Josh King, former director of production of presidential events at the White House, began a talk Tuesday in an unusual way: by asking attendees if they follow @realDonaldTrump on Twitter.
At an Ezra Stiles College Tea titled “The Journey Through the Age of Optics,” which drew about 20 students, King spoke about how visual aids and the media affect the public’s views on politicians and election candidates specifically, and offered his thoughts on the current presidential campaigns. King served in his White House position from 1993–97. According to King, visual tools are extremely important in shaping the public’s view of a politician.
King offered one example of how Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is learning the lesson of how crucial visual aids are to a campaign. During the primaries, Trump primarily used only two tools to vanquish his opponents: Twitter and rallies, although, according to King, Trump was missing key visual communication with the electorate.
Today, King argued, Trump has taken a different path, most recently by being photographed at the Flint Water Treatment Plant, situated on the river around which the tainted drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan revolved.
“To the people it doesn’t matter if Trump knows anything about the water crisis. If he is photographed coming out of the Flint Water Treatment Plant, we, who don’t delve deep into the issues, think that he must really care about what’s going on,” King said.
According to King, candidates can effectively tighten the race through the use of visual aids, especially in recent days, after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 had to leave a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony last Sunday in New York City due to pneumonia and was videotaped struggling to get into her car. King said that had Clinton been honest about her illness two days before the ceremony, her campaign would not have suffered the consequences.
King emphasized how significant these moments can be in the long-term.
“Every momentary tick, every stumble in this campaign for either of the candidates can be game-changing now. That’s why things are only made worse for Clinton due to her inability to just show weakness and Trump’s real comfort in his own skin,” King says.
King also spoke of both candidates’ difficulty in winning over votes based on sheer likability. While past presidents ran in their late 40s and early 50, Trump and Clinton are running at the ages of 70 and 68, respectively, making it harder for voters to personally connect to them. King highlighted a fundamental polling question — “Would I really want to sit around and have a beer with the candidate?” — suggesting that in this race, the answer is usually “No.”
According to King, elections rest in whether voters personally like the candidate — something that can not be easily shaped or crafted, though visual aids do help.
“Ultimately, the White House and other politicians don’t control the camera, but they do control everything they put in front of it,” King said.
Neil Goodman ’20 said it was “eye-opening” to see how much both established TV networks and sub-level media like the Drudge Report or Donald Trump’s Twitter feed can produce meaningful changes in the polls.
Michael Sisti ’20 agreed, saying King’s political experience shed light on how optics are used in this campaign cycle.
King is also the author of the book “Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide.”