It’s a time-honored ritual: At the start of every presidential election cycle, voters in the early primary states are treated to soft-focus biographical ads about the presidential contenders, their small-town upbringings, their homespun values, their love for America. The ads grow nastier through the fall and winter until all of a sudden, nominees emerge and we get thrown back to the beginning: another round of those same soaring biographical spots, reintroducing the two remaining contenders to America in the most flattering of ways, as though voters spent the past year with cotton balls in their ears.
Hillary Clinton is holding up her end of this tradition. On Thursday, her campaign released three positive ads in the key swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. The TV spots—which show Clinton walking unsteadily as a toddler, sauntering through Congress, and jetting around the world on Air Force One—are tailored to remind voters why they liked her in the first place, to smooth over the divisions in her party, and to refocus voters on what matters: keeping the White House in Democratic hands. Safe hands. Not Donald Trump’s hands.
Trump, breaking with yet another traditional campaign practice, has thus far shown no inclination to launch an ad blitz to reintroduce himself to voters—even though he desperately needs one to improve his abysmal public persona. Hillary Clinton has risen recently to 55 percent favorability in some polls, while Trump’s numbers have nose-dived in recent weeks. A whopping 70 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of him, up ten points in the last month alone. He needs to stop the bleeding, and positive ads would theoretically help accomplish that. So what’s holding him back?
Well, maybe it’s this: Try, just try, to imagine Donald Trump re-introducing himself as relatable-yet-inspirational to Americans. Would he concoct a story about his heroism, John McCain-style? Spin stories about his hardscrabble youth, Barack Obama-style? Cast himself as a proven world leader, Hillary Clinton-style?
Those three candidates’ first general-election commercials were all designed to reset their political images after tough primary battles, and together, the spots represent the three main archetypes of the successful general-election kickoff ad. But while most politicians turn to one of these themes to introduce themselves to voters, Trump will find it a little harder to do so. Let’s look back on these recent classics of the genre, and ponder the possibilities of Trumpian adaptations.
American Hero: John McCain’s “624787” (2008)
In late March 2008, less than a month after he clinched the Republican nomination in Dallas, Texas, John McCain launched this ad in New Mexico, casting the candidate as a modern American hero. “What must a president believe about us?” the narrator asks. “About America? That she is worth protecting? That liberty is priceless? Our people are honorable? Our future prosperous, remarkable, and free?” News stories titled “McCain: Ready on Day One” (The Record & Herald News) and “Time for a Real Hero” (The Quad-City Times) fade in and out on screen. Strapped down to a hospital cot where he was kept in captivity during the Vietnam War, grainy footage shows McCain’s captors asking him to recite his rank and official number: 624787.
A large, orange figure stands on a podium draped in American flags, promising to Make America Great Again. Photos begin flashing across the screen. Trump holds the replica Flintlock rifle presented to him at a Republican dinner last year. He stands astride the Mexico-U.S. border, vowing to stop illegal immigration. Newspaper headlines scroll by, superimposed on the screen; “Benghazi Heroes Endorse Donald Trump” (Breitbart), “There Will Be Hell Toupee” (Scotland Daily Record). The music swells. Trump appears in a clip from a 1997 interview. “I’ve been so lucky,” Trump says. Howard Stern cuts in: “You’ve never gotten a social disease?” Trump replies: “It is a dangerous world out there. It’s scary, like Vietnam. Sort of like the Vietnam era. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave solider.”
Humble Roots: Barack Obama’s “Country I Love” (2008)
Three months after McCain released his first general election ad, Obama did the same. His ad was designed to show how deeply he shared the same values as all Americans. “I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents,” Obama says from a living room with sunlit windows, white walls, and family pictures. Dulcet music plays in the background. Baby pictures appear on screen. Adorable baby Barack! “We didn’t have much money,” he says, “but they taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up: accountability and self reliance, love of country, working hard without making excuses.”
Trump sits in his living room in Trump Tower, the gilt wall sconces throwing a soft glow over his coiffeur. The same melodic music warbles in the background. “Raised in a spacious Tudor Revival house in Jamaica Estates just outside Manhattan,” the narrator says, as photos of Trump in high school appear on screen. “Taught by his father about business, about thriftiness, about using his sizable inheritance to make billions.” Then Trump’s voice comes in, reading from The Art of the Deal: “In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye—I punched my music teacher,” he says. “Even early on I had a tendency to stand up and make my opinions known in a very forceful way.”
Our Next President: Hillary Clinton’s “Always” (2016)
The week after she crossed the threshold to win the Democratic nomination, Clinton released this ad, along with two others. The message from all three was clear: Here is a woman with every essential quality needed to be our next president. “When she got to Arkansas, she brought reform to some of the poorest schools in the nation,” the narrator says in this one. “Then as first lady, worked with Republicans and Democrats to win healthcare that today is covering 8 million kids. And as Secretary of State, she stood up for American values around the world.” The script is a little clumsy. The narrator practically bludgeons you over the head with the idea that Hillary is fighting for kids. But the aesthetics are more important: We see Clinton carrying weighty sheaves of government papers, descending from Air Force One, hugging children, and walking around her Senate office. She looks like a president.
Trump descends from his sleek Trump jet. He exits a limo outside his Florida mansion, Mar a Largo, as a bugler strikes up “Hail to the Chief.” Trump circles a campaign rally in his helicopter, the orchestral soundtrack from the film Air Force One playing in the background. The crowd goes wild. Cut to Trump in a boardroom, snarling at 12 advisers in his first national security team meeting. He travels to the Middle East, posing at the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai. This is Donald Trump, world leader, ready to broker deals with American allies. “As a successful business magnate, Donald Trump met Russian president Vladimir Putin,” the narrator says. “He brokered deals in China. He engaged in meaningful cultural dialogue through owning the Miss Universe Pageant.” Trump begins speaking, in a CNN interview clip. “I deal with presidents, and I deal with prime ministers. I deal with everybody,” he says. “I probably have more experience than virtually anybody looking at this office. And I make money!”
OK, yes: It’s entirely possible that a true cinematic genius—a Hitchcock, a Scorsese, a Leni Riefenstahl—could take the scraps of Donald Trump’s childhood, and his business and reality TV careers, and put together a 30-second pastiche that makes him seem relatively human, qualified, and well-meaning. But the materials are scarce. And Trump’s whole persona—the one that some people, at least, still love—relies on being bombastic and unscripted. It’s that persona that’s preventing him from going positive on TV. That, and the fact that, when it comes down to it, Donald Trump doesn’t have an uplifting story to tell. Even when it’s set to string music.