Donald Trump: The Great Insulator
From the venerable Wikipedia: “An electrical insulator is a material whose internal electric charges do not flow freely, and therefore make it impossible to conduct an electric current under the influence of an electric field.“
It very well may be that Donald Trump, billionaire, mogul, reality star, hair product aficionado, will be the Republican nominee for President in 2016. Mr. Trump has run one of the most unexpectedly effective campaigns in recent history. The reason for his success is purely branding. Yes, you might think that name-calling and short, simple, sentences make the blustery New York businessman sound like a buffoon, but our brains are hardwired to remember Trumpisms more than they are long-winded political speeches.
Here’s the test: what is Donald Trump’s slogan? Now, can you tell me what Jeb Bush’s is? Frankly, I watch quite a bit of the political scene and even I have to go to Google to find out Jeb Bush’s slogan (hint: it’s “All in for Jeb”). Yet, I am sure that the majority of you know that “Make America Great Again” is the tagline for Trump.
This effective branding model, even if you don’t like Trump and despise his positions, have made him a master of courting public opinion. Certainly the insulting, insinuating, caricature of Trump is not the same one present in an actual boardroom. Regardless about your feelings regarding Trump’s “persona,” one does have to give him credit for being an extremely effective businessman. In the world of Trump, “good” and “evil” don’t really fit in. It’s a utilitarian business model that focuses on direct marketing, branding, and bringing the competition into your orbit.
Imagine for a moment if every Nike commercial had to explain why Underarmour was a bad company before plugging its own new line of shoes. Trump has made it virtually impossible for Republican candidates for President to get air time or media attention without diving headlong into the Trump game. In one sense, Trump is absolutely correct: he is ratings gold. Even with somewhat soft poll numbers since the second debate, he has drawn record audiences to the Tonight Show and the Late Show. His orchestrated spats with FoxNews have put him in the headlines on other cable news competitors and have made sure that Trump remains relevant. When the CNN debate focused nearly all of the questions for a three hour time slot on attempting to bring other candidates into a debate with Donald Trump, we can easily see that Trump is running the show.
Scott Walker’s exit from the race is a demonstration of a candidate making the wrong reaction to the smothering impact of Trump’s candidacy. Governor Walker, who many thought was going to be a strong contender for the “alternative to Jeb Bush” earlier this year, was simply unable to get any traction in his campaign and saw any hope that he had slip away in record fashion. Rather than go-to-ground and wait out Donald Trump, Walker decided that the better strategy was to attempt to push policies that seemed to be attempting to out-Trump Donald Trump. Famously, Walker advocated for a border wall with Canada and for cancelling the state visit of the President of China. These types of outlandish statements, coupled with the reality that Walker had a difficult time answering even the easiest questions with any sincerity, tanked his chances of being President.
In a normal election cycle, Walker would have had some time to craft a message and answers for policy questions. In the current environment, however, Walker was forced to try to compete for air time to both define himself and stay relevant in the 24-hour news cycle. He was obviously unsuccessful. His decline was both a result of bad politics and the deflationary impact of the Trump dominance of the media.
While Walker’s collapse was the most dramatic, other candidates who have attempted to either “out-Trump Trump” or engage with Trump, have found themselves in a similarly precarious position in the polls. The “Trump Bump,” that is the hope that, in the event Donald Trump engages with your campaign, even if it’s an insult, that your campaign will get air time and therefore a chance to define your message, does not seem to exist. For example, both Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul have attempted to go after Trump for his positions, but both now find themselves with campaigns that are barely hanging on to viability. Similarly, though in a less-dramatic fashion, Jeb Bush’s campaign has felt the impact of Trump’s ability to define the field of play.
It is important to note here that both Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are experiencing minor polling bumps at this point. However, both of these seem, at least at the outset, to be following the model that the Republican electorate used in 2012 to “test drive” potential candidates as alternatives to the inevitable, more moderate, candidate. Could this year be different? Certainly. Is it likely different? No.
So, why the “Great Insulator”? Because a few Republicans have played the Trump game brilliantly. With Trump as the public face of the Party for months, he is the lighting rod for criticism, ridicule, and attacks. Drawing heat from both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, Trump has remained steadfast in his style and manner of campaigning. He has kept the spotlight on himself and has brought millions of people in to watch the GOP debates. Those candidates, like Walker, who have tried to take positions outside of the “Trump zone” have faced painful rebukes (Walker on the Canada wall, Huckabee with Kim Davis, Carson on Muslim Presidents, etc.). Trump has set an outside border “nec plus ultra” inside of which Republican candidates can continue their messaging without sounding like extremists.
The candidates benefiting most from the insulating effect: Marco Rubio and John Kasich. Unlike Bush, who was the obvious target for Trump, both Kasich and Rubio have allowed the Trump wave to wash over their candidacies without much engagement. Certainly there have been a few barbs (Donald Trump called Rubio “sweaty”), but the campaigns have remained relatively distinct. With Walker out of the race and establishment fundraisers pulling back from Jeb’s campaign, both Rubio (most likely the new Koch choice) and Kasich seem like the smart investments. Note that both Ohio and Florida will have winner-take-all primaries on the same day. Kasich, barring some event that forces him out of the race, is almost guaranteed to win his home state. Rubio is now polling better than Jeb in Florida (this may not last, but it is an interesting show that Trump is taking his toll on the Bush campaign).
As the forces of nature and the media take their inevitable toll and wilt the Trump campaign by mid-October, the insulated campaigns will be able to emerge strong and vibrant with several debate performances and a record of solid campaigning without much media negativity. This success will be compounded by the likely comparison to the heavily tainted Democratic frontrunner and the apparent unwillingness of the Democrat Party to embrace democratic principles (pushing back/cancelling debates and forcing “super delegates” to commit early).
Certainly the foregoing is predicated on a decline of Donald Trump. While Trump seems like he could remain viable in early states, there is no evidence at this point that he is investing significantly in battleground primaries. Rather, it appears that he is allowing the national bump he has experienced to filter over the states and he is working on the assumption that this will translate into primary wins. This logic could certainly prove his downfall regardless of his 25% national polling. The soft bottom of Trump’s polling numbers would indicate that if he were to drop below 20% nationally that his campaign could hit a freefall point. However, at the moment, Trump sits comfortably in the vicinity of 24-26%.
If the insulation strategy seemingly being employed by Senator Rubio and Governor Kasich is ultimately successful, there is a good likelihood that one of the two could emerge with one of the strongest Republican campaigns since Reagan.