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Why Trump Won

Tim Snowball, Director of Political Strategy, PHA Media

Trump promised to “win big”, and he has.  “The Donald” has defied the odds and romped home to a shock victory. He will now be sworn in as President on  the 20th of  January 2017 and will then become the most powerful politician on earth.

Trump promised “Brexit plus plus plus” and that is what he has delivered. The dynamics that have propelled him to power do certainly have similarities to the recent British experience. He has defied the expectations of the polls, confounded the mainstream media and rocked the political establishment.

Progressives and moderates, in America and around the world can now only look on aghast, wondering how on earth such a thing could have happened? I share that feeling this morning (though it is one that is becoming unhappily familiar…), but feel professionally obliged to attempt to offer some explanations for Trump’s success.

So, here’s three reasons why Trump won the Presidency:

  1. Simple messages that resonated with his market

Trump’s campaign demonstrated an extreme form of soundbite politics.  He successfully countered Clinton’s detailed experience and grasp of policy detail (otherwise her greatest assets) with a series of pithy slogans that were repeated consistently throughout the campaign and chanted by his supporters:  “Make America Great Again”, “Drain The Swamp”, “Build A Wall”, “Lock Her Up”.

trump3

Slogan politics provided voters with impressions of priorities and positions, in a format they could engage with, without a requirement of sophisticated knowledge or consideration. The lack of policy detail behind the slogans also meant that there was minimal scope for detailed scrutiny. This device is also suited to an era of social media campaigning, where all politics needs to be distilled to 140 characters.

Similarly, Trump’s adoption of a shock and awe political approach, with outrageous descriptions of Mexicans as “rapists and criminals” and proposals for a “ban on Muslims entering the United States”, ensured that he achieved dominance of the news agenda, even amid a hostile media, connected with the prejudices of his target market, largely avoided serious scrutiny, and reinforced his overall positioning.

  1. The creation of a movement of the “left behinds”

Trump has successfully built a new political movement of those who feel left behind by the globalised American economy. He appealed very directly to blue collar, working class, white voters, “the forgotten men and women of our country [who] will be forgotten no longer”.

This appeal mirrors Farage’s success with UKIP and the Leave campaign in the EU referendum here in Britain. But also, to some extent, Corbyn’s Momentum movement at the other end of the political spectrum. Trump has been able to draw on the support of this non-establishment support base to propel him through the Primaries and all the way to the White House.

Nigel Farage UKIP Speech

Image courtesy of: Gage Skidmore, flickr.com

Trump’s “America First” theme tapped into economic discontent, criticising trade deals such as NAFTA and TPP that had led to jobs moving out of America in favour of cheap imports, and uncontrolled immigration. He promised bold action, including slapping 35% tariffs on car imports if Ford Motors choose to move operations to Mexico, and mass deportations of illegal immigrants.

It was this blue collar demographic that used to form the electoral base of the Democrat Party (certainly from Roosevelt to Bill Clinton’s Presidencies), but, as in the UK it is also this group who have suffered from declining economic importance and therefore political focus in recent years. Trump’s success in States such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin shows the remarkable success of this strategic appeal, with far more traditional Democratic voters switching to Trump than most pollsters anticipated.

  1. Negative characterisation of his opponent.

Trump turned Clinton’s weaknesses into his greatest assets.  Trump’s campaign successfully demonised his opponent depicting her as weak (health, inconsistent), a political failure (particularly on foreign policy), and most damaging of all, deeply corrupt (“crooked Hillary”, email scandal, pay for play). 70% of Americans went to the polls yesterday believing Hilary Clinton was untrustworthy.

Image courtesy of Bill B, flickr.com

Image courtesy of Bill B, flickr.com

Trump also successfully depicted Hilary as ‘in hock’ to the establishment and as the “more of the same” candidate (the latter charge was not particularly challenged by the Democrats). This approach allowed Trump to turn Hilary’s mainstream centrist positioning, which at times looked to be threatening Trump’s support from moderate Republicans, into a liability, supporting his strategy of mobilising “the people” against the “establishment”.

Conversely, in a campaign for change, Trump turned his greatest weakness (lack of political experience) into an asset, revelling in his outsider status and promising to shake up the political establishment. This even involved positioning himself against and losing the support of prominent figures in his own party.

Electorally, Trump’s strategy of often gutter negativity looks like it successfully depressed the Democratic vote, particularly that of millennial voters who found it increasingly hard to get excited by Hilary.

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