Why Donald Trump leads Republican candidates in spite of breaking all the rules
Trump confounds the political experts
The conventional wisdom of political columnists up to recently has been that despite strength in the polls, real estate magnate Donald Trump had little likelihood of becoming the Republican nominee, let alone president; e.g. Sarah Fagen “The beginning of the end for Donald Trump” (1). When we look at the below aspects of “The Donald’s” campaign, it’s easy to see the pundits’ logic. No major candidate in memory or history has offered a richer target for criticism. Any one of the below items might have been enough to finish off ordinary candidates.
- Trump has a massive ego, refers constantly to his own importance and skills, and asserts magical power to correct national problems.
- His past and present positions and statements, usually presented casually, are often contradictory and unnuanced. His numbers can often be shown to be inaccurate or wrong.
- He makes extravagant and highly controversial claims about what he would do; he created outrage by his depiction of Mexican immigrants.
- He has insulted or casually belittled prominent people, including the war hero status of Senator John McCain, and assigned partial responsibility to President G.W.Bush for the 9/11 attack.
- He has made crude remarks
- He would make deals with authoritarian rulers like Putin and Assad.
- He has supported people and causes in opportunistic ways.
- It is hard to picture a man with his style as Commander in Chief of U.S. armed forces, with the responsibilities these roles entail.
- He has the largest negative poll ratings among candidates.
In spite of the above, polls (below table) show that Trump’s popularity has risen and stayed high. Recent polls show him moving above 30% since his speech at a reform conference on October 12. Diverse explanations of this strength vary from force of personality (2), to a lengthy article in The National Journal (3) that sees Trump tapping a new middle American radicalism in common with George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Pat Buchanan. Looking under the heady surface of Trump talk I explore underexamined assets.
Rankings of Republican presidential candidates
Modified from Real Clear Politics (1)
|NAME||RCP Avg.*||CBS (10/4-10/8)|
*RCP refers to an average of polls from 9/20 to 10/8, 2015
The No Labels Problem Solver Convention, October 12, 2015
No Labels (http://www.nolabels.org/) was founded in 2010 by moderate Democrats and Republicans concerned about the Congressional gridlock and political polarization that has paralyzed the ability of the nation to deal with serious problems. The October 12 convention, cochaired by former Utah Governor and Republican candidate for president Jon Huntsman, and former Senator and Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, chose problem solving as its theme. It invited presidential candidates to offer substance rather than campaign rhetoric. Presidential candidates besides Trump who spoke at the convention (covered gavel to gavel by C-Span) were Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie, and George Pataki, as well as the Democratic and Republican Party chairs for New Hampshire.
The Washington Post summary of the No Labels conference referred to Trump’s speech mainly as “standard talking points” (5). In contrast I suggest that underneath Trump’s characteristic style some of his underexamined and underrated assets got exposure. I explore them further below.
Trump began by stating that he was “a believer” in No Labels’ goals. He offered new detail on his dealmaking, including a striking story about the Wollman Skating Rink in New York City. He said he was appalled that after failure of years of renovation efforts in the City’s project a new plan was to be prepared for the skating rink. He offered and was allowed to take over the project. It was completed in only 18 months in 1986 – before a previously contracted plan was even scheduled to be delivered.
Trump’s overlooked “scientific dealmaking” and other assets
The most underestimated factor in my judgment lies in Trump’s characterization of himself as a dealmaker. Let’s think about what a “deal” implies. It’s an agreement among two or more people or organizations. Trump’s intensive focus on negotiation differs fundamentally from the political style of most candidates of the right or left. They are mainly concerned with their own special commitments and vision on political issues – rarely about alternative approaches and perspectives, especially that of opponents.
At the Problem Solvers Convention Trump went beyond previous speeches to describe how he makes deals. His approach is to get affected parties together – or develop relationships with and knowledge about persons or groups with stakes or expertise in the issue at hand. Talking about his rescue of another failed project in New York, he said “…. I needed the Mayor; I had to go to the city council, all the unions. I got everybody together”.
The most coherent description of Trump’s approach to dealmaking is not in his The Art of the Deal (6) or his other 13 books. A book by a long-term partner, George H. Ross (7) reveals an eight-point negotiation strategy closer to that of a military planner than that of a gut-level entrepreneur. It emphasizes the importance of flexibility and creativity in coming up with successful deals. In his October 12 speech Trump called special attention to the ability of President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich, and President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill, people with very different points of view, to get things done because they were dealmakers.
Trump doesn’t wear America-centric blinders and makes unconventional observations. Referring to relationships with people and companies all over the world as background for discussing the U.S.’s decaying infrastructure, he said that in Qatar, Bahrein, and Saudi Arabia even temporary airports constructed to handle traffic while building new airports are “a hundred times nicer than ours.” He not only feels that the U.S. made a mess by intervening in the Mideast and removing Saddam Hussein, but also said it was a mistake to fixate on removing Syrian president Assad. He asked: who would replace him? Do people really believe elections for a new leader would create peace and stability in Syria [think of Iraq]?
