Say what you want about Donald Trump, but he has run a masterful presidential campaign so far.
As of this morning, Trump has won the last three Republican state caucuses. Yesterday he won Nevada in nearly every major demographic category, receiving almost double the votes of his nearest competitor.
This piece will explore the strategic takeaways, branding lessons for all of us from Trump’s campaign so far.
At its core, his overall method has been simple: Capitalize on his celebrity status to dominate the news cycle by any means necessary.
Here are five elements of Trump’s strategy that have transformed him from political punchline to frontrunner in just a few short months:
Release a stream of ridiculous sound bites
In other words, say a bunch of crazy stuff that makes headlines, then sit back and watch the votes roll in.
Like clockwork, every 36 hours or so Trump comes out with an incendiary sound bite that alternatively frustrates his GOP rivals, energizes his base, or infuriates the Left.
Mostly all three at once.
More importantly, the cadence enabled Trump to dominate the news media.
True or not, the objective is simply to be talked about in the press, as every sentence spoken about you is one less spoken about your competitors.
In recent weeks Trump has:
- promised to replace Obamacare with “something better”
- defended Planned Parenthood
- blamed the Bush family for 9/11, and
- gotten into a war of words with the Pope.
The net effect has been to suck all the oxygen out of the available media space – with CNN, Fox News, etc. so busy discussing Trump’s latest ridiculous barb, precious little bandwidth is left for viewers to even get to know Rubio, Cruz or Bush.
Media Matters for America estimates that Fox News alone gave Trump nearly $30 million in free airtime last year.
Embrace your underdog status
Had the media and political establishment taken Trump’s candidacy seriously early on, he would never have gotten this far.
The Republican establishment, in particular, dismissed Trump too soon, convinced that his base – primarily under-educated and/or working class whites, as well as those of both parties disillusioned by typical DC politicians – would fail to materialize at the polls.
They were wrong.
With four states down, he’s now the front runner by a large margin.
Yes — Trump benefitted mightily from the crowded early field, as he needed only 30-40% of the vote to emerge victorious.
He won easy pluralities on his fame, name recognition, and willingness to speak truths that alienated the GOP base but inspired many voters sick of traditional politicians.
Don’t sweat the specifics
Trump has refused to delve into policy specifics on virtually any issue. And it hasn’t mattered.
The truth is, candidates win on hope and likeability far more than on qualifications or policy platforms.
George W. Bush ultimately won the presidency over Al Gore based mostly on the question “Who would you rather have a beer with?” For those dissatisfied with the establishment, outsiders Trump and Sanders have emerged at precisely the right time.
Emotions trump money
A false narrative among both the Republican and Democratic establishment this cycle has been inevitability based on money – that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were virtually assured their respective nominations because of their structural financial advantages.
Rather, we’ve seen Trump and Sanders emerge as legitimate contenders on relative shoestring budgets. See this chart of dollars per vote spent in the first two Republican contests:
By tapping into a populist vein that is both distrusting of government (with zero political experience, he’s the ultimate outsider) and aspirational (“he’s a billionaire, so he must be successful”), Trump in particular has drawn the support of middle- and working-class whites throughout the country.
In the last week, Trump has demonstrated his ability to win decisively among a patchwork of diverse groups, including Hispanics, Catholics and those more highly educated.
The takeaway here is simple – people like winners and success begets success.
Dismissed too early as a joke, Trump is now close to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee.
The next week the public discourse will begin to shift – the conversation will surround not whether Trump can win the nomination, but whether he can beat Hillary.
And with that aura of inevitability, Trump’s brand as a potential future president may be invincible.