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 ...
5A 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."
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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."
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"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 ...