It's Actually Pretty Normal to Think You're a Genius After Winning an Election

Sure, Trump's recent comments on his own brilliance might sound vexing. But candidates (and pundits) are always getting caught up in post-election narratives.
Publish date:
President Donald Trump speaks to the media on January 6th, 2018, at Camp David, in Thurmont, Maryland.

President Donald Trump speaks to the media on January 6th, 2018, at Camp David, in Thurmont, Maryland.

When analyzing Donald Trump, it's helpful to distinguish which of his words or actions represent violations of established norms, and which are, in fact, consistent with his presidential predecessors'. Trump's tweet-storm over the weekend, in which he claimed his victory in the 2016 election was evidence that he is a "very stable genius," falls into this latter category.

Sure, the way he communicated this information was bizarre and unorthodox. The most reclusive dictators writing in their personal memoirs don't even refer to themselves in such grandiose terms. But it is not at all unusual for a politician (or a campaign consultant) to take a narrow victory as evidence of their own brilliance. What's more, political journalists are often quite eager to help construct such narratives. Barack Obama allegedly ran "the greatest presidential campaign ever" in 2008. Bill Clinton's team produced "a carefully honed message and organized a campaign of taut, centralized discipline" in 1992.

Conversely, every election defeat is taken as evidence of disorganization, incompetence, and aloofness. Pundits claimed that Hillary Clinton, whose campaign was headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, lost because she was out of touch with rural white voters. They said Mitt Romney was an awkward plutocrat. John McCain was old and grumpy. Al Gore's personality was too malleable and inauthentic.

But there's very little evidence to actually back up all these post-hoc narratives. Or, more accurately, there's plenty of evidence to construct any narrative you want. Any campaign has plenty of examples of brilliant innovation and plenty of other examples of utter chaos. As Phil Klinkner tweeted, "Every campaign is a sh*tshow, but one of them has to win." Undoubtedly, one campaign will be better run overall than another, but it's very difficult to tease out just which was better and how or whether that actually affected the outcome.

As for the 2016 Trump campaign, here's a thought exercise: If you were running a Republican congressional campaign this year, which of Trump's actions in 2016 would you encourage your candidate to emulate? Threaten the opposing candidate with prison time? Invite a hostile foreign power to hack the opposing campaign's e-mails? Pick a fight with a Gold Star family? Insult Mexicans? Go into debates without preparation? Spend half of what the opposing campaign spends? Accuse the father of one of your primary opponents of killing John Kennedy? Allege fraud in the election before it happens? Allege fraud in the election after you win it?

Had Trump been actively trying to lose that election, his campaign probably wouldn't have looked much different from the one we saw. In virtually every aspect of the campaign over which the candidates had control, he was substantially out-matched by Clinton. And it just didn't matter all that much. He slightly underperformed how we'd expect the out-party's nominee to fare during a period of modest economic growth and two terms out of power, but, for the most part, party lines held. Republicans voted for him. Democrats voted for his opponent. He lost the popular vote by three million votes, but the Electoral College gave just enough weight to key states for him to manage to slip into office.

There's little evidence his stability or genius, to the extent those actually exist, had anything to do with his victory. Nearly every decision he made was the wrong one. But you can run a very bad campaign and still win.

That doesn't mean the study of campaigns is a useless exercise. There are specific choices campaigns make that are worth analyzing. The fact that the Trump team chose to ignore the Republican Party's 2012 autopsy advising an embrace of immigrants and instead ran an overtly nativist campaign was notable and possibly consequential. Likewise, the Obama team's use of social media, Bill Clinton's campaigning on talk shows and his rapid-response advertising, and McCain's elevating of Sarah Palin all affected the campaigns that came after, even if they didn't account for the outcome of that particular election.

But we do a great disservice to this analysis is we ascribe genius to every winner and idiocy to every loser, and we just lend fuel to the worst candidates' attempts to deify themselves.