How the Heck Did We Get a Candidate Like Donald Trump?

09/03/2016 12:58 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2016
For all his problematic statements and actions—Trump is one of only two major party candidates left standing.
Photo: http://www.investors.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/SYNDV-ELDER-020516-newscom.jpg
For all his problematic statements and actions—Trump is one of only two major party candidates left standing.

So, here we are. Less than two months from deciding the next president of the United States. And to say that this has been a humdinger of an election cycle so far would be an exercise in understatement. By all accounts, this has been a level of political strangeness that we have never seen before. We’re entertained, shocked and horrified at the same time.

We’ve got two main party candidates with unprecedented dislike numbers. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll show that 56% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton. These are the worst numbers of her 25-year career in and around politics. Clinton’s got email scandals, FBI probes stacked one on top of the next like firewood and myriad other problems that would have wiped out any other candidate from consideration.

However, Trump fares much worse. According to the same Washington Post-ABC News poll only 35 per cent of Americans have a favorable impression of him. His floor-scraping numbers with African Americans are legendary and laughable. A recent poll found that Trump was statistically polling at zero among African Americans.

His litany of insults, put-downs and policies that, to put it mildly, have alienated the majority of voters of color, women and white voters who are uncomfortable with some of his overt Archie Bunker-esque views on where the country is going. Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style has made so many establishment Republicans uncomfortable, that many of them are defecting over to the Clinton side. But he’s still here…

So…. how did we get a candidate like Trump?

Two reasons:

An Anti-establishment Platform and a solid Digital Strategy

The ascendance of both Trump and to a lesser degree, Bernie Sanders, is a reflection of the of the majority of the American populace that was, frankly, tired of the politics-as-usual that usually left them, the struggling middle class, holding the proverbial bag. We’ve watched as Congress performs a mainly male, far less glamorous version of Mean Girls, playing out petty political gripes disguised as policy while holding the American people’s financial and personal well-being hostage in the process. People were and are fed up.

Though Sanders and Trump are almost diametrically opposed politically, both of these candidates represented a marked departure from the usual. Sanders populist message appealed to a significant portion of Democrat voters and surprisingly he gave the firmly establishment Clinton a real run for her money before she eventually clinched the win. Establishment Democrats are still scratching their heads trying to find a way to seduce angry Sanders’ voters into voting for Hillary Clinton. Failing that, the establishment Democrats are trying to find a way to at least tamp them down so they don’t do Clinton any further harm in the general election.

Trump is similar in this regard. He entered a crowded field of mainly establishment Republicans armed with excellent name recognition, a brand that spelled “I’m really rich” and—this is key—he excoriated the establishment politicians both Democrat and Republican. He was a living catharsis for Republican voters that felt that the system was hopelessly rigged, that politicians were working against their best interests and that America’s best days were in the rear view mirror unless something drastic was done.

Trump was that drastic something. He won more votes than any other Republican candidate in history, helped in large part by a crowded field. 13.4 million votes in total to be exact. Most of his wins were landslide victories. And the more he bucked the Republican establishment, the more he won. It was like watching the Road Runner make a humiliated mess of Wile E. Coyote. With each win, it was like the acme anvil coming down on RNC Chairman’s Reince Preibus’ head over and over again. It was painful to watch.

So we know that the zeitgeist was anti-establishment for both Republicans and Democrats. But how did Trump managed to sidestep the political establishment machines and Sanders not? There are many factors, but here’s one of the most important: Twitter was the preferred medium for political conversation in this election cycle. Trump mastered Twitter to communicate with the general population, Sanders, though extremely social media savvy with his base, did not.

Digital Strategy

History shows that Presidential candidates (and eventually presidents) that master the medium of the day, tend to connect most strongly with their intended voters and constituents. And more often than not, that means a win. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” during his presidency soothed American nerves still frazzled by World War II, and the Great Depression. Radio was the medium of the day, and Roosevelt used it to great effect, employing an avuncular tone to assure the populace that all was well and the country was in capable and kind hands.

Later, as television emerged as the preferred media, Kennedy essentially used the medium as his own personal PR manager. The story of the debate between Kennedy and his Republican rival Richard Nixon is the stuff of political legend. Kennedy looking tan, competent, handsome and able was a stark contrast from the shifty-seeming Nixon who was sweating profusely and dabbing the sweat away under the hot TV lights.

Understanding your digital platforms is essential.  Kennedy was coached by TV strategists and producers and understood T
Photo: http://www.tutorialspoint.com/body_language/images/confident_kennedy.jpg
Understanding your digital platforms is essential.  Kennedy was coached by TV strategists and producers and understood TV, Nixon wasn’t. It showed. And it changed the election.

The estimated 70 million people who watched thought Kennedy had won the debate in large part, because he understood the medium and used it to his advantage. Those same 70 million probably couldn’t tell you what Kennedy said, but he came across wonderfully on TV. It later came out that Kennedy was coached by TV producers in order to understand and exploit the TV medium. By the way, he won.

In 2007-2008, Democrat Presidential Primary then-Senator Barack Obama used Facebook to great effect not only for fundraising but for building a movement, not just an opposing candidacy, against Hillary Clinton. Clinton was an experienced, respected politician with money, excellent name-recognition and a strong tailwind of inevitability. Obama used social media to take his message directly to the people in real time. They got a glimpse into his life, his compelling oh-so-American story and felt like “hey, I kind of like this guy.” By the time the Clinton campaign, who were using a communications strategy that leaned heavily on traditional media, tried to counter, the groundswell of support for the “cool” candidate using the “cool” social media platform to connect with people wherever, whenever was insurmountable. By the way, he also won.

