This article was written just before the Iowa caucus; although circumstances have changed, much of what was written remains true
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican Party nomination on 16th June, 2015, according to Real Clear Politics, he was polling at the ninth position in the crowded field, supported by around 3.6% of the Republican voters. On 28th January, 2016, around five days before the Iowa caucus, he is at the pole position with 36.2% support in the national polls, leading Ted Cruz, the nearest contender by around 15%. Not only that, he has continuously led in the national polls since July 20th, 2015 apart from a couple of days in early November, when he was in a virtually dead heat with Ben Carson.
Regardless of what happens when the actual polls get underway, this kind of performance by an unconventional candidate like Donald Trump, without adhering to any norm of the primary playbook, is virtually unheard of in the modern primary system.
When pundits discuss this unexpected success of Donald Trump in this year’s Republican Primary contest, they harp on a number of reasons, including the following:
- Disaffected, less educated white voters are profoundly unhappy with the changing demographics and culture of the country and have finally found in Trump a mainstream candidate who can give vent to their somewhat racist and xenophobic feelings.
- Structural changes in the economy with increasing globalization, outsourcing of jobs, transition to a knowledge economy and dwindling of manufacturing jobs have left less educated, blue collar white Americans worse off than their ancestors, angry about their fates and disillusioned about the future.
- Although economic recovery has been steady in the Obama years, wage rise has been anaemic and most of the benefit of the recovery has gone to the richer people. A lot of voters blame this on bad trade deals with countries like Mexico, low wage labour available from immigration and USA not being tough with currency manipulators like China.
- Most European countries have seen the rise of anti-immigration, anti-trade populist parties both on the right and the left (UKIP in UK, National Front in France, etc.). In some countries like Poland and Hungary, such parties have even come to power. In a bi-polar US political system, Donald Trump is the closest thing the voters have to such a party.
- Republican voters are attracted to the celebrity of Trump, his business credentials, his outsider status as well as his strong man ‘braggadocio’, especially the striking contrast he offers to the professorial and cerebral demeanour of Barack Obama.
While all of these are plausible and legitimate explanations of Trump leading the Republican field for such a long time, one thing that most media pundits ignore is that Donald Trump has also run an exceptionally well campaign. In fact, in the years to come, Trump’s presidential bid will be dissected as a case study on how to run an insurgent, energetic campaign that can capture the imagination of voters.
Method behind the madness
In ‘Apocalypse Now’, the psychedelic war movie set on the Vietnam War, a US army Captain named Benjamin Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is sent on a secret mission to Cambodia to assassinate Colonel Walter Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), who is leading his own renegade army of local tribesmen and is presumed to have gone insane. When Captain Willard reaches the Colonel’s outpost, he is greeted by death, destruction and clear signs of complete insanity. On their first meeting, with Willard been brought in captivity, the following conversation ensued:
Kurtz: Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my command?
Willard: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
Kurtz: It’s no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?
Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.
At first glance, Trump’s methods may also seem similarly unsound i.e. if you are able to decipher any method at all. During his brief campaign, he has managed to insult and abuse immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, Chinese, Fox News, Megan Kelly, Roger Ailes, war veterans, Jon McCain, Mitt Romney, the Clintons, the entire press, pollsters, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Iowans, all his fellow Republican contenders, etc. just to name a few. In fact, the vitriol generated by him has been so strong that the UK Parliament actually debated whether to bar Trump from entering the country. Any normal run of the mill campaign would not have been able to survive anything close to such a blitz of juvenile tantrums and downright racist and sexist overtures.
While these pearls of wisdom coming out of Trump’s mouth are seemingly random, predictably unpredictable stream of nonsense, uttered without any provocation, a closer look at their timings would suggest a keen political mind. Here is a timeline of some of the more provocative of Trump’s comments, plotted against his performance in national polls, since the time he declared his political candidacy.
Notice that almost without fail, Trump’s controversial actions and comments have ended up helping him, rather than hurting him. He has used these controversies to revive his poll numbers whenever they seemed to be sagging and drive news cycle during dull news days, thus depriving his competitors of any media oxygen.
