So, here we are -- a point in human history almost all of us thought was inconceivable just a few short months ago. Donald Trump, against all odds, appears to be well on his way to securing the Republican nomination. He's won three of the four primaries so far, losing only by a narrow margin to Ted Cruz in Iowa. That's approximately three more than anyone thought he'd win back when he first launched his campaign. It might be impossible for Donald "The Donald," "also John" Trump to actually win the presidency, but as far as the nomination goes: No one else comes close.
So how did Donald Trump do it, and why didn't any of the conventional political experts see it coming? We sat down with Barry Bennett, Ben Carson's former campaign manager, to try to figure that out. Barry started the election as Donald Trump's opponent and ran the only campaign that has, so far, unseated Trump as the frontrunner for any length of time. Now he works as a volunteer adviser to the Trump campaign. We also sent Cracked writer Robert Evans out to a Trump rally in Fort Worth, Texas. And now we know ...
#5. A Nominee Like Trump Was Inevitable From The Beginning
In March of 2015, Ben Carson formed an exploratory committee to consider running for president. Barry, who headed up this committee, was tasked with the job of determining if Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon with zero political experience, could win an election. His research included:
"Focus groups where we'd ask people, 'Describe what you're looking for in a candidate.' And then you tell them about Ben Carson to see if it matches up. ... What you're looking for is messaging, not any kind of numerical data ... and what we found was exactly what Donald Trump is doing right now. ... People are not angry at Washington; they are totally over Washington. They don't feel Washington can do anything to make their lives better."
Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Further research indicated that, while Americans are willing to trust a retired neurosurgeon,
no dentist candidate stands a chance.
The conclusion Bennett and his fellow electioneers came to is that American voters no longer care about electing a candidate with any kind of established political record. In fact, they see that record as a liability. Before the primary started, Bennett wanted to do a focus group of Jeb Bush supporters in Des Moines, Iowa. But the people he hired to do it couldn't find 12 supporters, he said.
According to Barry, that said to them: "There's lots of room for an outsider. And the question became: Will the lack of experience be a hindrance? And then Donald Trump and Ben were No. 1 or 2 for six months."
This has been a shocking election for the suit-wearing, martini-sipping fat-cats who usually pick our presidential candidates. But what's happening right now is the intersection of two long-running trends. First off, trust in government is near an all-time low, and distrust in government is near an all-time high:
And that's combined with another trend: Republicans and Democrats are more politically polarized than ever:
Voters across the political spectrum consistently rate the economy and terrorism as their two most important concerns. And yet Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton largely ignore these issues during their debates, because they can. They know their supporters won't vote for a Republican anyway. When candidates from either party do discuss these issues, it's only in the broadest, most shallow sense. Most voters today don't care about detailed policies and won't be swayed by candidates who run for the middle. They trust established politicians slightly less than they trust used-car dealers. Of course Donald Trump is doing well in this election. The sad reality is ...
#4. The Message Is Meaningless. The Candidate Is Everything
Some of you probably react to any mention of the Carson campaign with, "He was never a serious candidate." Right, that's exactly what we all said about Trump before he, y'know, became a serious candidate.
Jeb Bush, by the way, was once the wildly popular two-time governor of Florida. He was the "serious" Republican candidate right up until the moment he dropped out because no one likes him. Voters prefer Donald Trump's angry shouting and Ben Carson's garbled word salad to Jeb!'s policy papers and experience. This seems insane, impossible, if you don't realize that human charisma is mostly nonverbal. Whether we like or trust someone has less to do with what they say than how they look.
There's even some science behind this: In 1993, researchers had subjects guess how principals would rate the job performance of a teacher based purely on a silent, 30-second clip of that teacher lecturing. Most subjects accurately predicted how those teachers would be rated by the end of the year. They didn't need to hear them to judge them. Barry knew from the beginning that his candidate's image mattered a hell of a lot more than his policies:
"I have never in 30-plus years in politics heard of a voter printing out all the candidate's tax plans, reviewing them, and storing them, and deciding who they're going to vote for. That's just a fallacy. They vote with emotion, out of passion. But seldom, there are some keystone issues -- guns, abortion, that kind of stuff ... but I've just never seen anyone vote for somebody because they have a better foreign policy paper. It just doesn't happen."
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"Tax policy, schmax policy. I want to know my president eats pizza."
Traditional candidates -- like Rubio, Jeb!, and even Ted freaking Cruz, all do what's called message testing, where likely voters are polled to see which words and phrasings please them the most and piss them off the least. Donald Trump does not do this: He gets up in front of a crowd and says whatever the fuck he wants. Barry decided early on that the Carson campaign would not waste time with message testing.