So here we are now with Trump. A candidate who says ill-advised things on a semi-regular basis about women, minorities and every one that has the misfortune to end up in his crosshairs. But he certainly understands the importance of digital strategy. More so, I would posit, in large part because traditional media outlets are hostile to his candidacy. In order for Trump’s campaign to survive, a powerful digital strategy that sidestepped traditional media outlets was essential.

Trump has used his name recognition and brand to secure over 2 billion dollars of earned media, particularly in the digital space (television, video and social media) Admittedly, because of his brand and his previous stint as the host of the once wildly popular show, The Apprentice, he had a running start, but he further exploited it by being quotable and always interesting even if in some cases that interest translated into being horrified. We are always watching.

Furthermore, Trump absolutely mastered Twitter as a political communication medium. Like him or hate him, Trump’s Twitter page is a gold mine of readability. Even politicians that oppose him increase their number of followers based on—guess what—something having to do with Trump and/or his Twitter page. They, too, are inadvertently building his brand for good or bad.

Trump tweets like he talks, which gives him believability. We all believe that he writes his own tweets and he strongly believes what he’s writing even if we can’t stand it. In an age where people are tired of disingenuous politicians playing fast and loose with the truth, this appeals to his base and is also attractive to some in the middle who want to see a straightforward politician take office. Whether or not people like Trump, people believe that he’s telling them what he really believes. Is he really? That’s up for debate. But the strong perception is that he is, is due in large part to his mastery of Twitter. And if he does win this election, it will be in massive part to his domination of the social media sphere.

Moreover—and this is key—Trump’s media mastery came in at bargain basement cost. He hasn’t spent a lot of money at all. Twitter is free for anyone who has internet access. This combined with his 2 billion in earned media gives him bragging rights to say he would be a good steward of the American taxpayer dollars. His campaign spending so far has been quite low. Particularly compared with Clinton who’s outspending Trump 10-to-1 on TV ads.

For American taxpayers who are tightening their own financial belts so tightly they are having trouble breathing are also tired of seeing politicians engage in profligate spending with their hard-earned taxpayer dollars, this sends a strong message— “This guy does not waste money, and he won’t waste mine.” Perception is everything in politics.

Say what you want about Trump’s politics, but he managed to beat a field of 16 Republicans handily and is a serious candidate to win the Presidency. Trump might be problematic, but he’s instructive for those of us running or launching campaigns regardless of political affiliation or professional sector. When considering your own runs for office, public affairs campaigns or marketing campaigns, do NOT underestimate the importance of your digital strategy. In fact, in this day and age it needs to be front and center.

<i>Digital Campaigns aren&rsquo;t just a traditional marketing approach posted online, they require their own strategy and ex
Digital Campaigns aren’t just a traditional marketing approach posted online, they require their own strategy and execution that feeds into your overall strategy goals

It’s not enough to just have a digital and social media presence, but you must form a distinct “digital” brand that feeds into your overall objectives. Who are you online? More importantly, what do you sound like online? Does that resonate with your intended audience online? Do they believe you? If they do, then what’s the action that you want your audience to take (vote, buy, donate change behavior)? Talk like your audience, engage them in a conversation and be clear what you want them to do—and why they should do it.

Digital requires a different marketing strategy and voice than traditional media. Trump’s strategy for marketing his high-rise buildings or casinos or “steaks” are nothing like his digital campaign strategy to run for President. Different voice, different audiences, but the strategies work together, in sync for the overall Trump brand.

You can’t just add digital water to a traditional marketing strategy, it is a different (and markedly cheaper) animal. Trump understands that, his political voice of the insurgent outsider is certainly not the way he would approach investors. He understands his audience and talks like them. And this is where many organizations and candidates and companies stumble. Their social media doesn’t sound like them, you’re almost sure someone else wrote their FB post or tweet and nothing about it seems real.

Social media is about conversation. Would you like it if your friend didn’t take the time to talk with you but paid a stand-in instead? Probably not. Similarly, with social media. That’s how your followers feel when it’s clear your staff wrote a tweet or FB. At the very least, if it can’t be you, make it sound like it could be you. Trump is excellent in this capacity and it’s a large part of his success.

Learn from our former Presidents and candidates as they’ve shown us time and time again that he who wins the digital medium, wins the audience, the customer or the voter. Winning the digital media game is a matter of believability and apparent authenticity. Even if your policies aren’t so great. There are many people with great and thoroughly outlined policies that participated in the Republican and Democrat Primaries this election cycle that didn’t have a great digital strategy. They’re at home now. Watching just like the rest of us…

So here we are. An anti-establishment candidate that speaks what seems on the surface to be the naked truth, who looks like he knows how to spend money wisely and communicates with (not at) his audience in a way and on a level they understand. That is Trump’s political brand in a nutshell. That political brand never would have been established without a strong social media and digital presence.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the heck we got a candidate like Donald Trump.

Dr.Tricia Callender, Ph.D is the President and CEO of Spanner Strategies, LLC, a digital campaign strategy firm with offices in New York and Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be reached at info@spannerstrategies.com.

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