Dive into the language and messaging of any major political campaign today, and chances are you’ll find at least one reference to how the candidate represents a “movement.” Used well, this phrasing can be an eloquent way to create a personal connection with voters, letting them in on the ground floor of big things to come.
Of course it begs the question of what a political movement is — and should be — today. In an 18+ month campaign season that often begins with more than a dozen candidates, they can’t all be starting a political movement. What makes a candidate’s efforts more than just a run-of-the-mill political campaign, with slogans and sound bites, signature plans and policy positions? As it turns out, it’s a difficult question with few satisfying answers. American voters have yet to craft a universally agreed-upon definition of “political movement,” endorsed by the nation’s most prominent political scientists.
Is it as simple as concluding that the candidates who win must ultimately be the ones who spur political movements?
I don’t think so. A century ago, political party bosses decided which candidate to put forward for voters after days of wheeling and dealing in private, smoke-filled rooms. But as our political process has evolved and the experiential and emotional relationship between candidates and voters has cemented itself at the center of everything, the idea of candidacies as movements has become increasingly relevant. Today, I think those elements can more clearly be defined into three elements.
Chief among them is opposition to the establishment. There’s an undeniable appeal to feeling like you’re taking part in a challenge to the powers that be. While it might seem like a tired political messaging cliché at this point, shaking up the system seems to be a necessary component for campaigns to move beyond the basic platforms and become political movements. It’s hard to think of memorable campaigns that have centered on messages like “Let’s try more of the same” or “Don’t rock the boat.”
During the 2008 and 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton’s opponents relied on this psychological tool to great effect, painting her as the establishment personified and making “Not Hillary Clinton” the through line to their campaigns. Although Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 came to the table with different ideological foundations, they were both able to distinguish themselves by using Clinton as a jumping-off point. By juxtaposing themselves with her lengthy political career as a member of the old-guard establishment, they could make the case for their candidacies as movements.
Donald Trump has pulled off a similar feat beyond his election in 2016 by making his initial disconnection from the world of politics as one of his biggest selling points. Trump was not the only candidate in the race without any history as an elected official, but he was far and away the most successful at using his lack of experience to his advantage. He positioned his campaign as an existential challenge to the credentials of virtually all of his serious Republican competitors (and his final opponent, Clinton) and rode an insurgent wave of support from voters who wanted to “drain the swamp” all the way to the White House. What remains most stunning is his ability to retain the mantle of outsider and “swamp drainer” even after three years in office.
If taking part in a “challenge” to the norm is the most critical part of what makes a political movement, what else is involved? Longevity is also key — every candidate who wins an election has to manage to keep voters consistently engaged over the course of a grueling, multi-year campaign season. Contrary to popular belief, movements simply do not rise overnight. This doesn’t necessarily just apply to winners, either. Bernie Sanders has arguably created some kind of movement, given that he’s been able to carry forward a reliable base of support from his failed campaign in 2016 and mobilize where he left off as he looks toward 2020.
You might throw prominence into the mix as well. Obama, Trump and Sanders demonstrated their ability to draw huge crowds and command media attention almost at will. In contrast, Ron Paul and his son Rand Paul both ran presidential campaigns that served as pointedly libertarian, limited-government challenges to the status quo. Both failed to expand their voter support base or media interest in their campaigns beyond a die-hard group of supporters. Neither seemed to generate a movement with broad grassroots support at a truly national level. Today’s media landscape means that prominence can be earned rapidly — take the meteoric and sustained rise of Pete Buttigieg — but it remains a vital element.
Ultimately, our attempts to define and understand “political movements” might benefit from reflecting on the old quip about how politicians “campaign in poetry but govern in prose.” In some ineffable way, the candidates who become movements are those who seize on broader trends in society. In many different ways, these candidates allow their supporters to feel swept up in a moment in history. They transcend policy positions and proposals, and instead make voting feel like a statement we make about ourselves and about the society we aspire to live in and share. With Barack Obama as much as with Donald Trump, we tend to convince ourselves that their candidacies and victories were “inevitable,” though careful analysis proves that this interpretation discounts the tenacity that precedes winning elections.
How useful is this definition to current and future campaign managers and their candidates? That’s still tough to say—it’s a bit like trying to advise someone on how to catch lightning in a bottle. As an unapologetic student of political communication I can say there is plenty of research necessary to determine what really elevates a candidate to that next level of influence, but for now, it’s fair to assume it’s a mix of well-crafted messaging that taps into our rebellious side and a bit of luck to be in the right place at the right moment in history.
Alex Slater is a political strategist and founder of Clyde Group who completed his thesis on political polling at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.