THE BLOG
01/31/2016 11:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Trumping Political Science? Lessons from Donald Trump's Surprising Campaign

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It is unclear if Donald Trump has rewritten the rules of political campaigning but he has unquestionably left pundits and political scientists baffled by his success. Most careful observers of politics (present authors included) believed Trump would have washed out quickly and decisively. His seemingly off-the-cuff banter and Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, vitriol sprayed - rather than carefully targeted -- at political opponents, fellow partisans, and journalists portended a half-life as a presidential candidate that might rival Herman Cain's 2012 presidential run. Yet, time and again, Trump has turned what would have been fatal gaffes if uttered by any other candidate into rally points for voters tired of political correctness and ready for a candidate to speak abrasively if not truthfully.

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Perhaps even more surprisingly, in a party that regularly casts out more conservative candidates as RINOS (Republicans in Name Only), the ideologically ambidextrous and trans-partisan Trump has not only endured but has emerged as the GOP frontrunner. Forget that from 2001 to 2009 he was a registered Democrat and that as recently as 2011 he was registered as an independent. Forget too that his mishmash of policy positions makes him more populist than conservative, he is now positioned such that winning the Republican nomination seems more real than laughable.

This is too is an odd turn of events. In an election where public anger at the financial and partisan establishment serves as the campaign's driving narrative; the well-established Trump, a generous contributor to Democrats and Republicans alike and recipient of profitable political favors that drove much of his business success, has crafted himself an outsider. Amidst lingering outrage at the financial manipulations that dragged the economy into the Great Recession, the bankrupt Trump admitted to using bankruptcy laws to avoid losing money in bad deals he negotiated. Four times from 1991 to 2009, Trump hotels and casinos were too big to fail. Yet, the billionaire gambler and builder of bankrupt casinos has emerged as the voice of marginalized working class whites. Even Donald Trump appears surprised at the depth and breadth of his support. "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody," he declared, "and not lose any voters."

Despite our bafflement, there are lessons to be learned in Trump's success. Perhaps surprisingly, many of them confirm rather than challenge what we know about campaigns and elections.

1. We live in a polarized political era with the parties more clearly and consistently defined by ideology than at any time in the recent past. Yet, ideology matters more as a symbolic attachment than as a well-defined and consistent set of issue positions, and ideological positioning shifts in accordance with the positions staked out by political elites. By current definitions, Donald Trump is a poor reflection of a conservative Republican. But if he wins, he will redefine the terms, and conservatism will look more like Donald Trump than Ronald Reagan.

2. Even in an age where the political parties are more clearly defined by ideology, parties are comprised of factions of voters united under a common label. The modern Republican Party has long welcomed racially resentful but economically populist white voters. These voters served as a key voting bloc for Richard Nixon's southern strategy and comprised much of what were termed "Reagan Democrats." Twelve years ago, Thomas Frank pondered "What is the Matter with Kansas," questioning why working class voters whose economic interests resided with the Democratic Party were persuaded to support Republican candidates and causes. Trump's 2016 campaign elevates populist angst above the twin pillars of religious and economic conservatism, thus threatening the mainstream Republican base built on a small government philosophy, economic conservatism, and evangelical voters. In this respect, Trump's campaign is not dissimilar from Pat Buchanan's insurgent campaign in 1992 or Rick Santorum's 2012 campaign, but he benefits from a divided Republican Party and thus stands a much better chance of winning the nomination and rattling the balance of power within the GOP.

3. Campaigns are not just contests where candidates compete over the best set of issue stances, they are emotionally driven where candidates connect with subsets of voters. In 1992, Bill Clinton famously "felt the pain" of voters concerned about their economic future. His emotional connectedness during a time of economic uncertainty was more critical to his success than any set of policies he endorsed. Barack Obama similarly fueled his 2008 campaign with the positive emotion of hope, promising a stronger economy and better future.

No emotion is better at mobilizing voters than anger, and Trump's insulting low-brow campaign fuels - and is fueled off of - voter anger and resentment. Partisan polarization, driven as much by a deep dislike of the other side, gives these appeals greater resonance. In a 2014 study, the Pew Center for the People and the Press discovered Republicans and Democrats alike were increasingly willing to say the other party was "a threat to the nation's future."

Trump's bluster plays well in this context. What is perhaps remarkable about the emotional tenor of the Trump campaign isn't that it is using anger as a central emotional appeal, but rather that it has no other emotional gear.

4. Most political campaigns work incredibly hard to get "earned media," coverage by news networks that is "free" and subsequently has greater credibility than paid advertisements. Donald Trump has received more free media coverage than all of his Republican opponents combined. Indeed, during the early stage of his campaign, he received so much coverage that he spent little or no money actually campaigning.

He has done so by playing to well-known media biases; i.e., controversy and conflict make for great news. Trump rarely says a non-controversial word. On any given Sunday morning, it is not unusual to hear Trump calling into multiple news programs while the news networks have provided nearly wall-to-wall coverage. When other candidates do a get a chance to appear, it is often to respond to an incendiary comment made by Trump. The effect is two-fold. Trump benefits from the coverage directly and drowns out the other candidates who might have otherwise received air time.

A lesser candidate might have used controversy to generate coverage, but would have failed to generate greater political support. In this respect, news coverage is a fickle friend, sometimes it helps but often it hurts political campaigns. Trump has masterfully turned this coverage mostly in his favor building support among Republican voters.

5. The strategic decisions of other candidates matter. The other Republicans in this race (like most pundits) underestimated Trump's potential appeal. His campaign seemed at best a curious sideshow that would eventually self-destruct. The best thing to do, these candidates reasoned, was to get out of the way until the circus was over and the real campaign could begin. Ted Cruz, in particular, played nice for as long as possible hoping for a political payoff in Trump voters once the Trump campaign ended. The result was that candidates mostly held their fire, preferring instead to target seemingly more serious and threatening opponents. Trump helped this process by threatening an independent campaign if treated unfairly that would likely guarantee a Democratic presidency. These decisions allowed Trump to avoid the sort of sustained negative campaign that might have undermined his political support. They also allowed him the time to grow into a stronger and more viable political candidate.

All of this said, Donald Trump still has significant barriers to overcome and his campaign, more successful than most of us would have predicted, may well prove his undoing. First, he is the least favorably viewed of all the presidential candidates, and his ratings among independents and Democrats are particularly low. Using controversy to generate news coverage has generated support but also has deepened animosities. Second, he is pushing the Republican Party into issue positions that will make it more difficult for Republicans to win elections among an increasingly diverse electorate. Working class white voters are an important voting bloc, but as we have noted in previous posts (link) they are a shrinking share of the electorate.

Overall, the Trump campaign has challenged our thinking about the nature of political campaigns but mainly by highlighting and recasting lessons we have already learned. The most important of these may be that campaigns are about emotional attachments rather than set ideological views, even in an increasingly conservative Republican Party. If Donald Trump wins the nomination, he will have succeeded in redefining what it means to be a conservative and a Republican, and he will have done so by tapping into anger at the Republican establishment.