Particularly disingenuous are two instances. The first was in early November when Ben Carson, after a steady rise in poll numbers, had started to snipe at Trump’s heels, even overtaking him in some national polls and establishing a clear lead in Iowa. Trump took to attacking Carson, including a bizarre (even by Trump’s standards) tirade in an Iowa rally, where he called Carson a psychopath, compared him to a child molester and demonstrated by using his belt how certain statements of Carson’s autobiography was not physically possible. He even said Iowans would be stupid to support him. It was a weird, Trumpish performance aimed at stopping Carson’s momentum and generating headlines. It worked; Carson’s poll numbers have been on a downhill since then, although it may be argued that it had more to do with the Paris terror attacks which brought foreign policy (not Carson’s strongest suit) into sharp focus.
The second instance was in December, when Ted Cruz began to rise in national poll numbers and even started to show lead in a few polls in Iowa. Trump immediately came out with a series of controversial statements on Muslims, proposing that Muslims be barred from entering USA, until the American lawmakers have the terrorism problem sorted out, whatever that means. The ensuing controversy saw another cycle of increase in his polling numbers.
Defying the discovery, scrutiny, decline cycle
In the 2012 election cycle, the Republican Party base was dissatisfied with the choices available to them. Mitt Romney, a former consultant who was also the governor of the deep blue state of Massachusetts, looked like the most electable guy in the general election, but he was considered insufficiently conservative by a large portion of the Republican electorate. As a result, a number of non-Romney candidates, perceived to be more conservative than him, began to rise in polls one after another. First it was Michele Bachman, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich, then Rick Santorum, then Newt Gingrich again and finally, Rick Santorum again. The poll numbers of these candidates shared a similar trajectory. They would start rising in polls on the basis of a few favourable headlines (like an important endorsement) or a strong debate performance. This rise in polls, however, limited, would be given disproportionate coverage by the media which would lead to further rise in poll numbers and thus create self-sustaining cycle. But once they start rising in polls, they would come under more scrutiny and some media outlets would start focusing on their negatives. As a result, the news cycle would then gradually turn negative and the poll numbers would start to decline, creating a negative feedback loop. The media would then move on to find the next frontrunner.
When Trump began to rise in polls following the announcement of his candidacy, a number of media pundits mistook his rise for another candidate who would be subjected to the same cycle of scrutiny and would gradually lose his momentum. But Trump has proved so adept at driving the news cycle that he has remained in headline, no matter what, with controversial statements aimed at pandering to his base, and as a result, his poll numbers have remained sky high.
It may be noted here that other candidates this year have indeed gone through the discovery, scrutiny and decline cycle. The most prominent example was Ben Carson whose case has been discussed above. Carly Fiorina also had a brief rise in polls after two strong debate performances, but her record as CEO of HP came under increasing scrutiny and she could not sustain the positive media coverage. Marco Rubio’s poll numbers similarly increased after some impressive debate performances; however, they have since reversed somewhat after coming under attack in subsequent debates. Rubio, however, has the potential for another rise in poll numbers. Ted Cruz may now be the latest victim of this phenomenon as a concerted attack by Donald Trump and the Republican establishment, as well as question marks over his eligibility to become the President (because of his birth in Canada), have led to his support level decline sharply in Iowa at least.
But how did Trump manage to avoid this cycle? In part, the decline of a candidate’s poll numbers comes when the news cycle turns gradually negative or starts ignoring the candidate. Trump understands this dynamics really well. That is why, he has been able to manage the news cycle to suit him as per his requirement, generating controversies on dull news days and picking up gratuitous fights with people. As a result, he has grabbed media attention, dominated news coverage and has denied his competitors even the chance of being in the limelight for a long period of time. And in this day and age, unless a candidate can get mention in media, it is very difficult for him to start appealing to voters.
Trump’s skills also lie in creating an air of invincibility, by manipulating facts, truth and whatever lies between him and being seen as a winner. He selectively picks up favourable news articles and polls which show him leading, and broadcasts the same to his 6 million twitter followers on a regular basis, which are then re-tweeted by his followers or picked up by the mainstream media, creating a favourable news cycle for the candidate. Trump is, in other words, the true heir to Joseph Goebbels, the chief architect of the Nazi propaganda machine, who famously said that if you listened to a lie repeatedly, you start believing in it
Use of Traditional and Social Media
Some political analysts like Nate Silver have credited Trump’s poll numbers to the disproportionate attention he gets in media and has on the basis of it, predicted that it will be transient in nature. The theory went that the political media had found a new, shining object called Trump and was showering him with all the new fangled attention; however, as the novelty factor wore off and election days approached, Trump would lose his media edge and as a result, his support would start to taper off.
