In spite of Donald Trump’s lead in the Republican primary campaign, until December 2015 there was wide scepticism that he would survive. His bombastic speechmaking, carelessness with facts, and outrageous claims earned him comments like “feckless blowhard” (editor of the Des Moines Register), “crass, bigoted bully with a narcissistic personality disorder” (Frank Rich New York Magazine), and “dangerous to democracy” (Washington Post Op-ed by former President G.W. Bush’s press secretary, Michael Gerson).
Nevertheless, my new working paper (1) supports the conclusion in an earlier paper (2) that, barring unforeseen circumstances, Trump is likely to become the Republican nominee. The new paper provides more detail on the extraordinary strategies that Trump appears to have employed to overcome past associations with Democratic politicians and causes, including support for Hillary Clinton. This record would have rendered a campaign as a Republican unthinkable for most politicians. But lacking ideological blinders – conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer referred to Trump as having “no coherent political philosophy, no core beliefs at all” (3) – and experienced in psychologically strategizing business deals, Trump launched a bold campaign in 2011. He first got media attention with “birther” claims about Barack Obama. He then systematically cultivated relationships with conservative Republican groups that included the Tea Party.
Announcing his candidacy in June 2015, Trump issued deliberately inflammatory statements on illegal immigration from Mexico. These gained him wide media coverage, projected the image of an unintimidated candidate willing to take on real-world issues that other politicians ducked, and helped obscure Trump’s past political background. This triple strategy let him surge ahead of other candidates in the polls. Subsequent aggressive positions and actions continued to create headlines and build grassroots support – as well as cause deep concern among some Republicans.
Going into the Iowa caucus with ratings in the high 30s, Trump ended up second to Ted Cruz with 24% of the Iowa vote. Pundits and pollsters were misled and saw this as a major setback for the Trump campaign’s supposed reliance on a winning image. They overlooked the possibility that evangelical Christians who made up 64% of Iowa Republican voters might see a mismatch between Trump’s persona and Scriptural passages like Matthew 19: 23 “ Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”. Trump reasserted his clout in a decisive win in the New Hampshire primary.
Prior to the Iowa caucus an adaptive shift in the future Trump campaign was signaled by a radical change in presentation of policy positions on his campaign website. Quotes from speeches dating back to Trump’s earlier campaign were replaced by more formally crafted articulation of five issues including tax policy, immigration, and Second Amendment rights.
Trump’s Achilles heels are interpreted to include an obsessive need for grandiose achievements, public visibility and approval, and a less than dignified leadership image.However, although the primary election is still in early stages, my assessment concurs with commentator Frank Rich’s conclusion that Trump is “exposing the phoniness and corruption” in our political processes, and will have permanent impact on the system.
1. Manheim, Frank T. “Trump Cards II: Significance of the Donald’s Rise, His Audaceous Two-Layered Campaign, and His Achilles Heels” (February 9, 2016). Available at SSRN http://ssrn.com/abstract=2729989
2. Manheim, Frank T. “Underestimated Strategies Beneath Candidate Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign” (October 15, 2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2674826
3. Krauthammer, Charles “The establishment nonesense” Op-ed, Washington Post”, Feb. 4, 2016
4. Rich, Frank “The importance of Donald Trump”, New York Magazine, Sept. 21, 2015