5 Ways We Got The Trump Campaign Wrong: An Insider Explains
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 ...
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."
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 ...
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."
"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 ...
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."
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.
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 ...
Any Change The Republican Party Makes Will Just Spawn More Trumps
After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election (badly), despite having an incredible chin, perfect hair, and McDuckloads of money, the Republican leadership decided to change the structure of their primaries. Barry recalls: "We scrunched up all the primaries and moved the convention forward." The goal was to avoid having their next nominee savaged by fellow Republicans too much before the general election. "We just wanted to shorten the process," Barry says.
They also considered making the CNN debate a literal boxing match.
Donald Trump didn't run in 2012, but back in 2011, he considered running and for a brief time was the most popular potential nominee. In order to stop something so terrible from ever coming to pass and to head off any other "fringe" candidates from beating up on the next nominee, Barry says, "We decided to have a rule that you needed to win so many states outright in order to be nominated, so you wouldn't worry about a fringe candidate being nominated."
Now, of course, the GOP establishment candidate is Marco Rubio, who has yet to win a single state primary. And since it looks like Rubio is about to lose hard to Trump in his home state of Florida, Candidate Trump is pretty much an inevitability. Says Barry: "Almost every change they made hurt the establishment and helped Donald Trump."
Next time they'll try banning hats.
Barry expects the party will change its rules again after this primary. "One thing we always do as a party, which is kind of absurd, we always try to alter the system for the last campaign," he says, adding, "We're always fighting the last cycle's campaign."
No matter what changes the Republican establishment makes to their primary system, nothing's going to turn elections back to the way they were. The way we conduct political elections has changed, fundamentally, this year. And that's something everyone who's hellbent on seeing Donald Trump as a pied piper for the ignorant and gullible is missing out on. The most important takeaway from the Trump candidacy is this:
Trump Isn't Fooling People Into Voting For Him
As the Trump candidacy metastasizes from an oddball insurgency to the probable primary winner, we're going to see more and more articles marveling over the stupidity of his supporters. Articles like this:
But what if Trump's supporters aren't dumb idiots, conned into supporting an obvious charlatan? What if they're actually voting for the one guy they don't think is a sleazy con-artist? And what if they've got a good reason to feel that way? The explanation for how this could be starts with The Daily Show and Jon Stewart.
A 2007 survey showed that Daily Show viewers were among the most informed young voters in the entire nation. Jon Stewart enraptured a generation of politically minded young people just in time for them to usher Barack Obama into the White House. President Obama showed up as a guest on the show three times before he was elected in 2008, and everyone else with presidential aspirations paid attention.
Presidential candidates are a superstitious and cowardly lot. If a certain photo-op or media appearance works for one candidate, it becomes a requirement for everyone else. That's why every Democratic and Republican candidate in Iowa had to be photographed eating at Pizza Ranch in Iowa. Because Rick Santorum had made a point to visit the chain when he won in that state in 2012, and no one since has wanted to risk skipping it.
So now, every wannabe president has to show up on funny late-night shows and play the comedian for America. Even Mitt "Half Plastic" Romney showed up to slow jam the news with Jimmy Fallon. Every candidate this year is going to try to do the same thing, but it won't work nearly as well for them as it does for Trump, because he was already good at being funny on TV before the election started. Unless they've got the effortless charisma of 2008 Obama, most politicians aren't very good at looking like they're having fun on camera.
The Romney campaign spent $19 million and three years engineering that smile.
Trump mastered that art long ago. He comes across as genuine, unfiltered no matter what he's saying, which is why none of the gaffes that should've sunk his campaign have done so. Trump's voters don't expect him to be perfect or to even perfectly encapsulate their values. They just don't think he's as full of shit as every other politician who comes a-courtin' them each election cycle.
"I don't think he can do everything he's promising, but at least he's going to try," was the sentiment expressed to me by one elderly rancher I talked to at a Trump speech in late February. This was the same day Chris Christie announced his official endorsement of Donald Trump, the first sign of a reconciliation between the GOP establishment and Trump the Inevitable. Appropriately enough, one of the songs that led Trump out to the stage was "You Can't Always Get What You Want," by The Rolling Stones.
Media coverage of Trump supporters usually portrays them as a bunch of screaming hillfolk, itching to beat up protesters and screaming themselves hoarse with catchphrases. And there were plenty of those people at the rally. Whenever Trump hit one of his applause lines about building a wall or carpet-bombing ISIS, placards would raise, the crazy guy behind me would scream something incoherent, and the whole room would erupt into deafening cheers ...
Just like you'd expect. But as the speech went on, I started looking around at the faces in the crowd, and I noticed something: Only about half the audience, maybe less, was cheering or applauding at any given time. Here's how the other side of the room looked, about a quarter-second after I snapped that first picture:
These guys aren't secret protesters or disillusioned. From what I gathered talking to many of them in the cramped and sweaty hour we spent standing together before the event, they are simply a more cautious brand of Trump supporter. GOP loyalists who see in Donald Trump not an idol but a man with enough money that he can't be corrupted by Wall Street. Trump speaks to their fears and frustrations, and since he isn't in anyone's pocket, they feel like he might mean it. Many of the rally attendees were former supporters of Christie or Jeb! or Rubio. They are still concerned about the strange, red-faced man who might be their candidate, but now are also willing to give him a try. As I stood there, I thought back to something Barry had told me:
"There's this natural occurrence in GOP primaries, where people want to be with the winner. ... If he can crack 50, this could end pretty fast."
Currently, 44 percent of Republicans support Donald Trump. And it's not because they're all racists or gun-toting crazies. Two of the most fervent Trump supporters I met at the rally are Latino-American immigrants. One is a young mother. And the most consistent reason they all give for their support is the same thing you'd hear at a Bernie Sanders rally:
"He's not in anybody's pocket. He doesn't owe favors to any big donors. He's his own man."
And now he's their man. Donald Trump is absolutely a liar, a racist, a charlatan, and maybe even an honest-to-God monster. But if all the people following him were those things too, he wouldn't still be winning.
Robert Evans just wrote his first book, A Brief History of Vice, and you can pre-order it now!
For more reasons why we should fear a Donald Trump presidency, check out 5 Ways Donald Trump Perfectly Mirrors Hitler's Rise To Power and 6 Ugly Things You Learn About Donald Trump Reading His Books.
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