Trump has, however, shown extreme skills in manipulating the media to his advantage and in sustaining the media interest in him. In part, he does that by skilful use of Twitter. A number of candidates have used the social media to drive their campaign; but, Trump is probably the first candidate who has used as Twitter as his bully pulpit to drive news coverage across the world.
But why has the media been such a willing accomplice in covering Trump? Part of it is the novelty factor; after all, there has been no equivalent of a flamboyant, controversial, quote generating machine like him in the modern political system. But, it is also a fact that people love reading about Trump. Just look at the volume of search queries for Donald Trump in Google Trends and compare it with the search queries for other Republican contenders in USA.
In fact, the worldwide search interest for Trump has even exceeded that for President Obama.
Now think about this for a moment; Obama is the President of USA, ‘leader of the free world’ and possibly, the most famous man in the planet. Trump, on the other hand, is just running a campaign, contesting with more than a dozen other candidates, to win the nomination of the Republican Party and thus earn the right to fight in the general elections, scheduled more than nine months from today.
The free media coverage of Trump has been so overwhelming that he had to spend precious little in publicity. While the super PACs of other candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are spending a barrage of dollars in order to keep them alive and relevant in the contest, Trump can just make a controversial statement and watch the same getting played over and again for days on.
Trump’s manipulation of media was quite apparent in the way he raised the birther question of Ted Cruz. He just mooted the idea in a few rallies; the media was eager to lap it up, like all things related to Trump, and then devote countless articles to discuss and deliberate on it. As a result, a long shot, apparently ridiculous idea became the fodder of mainstream media discussion and went on to raise questions on the very legitimacy of Cruz’s candidacy, which was Trump’s strategy in the first place.
The Teflon Candidate
Trump’s candidacy has attracted criticism from a number of quarters, including some of his fellow candidates, although not quite as forcefully as expected. But it has done nothing to lower his support. Mostly, it is because no one comes even remotely close to matching Trump’s media management skills. Whenever anyone questions Trump, be it a journalist, the editorial of a well established media house or a rival candidate, he simply disparages the critic on Twitter and then unleashes his Twitter support army to heap insult after insult on the same.
Where Mainstream Fear to Tread
So why has other candidates not emulated his strategy? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, a number of other candidates who are running in this race are career politicians. They are sitting senators or governors and hope to have some portfolio in future Republican administrations or at least, use their political experience to serve as lobbyists or in the private sector. They are not billionaires like Trump and have a career to look after. So they cannot just mouth some non-sensical, insulting statement and get away with it. Secondly, their campaigns are financed by donors. Your donors would not really be amused if you go on a racist or misogynistic tirade on Twitter. Thirdly, having campaigned all their lives along more traditional lines, they are really ill-equipped to run their campaigns along the strange methods of Trump, which resemble a reality show more than a primary campaign. Fourthly, Trump is a bully par excellence. Years of working in reality shows like ‘The Apprentice’ have made him a past master in that art. It is difficult to really trump Trump in bullying. Fifthly, Trump has not really run a political campaign before. As a result, he has a clean slate unlike most others in the field, who cannot just reset their lifelong works and beliefs, and ‘etch a sketch’. Lastly, those angry, anti-establishment voters have already flocked to Trump; it seems unlikely that such voters will ever come back to a more conventional candidate, regardless of what he or she says.
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, he was attracting support of a mere 4% of the Republican voters. But worse than that, he was intensely disliked in the party, even though he was relatively well known among Republican voters.
Generally, a combination of low favourability number and a high percentage of recognition among voters is considered a recipe for disaster for a candidate. It means people already know the candidate, and have formed a negative impression about him; so they are not likely to like him as they hear more from and about him during the course of the campaign. In fact, this toxic combination had led a number of analysts to predict that his candidacy shall be nothing more than a joke.
The real miracle of Trump’s candidacy has been that he has been able to increase his favourability numbers among Republican voters in the last few months. In spite of the fact that they already knew him and did not like his bombastic, narcissistic style, when they were exposed to more of the same bombastic, narcissistic style during the political campaign, they have started to like him more and more. I know this requires some feat of political jujitsu unbeknownst to the rest of the political world and I have absolutely how he made it happen; but, the fact that it has happened is one of the most signature accomplishments of his campaign and speaks highly about his skills as a candidate.
