'Corrupt Chris', 'Two-Faced Tammy': Candidates try their best Trump impressions

Campaigns are engaging in name-calling two years after Mr Donald Trump used all-caps aggression to energise his base and help lift him to the White House. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM TWITTER/WISCONSIN GOP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In this year's midterm elections, social media has been Trumpified.

Political groups and candidates - whether for city council or the US Senate - are imitating President Donald Trump's raw and combative style online. Many are attaching themselves to contentious national cultural issues like illegal immigration and kneeling NFL players, which tend to garner more attention online than narrower local issues.

Others are giving their opponents mocking, Trump-style nicknames in hopes of standing out from the pack.

Senator Claire McCaskill has been called "Crooked Claire" and "Millionaire Claire" by two Republican groups opposing her candidacy. Mr Mike Braun, the Republican challenging Senator Joe Donnelly in a highly competitive race, has taken to calling the incumbent "Sleepin' Joe", in an effort to paint him as ineffective.

Facebook and Twitter are filled with attacks that rely on a similar formula: inflammatory rhetoric combined with alliterative sobriquets like "Corrupt Chris", "Phony Phil" and "Two-Faced Tammy".

It is not surprising that campaigns are engaging in name-calling two years after Mr Trump used all-caps aggression to energise his base and help lift him to the White House.

But the nature of social media platforms has turned up the temperature on such rhetoric. The algorithms powering the services often reward the reactions generated by outsize personalities by spreading their messages more widely, and can render bland wonks effectively invisible.

Candidates from both parties have learned what Mr Trump and his digital campaign gurus figured out in 2016: Visceral anger travels further online than inspirational messages, and the way to get noticed on the Internet is to be loud and provocative above all.

"It's really hard to break through in this media environment," said Mr Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former communications director for Senator Marco Rubio whom Mr Trump derided as "Liddle Marco" during the 2016 presidential primaries.

"On social media, these sorts of tactics drive engagement much more than boring policy speeches do."

The Trump effect is strongest among Republicans in areas where the president remains popular, but some Democrats are also copying his style.

Mr Randy Bryce, who is running to fill the seat of Mr Paul Ryan, the retiring House speaker, has nicknamed Mr Brian Steil, his Republican opponent, "Lyin' Brian".

Representative Jacky Rosen, a Democrat running against Senator Dean Heller, has begun calling him "Senator Spineless". And as she gears up for an expected presidential run in 2020, Senator Elizabeth Warren has urged her social media followers to channel their anger into support for her party's candidates in the midterms.

"I am angry, and I own it," Ms Warren said in a Facebook video last month, which was shared more than 10,000 times.

Stylistically, many national politicians have tacked Trumpward since the 2016 primaries, when Mr Rubio, Mr Jeb Bush and other Republicans responded to personal attacks by Mr Trump by returning his insults, which included making fun of the size of his hands and calling him a "loser". None of it worked especially well. (Democrats had a brief and disastrous fling with a "Dangerous Donald" strategy.) There is little evidence that Mr Trump's recipe for social media dominance translates well to smaller races. But many candidates are trying it anyway.

Mr Jim Hagedorn, a Republican running in Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, has attacked his Democratic opponent, Mr Dan Feehan, for supporting former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's protesting of police brutality during the national anthem, calling him "part of the Kaepernick wing of the Democrat Party".

Mr Scott Hawkins, a Republican who ultimately withdrew from this year's Alaska governor's race, took out a Facebook ad during his campaign promoting his opposition to MS-13, a street gang that Mr Trump has vocally opposed, saying "I'm with The Donald on this one". (MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles, is not known to have a presence in Alaska.)

And the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh lit up down-ballot races across the country, as candidates running for judgeships and district attorneys' offices raced to signal their full-throated support for either him or his opponents. Several of the highest-performing posts on Facebook during Mr Kavanaugh's confirmation fight came not from national news outlets like CNN or Politico but from Mr Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, who is running for re-election in November. In one post, which received nearly 20,000 shares, he praised Mr Kavanaugh's wife, Ashley, and urged people to pray for her.

"All the oxygen is in these broad, national debates," said Mr Rob Flaherty, creative director of Priorities USA, a progressive organisation that is among the biggest liberal buyers of digital advertising.

"If you want to do the Trump tactic of stealing attention, you have to talk about those things."

Aiming for mainstream appeal can also be a savvy financial move. Facebook's advertising system is built on an auction process that takes into account the likelihood that a given ad will provoke an audience to engage with it. More engaging ads can cost less to buy than similar ads with less engaging language, and they can spread further as users share them with their friends.

"Trump was the first candidate to run an Internet-first campaign," said Mr Gerrit Lansing, a former chief digital officer of the Republican National Committee.

"However, the vast majority of campaigns and candidates are still consulted by people who spent their careers with newspapers and the evening news, and that's just not how the world works anymore. Your political branding needs to be punchier in the Internet age."

Mr Ben Kalasho, a city councilman in El Cajon, California, outside San Diego, may be taking Mr Trump's act to its logical extreme. Mr Kalasho, 35, is a flashy businessman who oversees a local beauty pageant, lives in a mansion with his wife, a former model, and has been mired in legal trouble, including allegations of fraud and sexual harassment. He has denied those accusations.

Mr Kalasho's social media feeds are a mixture of bare-knuckle politics, aspirational lifestyle content and outright trolling. One recent post read: "I am against fake news, fascists, and Marxists, in that order."

Mr Kalasho, who is running for re-election this November, credits social media with his ability to attract attention, calling it a "superpower". He said he had been inspired by the way Mr Trump used Twitter to shape the news cycle. And he admitted that the pressure to perform on social media had made him gravitate towards more polarising topics.

"There's a sense of shallowness to social media," he said. "I can't talk about policy, potholes or health care and be popular."

Of course, winning in politics is not about racking up likes and shares - there is also the matter of getting votes. Some candidates with large social media followings have fared worse than expected in primary elections this year, including Ms Cynthia Nixon, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor in New York and Dr Abdul El-Sayed, a Democratic candidate for governor in Michigan who finished well behind Ms Gretchen Whitmer in the primary.

Ms Amanda Litman, a founder of Run for Something, a liberal organisation that helps recruit progressive candidates for office, said negative nicknames and provocative campaign messages might get more attention than positive stories, but they did not necessarily help candidates connect with voters.

"How many candidates have we seen who pick up wildfire online but it doesn't translate to votes?" Ms Litman said.

"It's just one of many ways to measure a campaign's effectiveness."

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