As a communications expert and general consultant, I’ve gotten a lot of questions lately about what it will mean to run for office in a post-2016 world. Nobody seems quite sure how to adapt to a world in which Americans elected the first ever president born without a filter separating his brain from his mouth. Donald Trump’s campaign was fueled by his unvarnished, unfiltered style. It seems the last taboo has been broken. There’s nothing shocking anymore.
Or is there?
Take for example Noah Dyer—a Democratic candidate for Arizona governor in 2018. Dyer has decided to put his entire life on display for scrutiny by his potential constituents. From what I can tell, he is the first candidate in American political history to include a “Scandal and Controversy” on his campaign website, broken into sections detailing his sex life, his views on religion, the details of his divorce decree and more. He talks about his credit card defaults and his plan to live his life on camera for a full year.
I get what Dyer is going for. I really do. But I think he’s taking the wrong lesson from 2016. Trump and Bernie Sanders succeeded not because they were shocking, but because they appeared to lack artifice. They weren’t the buttoned up, carefully scripted candidates that we’ve seen for years — they appeared to be “real.” Voters weren’t clamoring for shock in 2016, they were hungry for authenticity.
In 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton responded to a question about his marijuana use by famously telling a TV interviewer, “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn't like it. I didn't inhale and I didn't try it again.” Take the phrase “I didn’t inhale” out of his answer, and we’re not still talking about it 25 years later. But those three words made his answer look like a dodge and contributed to an impression that the candidate was trying to be something he wasn’t.
By contrast, in Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama owned up to his history: “I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though…”
Authentic and maybe even a little raw, the admission actually made voters more likely to trust Obama in the future. If he would be honest with us about something he can assume we won’t like, we could expect him to shoot straight in the future.
For candidates, the lesson to take from 2016 is that voters don’t want a candidate who’s playing a part. If you’re a straight-laced, academic policy wonk, don’t try to be a firebrand. Don’t use language that doesn’t feel natural to you, but do communicate passionately about your values and the reasons you want to serve.
For consultants and staff, to borrow one of the most valuable lessons I learned by watching West Wing, we need to relax and let our “Bartlets be Bartlets.” We have all had those moments when we cringed in the back of a room as our candidate went off script and told an audience something that tested poorly in a focus group or poll and assumed we’d spend the rest of the afternoon putting out fires and updating our resumes.
But one of the lessons of 2016 is that voters are tired of the script. Of course, authenticity comes with a degree of risk — and we’re trained to be risk averse. But I think we’re now operating with a new playbook.
The last thing to remember about authenticity is that it’s not a magic bullet, and it’s different from putting all of your business out on the street. Your voters still have to have confidence in your ability to do the job, and there’s always a chance that they won’t like you or that your core beliefs may not align.
I don’t know Noah Dyer, and I don’t know if his disclosures are an act of authenticity, of showmanship, or of both. His website certainly generated a lot of attention, but now that everything is out there for Arizonans and the world to see, it’s up to him to show us he can consistently live up to the person he’s told us he is.
A Washington, D.C.-based communications consultant and strategist, Josh Nanberg is president and founder of Ampersand Strategies.