Republican candidate is a bamboozler in the tradition of P.T. Barnum. Mr. Trump dominates the TV screens, he sucks up attention, he says outrageous things that bear no relationship to truth or reality. His sortie into Mexico, which cost the Mexican finance minister his job, was, intoned President Barack Obama “a diplomatic disaster.” But it was a public relations triumph, which is all Mr. Trump is interested in. It’s not about qualifications. It’s about public appeal. He’s not applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. In the age of infotainment, he’s running for votes.

His appeal is not pretty. He is not going after what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Quite the opposite. But the rising tide of global prosperity has not lifted all boats, and in classic populist style Mr. Trump has tapped into a mood of frustration and insecurity.

Harold Wilson’s comment that “a week is a long time in politics” means that the seven weeks to election day in November is an eternity. The Democrats need to understand better what has happened to politics, and how to generate momentum. Their choice of candidate, for all her qualifications, has so far made that difficult.

I find that one way of figuring out what is happening is to turn the sound off when watching television. Just focus on the visuals. So far, Mr. Trump is winning the battle hands down. Ms. Clinton does not have much presence. She has to get off her back foot, and her message has to resonate in a more positive way.

Eventually Mr. Trump’s political enterprise will crash and burn, like Trump University, Trump steaks, and his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. A populist campaign like his, with its outlandish promises and its appeal to anger and resentment, ensures an unhappy and dangerous presidency for everyone.

But the crash and burn needs to happen before Nov. 8, and not just after, and there is no guarantee that will happen without another shift in the American public mood.

Mr. Trudeau has put his celebrity and “sunny ways” to good use and purposes. As the recent trip to China has shown, his detractors have shown how badly they underestimate both him and the public mood that led to the Liberal sweep last year. No one could accuse Mr. Trump of “sunny ways.” The fire in his belly is heartburn. But we underestimate the politics of celebrity at our peril.

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