02/29/2016 12:01 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2017

Low-Expectations: Secret to Trump's Success

Donald Trump's flair for insults knows no bounds. Last year he said of Senator John McCain "he's not a war hero . . . I like people who weren't captured." McCain, a former Navy aviator, was shot down over Vietnam and tortured as a POW -- his wounds from those beatings will stay with him the rest of his life.

Attacking a US hero would by itself torpedo most any bid for public office, even dogcatcher; yet, the most petulant figure in American political history is in command of the GOP presidential field.

Even Trump is amused by what he gets away with: "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters, okay? It's like incredible." He attributes his Teflon coating to having "the most loyal people."

I believe that there is another explanation for the businessman-reality-TV-star's ability to say or do anything without repercussion: low-expectations.

Trump's greatest political asset might be his bad reputation.

I uncovered the "expectation phenomenon" last year when testing an analytical tool I developed to predict the impact a crisis will have on a particular brand. After running case studies through the Crisis Score model I discovered instances when a great reputation was a hindrance because of the high-expectations that it created; conversely, occasions when a bad reputation was actually a benefit, as it effectively lowered expectations.

There is probably plenty of psychology around this concept, but in marketing and public relations, it flies-in-the-face of everything taught and believed to be true for decades. Conventional thinking holds that a "halo effect" envelops brands with a good reputation, allowing them to better absorb a crisis than those with an inferior one.

Once I came to terms with the phenomenon, certain things started to make sense, including the stories of Toyota and General Motors (GM).

In 2009, at the outset of its "unintended acceleration" issue, Toyota enjoyed a tremendous reputation for quality, safety, and reliability. GM, by contrast, a brand plagued by quality issues, was emerging from bankruptcy in 2014 when its ignition switch issue because just the latest in a long string of crises,. In spite of the fact that GM had a lesser reputation, and that their issue resulted in far more fatalities and recalls, their sales and stock price both went up during their crisis, while Toyota experienced 20% drops in both metrics.

Toyota's halo fell down around its neck and consumers choked them with it.

The "expectation phenomenon" might also explain why low-budget airlines fair better in consumer satisfaction surveys; it isn't necessarily true that they offer better service, it might just be that passengers expect less of them, which makes their performance seem better than it really is.

Before Trump, President Bill Clinton benefitted from the same phenomenon.

I doubt that historians will credit Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers for their critical roles in getting Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but that is precisely what they inadvertently did.

During his first election for president in 1991, Jones accused the Governor of sexual harassment while Flowers chronicled a decade-long affair with Clinton. Their stories damaged Clinton's brand enough to lower expectations the public had in his character, but not enough to keep him out of the White House.

The irony in Clinton's story is that two women who sought to ruin his political life ended up saving it years later.

Imagine if George W. Bush or Barack Obama were caught having a sexual relationship with a young White House intern, in the Oval Office, and then lied about it to investigators and to the American people. It is hard to see how either president would survive such a scandal, given public expectations of their morality, compared to their predecessor from Arkansas.

We are witnessing a similar phenomenon with Trump, only in his case it is a free pass to be crass, condescending and invective.

Am I suggesting that a good reputation is a bad thing? No, but it might be a double-edged sword; instead of creating a "halo effect" it might actually create a spotlight effect -- putting brands in the bright lights of high-expectations.

If Trump deserves credit for anything, it is his ability to play to growing frustrations over political correctness and illegal immigration. He might not of set out to insult as many people and groups as he has, but he has mistakenly interpreted the lack of backlash as approval, when it more attributed to low expectations.

Republican voters are not the only ones to blame for Trump's meteoric rise. The media has certainly played a huge role in his political success, giving the candidate a hugely disproportionate amount of ink and airtime, right from the start. But there has also been too little public outrage when Trump insults an American hero or goes off on one of his misogynistic rants; perhaps democrats view it as an opportunity to improve their chances in November, but that is a dangerous game -- one they, and we, might all regret.

Trump may actually win the presidency, and if he does, it is our fault for not holding him to the same standard we hold others to. I don't know if he really believes his own insults, but I know that I believe in spirited discourse free of temper-tantrums and belittling tyraids.

I fear for our country if we elect a playground bully to be Commander-in-Chief. Teaching respect to our children is hard enough without having leading political figures threatening to push people down "with a thimble," whatever that means, and criticizing others for their appearance: "look at that face, are you kidding me."

Ronald Reagan described our country as "a shining city on a hill," a reputation very much at risk. We do not need to "make America great again;" we need to keep it great by expecting more from our candidates for public office.