So what about his campaign? What has given him a leading position in the Republican primary?
Trump’s colorful and uninhibited language and unpredictability give him high visibility. The article by John Judis (2) cites support for his anti immigrant and anti free trade statements.
His “self-financed” campaign means he is free to take positions unconstrained by funding sources.
Less obvious is Trump’s ability to project himself vigorously into problems and human issues not related to his assumed preoccupation with wealth and dealmaking. In talking about unemployment he expressed concern about urban areas where African American youth have “60-70% unemployment” with the same attitude of engagement and urgency that he displayed in talking about major deals in New York City – implying that he could and would do something about this. He has blasted hedge funds and PACS, and parted company with conservative proponents of flat tax plans that would tax the ultra wealthy at the same rate as ordinary workers. He hammers on the theme of bringing American jobs back home from abroad.
Trump has an eye for talent. He chooses employees and advisors for their abilities, even if they opposed him or were on a different team earlier. A striking example is October 2 news that Trump had hired Republican campaign strategist Corbin Casteel as his campaign director. Two months earlier Casteen told the San Antonio Express-News “I believe it’s a universal view that Donald Trump is a joke” (8).
In the primary campaign Trump should not be vulnerable to the kind of gaffe or lapse that brought Texas Governor Rick Perry down in a fateful 2012 Republican primary debate. Supporters acknowledge his freewheeling style and don’t necessarily take specific statements seriously. Criticisms have obviously not held back his popularity. When they come from media pundits they may enhance his visibility.
His apparent rock-like self esteem and confidence based on successes in unconventional initiativees have encouraged him to speak candidly about issues that normal politicians shroud in caution or political correctness. This exhilarates citizens who are fed up with concealment and avoidance of issues, worn-out slogans and phrases they hear from politicians.
By expressing himself freely– even outrageously – about candidates or other well-known figures, sometimes having to backtrack or take contradictory positions, Trump has created a unique style. People can cite errors in fact, exaggerations or contradictions in his statements and it doesn’t slow him down. It’s just part of his persona as a dealmaker – whose positions are not final until the deal is signed and sealed. That the dealmaker retains a strategic sense about what is going on is suggested by his response to a female questioner after his No Label talk. She referred to his brash style and asked if he expected to win with it. He responded that he would probably become less divisive as the number of candidates got smaller.
If the Republican campaign were about documentable achievement in public leadership positions Governors Jeb Bush (Florida) and John Kasich (Ohio) would have a clear edge. But the popularity of Dr. Ben Carson, a distinguished African American brain surgeon with no political experience, demonstrates that personal qualities of the candidate and subjective feelings of voters have powerful influence. From everything said above, it’s hard to see anything except completely unexpected factors that might prevent Donald Trump from maintaining his lead in the Republican primary.
From here on we’re on more speculative ground. We know from repeated statements in his books that Trump recognizes and has successfully exploited the media’s hunger for good stories – the more sensational the better. But even if there is method in his madness how much of his unconventional behavior is spontaneous? Has he piled up so many flamboyant and unpresidential images that, even if he becomes the Republican nominee, they will be fateful later? It would be inconsistent of Trump not to be thinking about future strategies. But to what degree could headiness obscure his judgment?
As we move into the presidential election the picture changes dramatically, beginning with major ideological and political differences between Democratic and Republican voters. The more superficial and “entertainment” side of Trump, and the sympathy of many Republicans to candidates who are not professional politicians will no longer be the factors they are now. The question of gravitas befitting a president will emerge. Debates will get into major issues like climate change, income inequality, regulatory policy and immigration. And finally there is Trump’s rough treatment of Mexican immigrants – the Hispanic factor – that seems not to have worried him up to now. If Trump does become the Republican nominee it will be interesting to see how dealmaker Trump adapts to challenges associated with the biggest deal in his career.
For greater detail see Ref. 9.
- Sara Fagen. “The beginning of the end of Donald Trump”, Politics, CNBC.com, Sept. 17, 2015
- Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohen, and Jeremy W. Peters. “Why Trump won’t fold: polls and people speak”, New York Times, Politics, Aug. 22 2015
- John B. Judis. “Return of the middle American radical”, National Journal, October 2, 2015
- Real Clear Politics. “2016 Republican Presidential Nomination”; http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/us/2016_republican_presidential_nomination-3823.html, 2015
- Jenna Johnson. “An Event for Both Sides of the Aisle”, Washington Post, Oct. 13, 2015, p. A4, 2015
- Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz. The Art of the Deal, Ballentine Books, 384 p. 1987; updated edition 2004
- George H. Ross. Trump-style Negotiation: Powerful Strategies and Tactics for Mastering Every Deal, Wiley & Sons, 288 p, 2008
- Mike Ward, “Trump names former critic as his Texas campaign director”, http://www.chron.com/politics/election/national/article/Trump-names-Texas-campaign-director-6545451.php October 2, 2015
- Frank T. Manheim, “Underexamined strategies beneath candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Working Paper, Social Science Research Network, accessible at http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2674826