When Hillary Clinton engages with comedians, as she did last Friday on Jimmy Fallon and Thursday with Zach Galifianakis, she plays the straight woman: the low-key, earnest, unflashy foil who lets the other guy make all the blatant jokes and reserves for herself only a few sly witticisms. That might be a natural role for a presidential candidate to take, but it stands in contrast to her rival Donald Trump, who is never shy about mugging for the camera. Clinton’s approach to comedy is consistent with her broader approach to campaigning, where she prefers to project seriousness and avoid flamboyance. That’s a sensible strategy, given Trump’s inexperience and unpredictability, but the downside has become apparent lately.
Since securing the Democratic nomination, Clinton has been the invisible woman of American politics—paradoxically on the cusp of an astonishing historical achievement (becoming the first woman president) while most of her speeches and policies are ignored. The media has focused heavily on Trump, with Clinton only able to break through when she attacked the Republican nominee (as in her speech on the alt-right and her comments about Trump’s “deplorable” supporters). Even the negative attention of Clinton has been Trump-driven: It’s unlikely that the outsized coverage of her bout with pneumonia and of the Clinton Foundation would have occurred if there wasn’t an apparent imperative to balance out the critical news of Trump’s bigotry and shady business practices.
So how can Clinton get her own message out? There are a few proven campaign tactics she has yet to try—including one that Trump employed to great effect in the primary—and barring those, the political calendar may work in her favor soon enough.
The source of Clinton’s invisibility is Trump’s unparalleled dominance of free media, particularly the television networks and cable news, which often set the tone of the media more broadly. In an age of declining viewership and ever more fragmented media, Trump is ratings gold. During the Republican primaries, he won in part because he received unprecedented free media while his rivals found it impossible to get their messages heard. This has continued in the presidential race. When Clinton and Trump hold dueling rallies, Trump gets more press.
As Paul Fahri reported in The Washington Post on Tuesday:
Trump’s campaign attracted 822 minutes of screen time on the nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC between Jan. 1 and Labor Day, according to the Tyndall Report, which has tracked broadcast news since 1987. It’s unlikely that another presidential candidate in history has ever gotten more, says Andrew Tyndall, the newsletter’s proprietor.
Clinton’s campaign commanded just 386 minutes, which includes 89 minutes spent on the investigation of her emails as secretary of state.
That’s a big coverage “gap.” Roughly speaking, Trump has gotten more than twice as much network attention as Clinton.
The “gap” is even wider when one considers that Trump has set the terms of debate, with the political and media conversation dominated—depending on the day—by his racism, sexism, birtherism, nationalism, or affection for Vladimir Putin. The election has been fought on Trump’s terrain of tabloid outrage rather than Clinton’s terrain of policy disputes. This means there’s been little discussion of Clinton’s signature issues of criminal justice reform, paid family and medical leave, raising the minimum wage, debt-free college, and more.
Beyond Trump’s mastery of free media, there’s also a gender dimension to Clinton’s invisibility. She’s often been praised, by Ezra Klein among others, for her ability to listen, but the flip side is that she has had trouble, as women often do, being heard over the brash man in the room. Trump’s clownishness attracts an audience which ignores Clinton’s wonkery. She has been forced to play the role of the straight woman, Margaret Dumont to Trump’s Groucho Marx.
So how can Clinton amplify her voice to overcome Trump’s? On the Keepin’ it 1600 podcast, former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe suggested she call on her “army of surrogates,” including Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and people in “the entertainment world.” Using celebrities to bypass the traditional media is a strategy that worked well for Obama, and one that Clinton is starting to imitate by appearing on Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns, having the cast of West Wing re-unite in Ohio, and getting Joss Whedon to cut an ad with “a shit ton of famous people” urging a vote against Trump.
Clinton might also find it useful to pick fights not with Trump, but with the media for not covering policy. Working the refs is often effective, even at the risk of a backlash. There’s a risk, of course, that Clinton would be labeled a complainer, and that she might incite even more critical coverage of her emails. But the risk would be worth it if her attacks brought widespread attention to how one-sided the coverage has been in this election—a complaint that currently seems confined to the Acela corridor.
When Clinton does take center stage, she dominates. Her last such opportunity was the Democratic National Convention, which gave her a strong bounce: A week after the convention she was 8 percent ahead of Trump in Huffington Posts’s aggregated polls. Clinton’s best shot of changing the dynamics of the media coverage, then, may be the debates, which begin Monday. While frontrunners usually have more to lose than gain from debates, facing off with Trump might give Clinton a chance to be heard. And unlike Trump, she’s had many one-on-one debates against formidable opponents like Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders—and she won quite a few of them.
But Trump will be unlike any opponent she’s ever faced. She can’t let him set the terms of Monday’s debate in the way he’s done with the media broadly. If she can force him to fight in her corner, the media might finally get the word out about what she stands for.