If we look at other questions which measure the favourability of a candidate, like which candidate the voters would never consider voting for, Trump has registered significant progress.
The Question of Electability
We have already dwelled on this topic before. One of the theoretical weaknesses of a Trump campaign has been the so called electability question; the theory says that a candidate like Trump would prove to be a disaster in the general election and no sooner the Republican voters find this out, they will desert him in droves and throw their support behind another candidate. But in survey after survey, Trump has led the Republican candidates on the question of electability. In fact, the percentage of voters who consider him to be the most electable candidate is more than the percentage of voters who would support him. This is when historically, for insurgent candidates, electability has indeed been a liability and voters have actually been cognizant of the idea that such candidates may fare poorly in general elections. Somehow, Trump has been able to defy this phenomenon by presenting himself as a person who always wins, be it in business or in the political world. Indeed, the idea of Trump as a possible loser has been so far-fetched to Republican voters that they have bought into this delusion and have started believing Trump is the guy who can deliver the White House for the Republican Party.
This impractical belief in Trump’s superhuman prowess has also been reflected in other questions like which candidate the Republican voters would trust most to handle economy and terrorism. Trump has consistently led the field in these two categories. This is in spite of the fact that Trump has shown hardly any expertise on economy during the course of the campaign. He has repeatedly shown that his grasp of international affairs is tenous, at best. And he is running against a bunch of talented people who spend most of their entire waking hours studying and formulating the nation’s or their respective state’s policy on economy and terrorism. Still the fact that he is more trusted to handle these issues shows the effectiveness of the campaign he has waged.
Masking his Weaknesses
As mentioned above, Trump is not very proficient in policy matters. His policy platforms during the election includes the ridiculous and school-boyish ideas of constructing a wall on the Mexican border and making Mexico pay for it, re-negotiating trade deals with the likes of Mexico, China and Japan and making them more favourable to USA, destroying ISIS by cutting off its oil supply, repealing Obamacare with something great and creating a lot of jobs. If you are looking for more details on how he would accomplish them, there are none. If you were to believe Trump, the idea of him descending on the White House would terrorize USA’s rivals and competitors and send them into such a fit of despair that they would voluntarily come up to him and accept meekly whatever he is willing to spare them.
The fact actually is that Trump is not very proficient on policy positions. He has some standard clichés and statements (like “Build a wall”, “Make America great again”, “We will win so much that we will make your head spin”), but once you scratch the surface, his lack of knowledge on actually policy details begins to show. Normally, any candidate like Trump would hire a kickass team of advisors and would take daily policy briefings. But Trump has not really done that either. He has, in fact, said that he gets his foreign policy ideas from the talk shows.
It thus remains really surprising that the media has not really tested Trump on specific policy positions. Whenever he has been asked factual questions, he has given some garbled nonsense and the standard reply that he would hire an awesome team when he reaches the Oval Office. One also gets the impression that the media has been scared of asking him such legitimate questions. Trump is famously volatile and is prone to throw hissy fits when he does not like something. The few times he was actually subjected to tough questions (like the First Republican debate organized by Fox News or the Howard Hughes show), he swiftly retaliated by accusing the moderators of bias on Twitter. Since Trump is such a ratings gold mine and can get an interview pretty much wherever he wants, most visual media outlets have tended to treat him with kid gloves. Trump has thus mostly avoided being made to look stupid on camera, a fate that has awaited many an outsider candidate.
To Sum Up
It is true that a large part of the credit for Trump’s rise goes to the circumstances. Had Trump been running in an election in a year like 2000, when the economy was chugging along smoothly, Islamic terrorism was not a rich country problem and Americans were not that worried about losing their jobs to illegal immigrants, Trump would not have probably succeeded. The unique circumstances of today, along with years of mistrust of institutions and scare-mongering perpetuated by various right wing outfits among conservative voters have aided to the rise of Trump. And it is very much possible that Trump may still end up losing the election badly. A significant portion of his supporters are first time voters who may not bother to show up to vote. But, even then, Donald Trump has overcome large odds to run a shockingly effective campaign. Even though he has not won a single vote yet, in many ways, his campaign has upended the traditional political beliefs and conventional wisdom and its effect may continue to reverberate for years to come.