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Explaining Clinton's 'Rope-A-Dope' Strategy Vs. Trump's Whistle-Stopping

Theodore Roosevelt addressed a crowd from the back of a train at South Lawrence Train Station in Lawrence, Mass., in 1902.
Getty Images
Theodore Roosevelt addressed a crowd from the back of a train at South Lawrence Train Station in Lawrence, Mass., in 1902.

The current presidential campaign may seem unlike any in recent memory, especially when it comes to how the candidates are running their campaigns.

Donald Trump has reportedly commanded more than $1 billion worth of free press and preferred holding rallies around the country that have attracted large crowds. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, seems to be running an almost closeted campaign. She has shied away from press conferences and favored more intimate events. Her strategy could even be likened to boxer Muhammad Ali's controversial "rope-a-dope" strategy, in which he retreated until his rival exhausted himself and then attacked back.

In reality, most of the techniques and strategies we have seen so far hark back to the politics of the past.

For example, few would dispute that last week has been dominated by "mudslinging," the practice of tossing accusations and epithets at one's opponent. Mudslinging is always regretted and decried, yet it invariably returns with each election cycle.

The idea of throwing dirt at a rival is ancient, if not prehistoric. There is even a Latin phrase for it — Fortiter calumniari, aliquia adhaerebit, which means if you throw enough stuff, some will stick.

But most of the political language we use now is far more recent in origin and has its roots in the American experience.

The stump

Take for example our love for the unlovely word "stump." We all talk about "stump speaking" and going "on the stump" and "stumping" around the country.

Ohio Sen. John Glenn stood on a stump, giving his "stump speech" during a campaign stop in Texas during the 1984 presidential campaign.
Ed Kolenovsky / AP
Ohio Sen. John Glenn stood on a stump, giving his "stump speech" during a campaign stop in Texas during the 1984 presidential campaign.

This one goes back to a missionary's account of life among the American Indians in the early 18th century. It seems the tribe in question had a major tree stump in their village where the chief could stand, speak and be heard.

Nowadays every candidate is expected to develop a standard stump speech. So any notion of spontaneity has been largely lost, as the recurring speech known simply as "the stump" is expected to vary little from event to event.

"Going on the stump" carried a connotation of disapproval for a time in the 19th century, an implication that speech-making should take place in more dignified places. Stumping suggested overeager outreach to the most rustic of voters, which some regarded as demagoguery.

Front-porch campaigning

It is not hard to imagine Hillary Clinton having some affinity with the front-porch campaign approach of the past. Donald Trump, on the other hand, personifies the style that came next — whistle-stopping.

Even in the late years of that century, some presidential candidates were having success with a counter-strategy known as the "front-porch campaign." The central idea was to stay cool and stay in character, and then let the world come to you.

Republican William McKinley makes an elaborate front-porch campaign speech at his home in Canton, Ohio, in 1896.
/ AP
Republican William McKinley makes an elaborate front-porch campaign speech at his home in Canton, Ohio, in 1896.

Benjamin Harrison set the example back in 1888 when he was running for president, holding forth quite literally from his front porch in Indianapolis. The approach was meant to convey a sense of Midwestern solidity and plainspoken Americanism. It worked, at least that year, although Harrison's bid for a second term came up short in 1892.

But the man who made the front-porch campaign enduringly famous was William McKinley, running as the GOP presidential nominee in 1896. Up against William Jennings Bryan, widely regarded as the premier orator of his time, McKinley was content to speak to friendly crowds on his front lawn in Canton, Ohio. These crowds were not insubstantial, numbering some 700,000 in aggregate over the duration of the campaign — though many of them were shipped in by the Republican organization of the day.


McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was anything but the stay-at-home type. He introduced a new tradition of "whistle-stopping," which meant going to towns too small for the railroads to provide a regularly scheduled train (the train stopped only when signaled to do so by a whistle).

So while the phrase "whistle-stop" originally meant "hick town," the idea of a whistle-stop campaign comes down to us as an entirely positive, even legendary form of populist connection.

Although a native of New York City, "T.R." appealed to the more rural roots of the electorate with his avid attention to these more obscure places. And of course, when he arrived he beguiled the big crowds that would await his train and subsequent speech — as did his cousin Franklin a generation later.

The front porch had one more heyday in 1920, when another Ohioan who was not one for speeches, Warren G. Harding, gave it a successful reprise. Since then, the notion of a low-key campaign that focuses on a candidate's roots and stability has become impossibly quaint. When Thomas E. Dewey tried a postwar version of it in 1948, thinking he was too far ahead to lose, he lost.

Dewey lost in part because he was up against Harry Truman, the pint-sized and plucky Democrat, who revived the whistle-stop tour as an energizer for his underdog campaign.

Since Truman, the main focus of campaigning has been on the "media campaign." Television ads became a staple of the campaign in 1952 between Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

In 1960 we got the first televised debates, between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon, and also a gusher of made-for-TV ads. Since then, the role of the tube, and more recently the Internet, has been central to White House strategies. Events are staged largely to be carried on TV, and fundraising is driven by the need to buy national ad time and targeted time in swing states.

Why is Clinton running an almost closeted campaign?

Trump has redefined the media campaign by using his reality-show fame, along with a willingness to be in the media eye almost constantly, to great effect. One widely quoted survey (conducted by the New York Times using data from mediaQuant) reported the GOP nominee had receivednearly $1.9 billion worth of free news coverage — six times as much as his closest intraparty rival — while Clinton was estimated to have received less than $750 million.

Since the spring, Clinton has made increasingly heavy use of the paid-media campaign model, while Trump has relied primarily on free media and his particular combination of stumping and whistle-stopping — although his "train" is his considerably more imposing private jet.

During these months, Clinton has held far fewer big rallies (a campaign genre she has yet to master) and done zero press conferences. She prefers more controlled encounters with the news media, with which she has been at odds throughout her career. Trump often seems as if he literally cannot get enough time in front of cameras and microphones, and he lives on Twitter as though it were his sustenance.

By comparison, Clinton seems to be running an almost closeted campaign. What she might prefer in an ideal world would be something akin to the "Rose Garden strategy." Technically, this is only a technique for sitting presidents, who may make pronouncements from the Rose Garden (or other White House settings) to emphasize their incumbency and importance.

Clinton does not have a White House from which to speak, of course, so the analogy is strained from the outset, though she does have the gravitas of being a former first lady. So perhaps the more apt model for what Clinton is attempting to do might come from the world of sports. Everyone knows a team that's winning may choose to "sit on a lead" or "run out the clock."

A more elaborate comparison would be to the controversial strategy the late boxer Muhammad Ali was known to employ, the so-called "rope-a-dope" strategy.

Ali would retreat across the ring, not "show himself" to his opponent, covering his face and retreating to the heavy ropes that surrounded the ring. Eventually, an overeager and overly aggressive rival would exhaust himself, punching away without really landing any blows. At that point, Ali would spring to the attack and finish off his victim.

Whether the opponent in this case is Trump or the news media, Clinton, or some of those in her high command, might well have such a vision in mind.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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