11 March 2016

Trump and the power of the mass audience

By Ian Leslie

In late 2013, Donald Trump called a meeting in New York with local Republican Party operatives to hash out the possibility of a run for the presidency (according to a report in Politico). A political consultant at the meeting asked Trump if he really was prepared to do the unglamorous work of shaking thousands of hands at countless fast food restaurants in Iowa. “Maybe a little,” said Trump. “But this is really about the power of the mass audience.”

The reason Donald Trump has been able to best his GOP rivals for the presidency is that he has been playing an entirely different game to them. Bush, Rubio and Cruz each pursued what has come to be regarded by political operatives as the essential modern strategy: target your tribe. Try and become the standard-bearer for one segment of the electorate, before pivoting to a broader audience as other candidates drop out.

Commentators were baffled by Jeb Bush’s failure to directly attack Trump until it was far too late, but it was because he didn’t regard Trump as a direct rival – until it was far too late. Bush was focused on becoming the candidate of his tribe: traditional Republican voters who wanted the reassurance of seniority, experience, and establishment validation. Cruz targeted evangelicals, while others, like Rand Paul, fought to represent the libertarian wing of the party. Meanwhile, Trump targeted everyone.

Over the summer of 2015, as his rivals sent ‘under the radar’ mailshots and emails to the voters in their tribe, Trump jammed the radar, making a series of outrageous remarks that guaranteed domination of the airwaves. He used Twitter and Facebook, not as messaging platforms, but as firestarters, burning up the oxygen of attention that might have been available to his competitors. By September, some voters were repelled by him, some loved him, but nobody could say they didn’t know who he was or what he stood for.

Trump doesn’t have a policy platform so much as a story: America has been so screwed up by politicians that no politician can fix it, and none of the conventional solutions work – which is why it’s going to take a fearless, slightly mad billionaire to return our country to what it was. Everything Trump says and does – from his self-worship, to his insults, his gaffes, his refusal to ever apologise, even his hair – embodies this story and feeds his celebrity.

Celebrity matters. The professionals advising the other candidates drew the wrong lesson from Obama’s revolutionary 2008 campaign against Hillary Clinton. They drooled over that campaign’s sophisticated use of digital data to target voters with relevant messages, while forgetting that the only reason the messages worked was that voters were intrigued by Obama. Before that young mother received an email telling her about Barack’s policy on child care credits, she knew who Obama was, so she opened the email.

She also knew why he was running. Most voters don’t have the time or inclination to absorb anything more than the simplest story about a candidate or party’s positioning. The Conservative general election victory of 2015 is sometimes attributed to the micro-targeting machine built by Lynton Crosby and Jim Messina. Effective as it undoubtedly was, it wouldn’t have worked unless the macro message – you can trust Cameron, not Miliband, on the economy – wasn’t absolutely unmissable by anyone who had even glanced at the news in the preceding five years.

Trump realised instinctively that if enough voters formed a clear mental impression of his candidacy, it didn’t matter if many or even most of them were turned off by it, because his net would be cast wide enough to pick up sufficient voters to give him the lead in a dispersed field. The same logic explains why big brands, including Google and Twitter, still spend millions to advertise on TV or posters, even though mass market advertising is often thought of as highly inefficient compared to highly targeted digital marketing.

These brands know that most of the viewers of their latest TV ad aren’t in the market for a new web browser, bottle of vodka, or car. But Google or Smirnoff or Ford trust that simply by making enough noise in the marketplace they can hoover up those consumers who are close to a purchase decision, while laying down a mental marker for those who will enter the market at a later date.

Trump, of course, didn’t need to buy advertising, because he was so effective at generating news, and flooding our social media feeds. His whole career has been built on entertainment: insofar as he is a successful businessman, it is because he has turned himself into a brand, which property developers pay to emblazon on skyscrapers. He understood that most voters aren’t interested in politics, and that the first task is to overcome their indifference. So he turned the Republican nomination race into another of his reality TV series. Everyone likes to watch a show that everyone else is watching, even when it’s tacky as hell.

Strategies that emphasize discreet targeting rely on the assumption that voters have fixed preferences. But voters do not sit neatly inside the boxes attributed to them by political marketers. Opinion is a mercurial substance. Political scientists have found over and over that people don’t reach their views by a process of careful rationalization, but follow their gut and make up reasons afterwards. They can find themselves drawn viscerally to politicians for reasons even they do not fully understand.

If he makes it to the general election, Trump will probably run up against the limits of his appeal (indeed, the most recent set of results in the GOP race suggests he has already reached his ceiling). But he has exceeded what every informed observer imagined those limits to be at the start of this race, by ignoring the conventional wisdom of modern political communications. Even in the age of data-based targeting, capturing the mass audience is the prerequisite of success. Politicians need to go big, or they will find themselves, like Jeb Bush, going home.

Ian Leslie is the author of 'CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It'. He writes about ideas, culture and politics for a range of publications in the UK and US.