He did, however, order focus groups of the people who already supported his candidate:
"I wanted to know why. I wanted to know how much they knew about Ben, and that told me which factoids stick and which don't. We talked about Ben's 67 PhDs and raising up from poverty. That kind of stuff. There have been eight black brain surgeons in the history of the world. That kind of stuff really stuck with people."
There's a reason why Donald Trump's opponents can't seem to score any hits on him over his relative support of non-conservative issues, like Planned Parenthood and single-payer healthcare. They don't trust him because of what he has to say. They trust him because of how he says it. In the end, most voters go with their gut.
And there's another critical piece to the puzzle of Donald Trump's continuing relevance ...
#3. Social Media Has Changed The Way We Judge Candidates
Back in 1988, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis posed for the press in a tank to shore up his military credentials:
He was more bobblehead than man.
But voters thought that giant helmet made him look silly, rather than badass, and it cost the Dukakis campaign dearly. On the upside, none of us grew up needing to spell the word 'Dukakis'. (On the downside, we invaded Iraq twice.) Meanwhile, in this election alone, voters have forgiven Marco Rubio's live TV robot meltdown and Hillary Clinton literally barking like a dog. Donald Trump has been caught and forgiven for mocking a disabled reporter. No one even seems to care about the fact that he once took a shot to the nuts from Stone Cold Steve Austin.
In 2014, The Guardian published a column arguing that, since social media preserves all of our sins forever in the cloud, people are going to have to get better at forgiving fuck-ups and faux pas. It's the only way we can survive as a society; otherwise, simply having existed as a teenager would be enough to disqualify all future presidents. The rise of social media has forced us to forgive things that would've been a death sentence to candidates of the past, and Donald Trump is just the first benefactor. As Barry told me:
"There is no news cycle anymore. You hit the button, and that's the news cycle."
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Ted Cruz, trying to decide if shooting his aide will pull focus from Trump for a solid hour.
Social media has also completely shifted the balance of power when it comes to funding a political campaign. Barry described to me how Republican Party candidates got their money in the recent past:
"There are something in the neighborhood of 70,000 people in America that write $2,700 checks, and the vast majority of fundraising on the Republican side comes from these people."
The maximum individual donation you can make to a candidate directly is $2,700 (you can give however-the-fuck much you want to a Super PAC). Jeb! Bush raised more money in his first hundred days of fundraising than any candidate in history: $11.4 million went to him personally ... but $9.6 million of that came from these "maxed-out" donors. He also raised more than $100 million in his Super PAC, courtesy of a bunch of anonymous rich people and corporations. In total, Jeb!'s campaign spent more than $150 million losing the nomination.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Including more than $2 million on dog-safe stickers.
Ben Carson managed to raise over $70 million, from a list of 3 million potential donors his campaign put together and reached out to, often via social media. Barry recalls things like:
"Every night at 10 o'clock, Ben would answer three questions on Facebook. ... We'd ask people to submit the questions, and we'd put together three on some sort of theme and let Ben answer them. ... It became a sort of nightly fireside chat."
Trump's fiery speeches and all-caps Twitter rants offer this same kind of direct, personal engagement to his voters. Compare that to the blanket of carefully vetted ads and direct mailers a candidate like Jeb! Bush relied on. All Jeb!'s efforts in 2015-16 netted him around 338,000 Facebook fans ...
Ben Carson, who spent less than half as much on his campaign and is still in the race, has over 5 million.
Donald Trump has raised only $27 million, but he's sitting pretty with nearly a million more Internet friends than Dr. Carson has.
There was a time in American politics when more money guaranteed you could reach more people and win more supporters. But with social media, it doesn't take a shitload of money to reach the world. All you need is a good gimmick. Like being so humble and down-to-earth that you travel coach, just like a regular person!
It doesn't matter that many of his Republican rivals have also been spotted riding coach. In 2012, Mitt freaking Romney even took shit for riding coach and not being talkative enough, even though not wanting to talk on a flight might be the most human thing Mitt Romney's ever done. Riding coach works for Sanders because it fits in with the character his campaign has spent months crafting. Jeb! Bush's decision to post a monogrammed gun on Twitter wasn't a disaster because Republican voters hate guns. It was a disaster because it didn't fit at all with the personality his campaign had established, so it just seemed like sad pandering.
Now you may still think Donald Trump doesn't have a snowball's chance in Chris Christie's pants of winning the general election. But even if he loses, candidates like him are our inevitable future, because ...