The Master Persuader filter, of which I blog, says Trump’s success is based on his persuasion skills. But the more common 2D narrative is that Trump has name recognition and a winning policy with immigration, at least for the Republican base.
So, is Trump’s success in the campaign because of his powers of persuasion, or is it a combination of name-recognition plus having the most popular view on immigration (for Republicans)? I’ll help you sort that out.
Trump isn’t a lifetime politician. So as a thought experiment, imagine someone else with name recognition – let’s say actor Rob Lowe – and imagine him running for president with Trump’s immigration plan. How’s that turn out in your mind?
Right. Train wreck. The media would eat Rob Lowe for breakfast and regurgitate him for lunch so they can eat him again. Rob Lowe is a talented and good-looking guy, but he wouldn’t last a minute in a cage fight with the press, much less the other candidates.
Pick any other famous person who – like Trump – is NOT a politician, and try the thought experiment again. Better yet, pick any of the current Republican candidates and imagine them swapping policies with Trump. He gets their policies and they get his. Now wait a month and tell me who is ahead in the polls.
If John Kasich had Trump’s policies, would Kasich be leading the pack? Would I be blogging about him?
Part of Trump’s persuasion talent involves picking the right policies not only in terms of popularity but in terms of how he can influence that conversation. Trump looks for simple, visual anchors, such as his wall idea. He picked an idea that has legs, guarantees him all the available television time, and for which no one can flank him to his right. None of that is by accident.
Trump’s policy choices were available to all the candidates. Trump did the best job of picking a winner from the bunch. That is part of the skill of persuasion. As a persuader, you learn to pick your opportunities. Trump can’t change everyone’s mind about everything. But he can sell the hell out of a wall. And later he can soften his position on deportation if needed. We even expect it.
Compare that to Ted Cruz’ strategy of convincing people that he loves Jesus more than they do. That strategy only takes you so far. From a persuasion standpoint, Cruz painted himself into a corner that he probably can’t get out of in the general election. Trump did not, even though you think he did.
I realize Cruz has actual policies too. But I swear to Ted Cruz’ God that I can’t remember a single one of them as I write this, and I watched every debate.
In my book on systems versus goals, I talk about the importance of layering skills. If you put together the right stack of skills, you can leverage your persuasion power to great effect. And you don’t have to be the best in the world at any one thing.
Here’s Trump’s persuasion stack. Notice that he is talented on multiple dimensions, and he has several other things going for him too, but he isn’t the best in the world at any specific thing.
- Name recognition
- Trump history of success across multiple fields
- Persuasion (the science of it, plus NLP, hypnosis, etc.)
- Public speaking
- Sense of humor
- Quick on his feet
- Able to withstand blistering personal attacks
- High energy and powerful look
That talent stack is so strong that Trump could make almost any basket of policies sound good to the public. In fact, he could have run as a Democrat, taken Bernie Sanders’ entire platform, and be leading the polls on that side.
Ridiculous, you say?
If Donald Trump ran as a Democrat, on a platform of universal healthcare and free college tuition – paid entirely by corporate tax-dodgers and China – he would absolutely be leading on the Democrat side.
Trump couldn’t pick ANY policy and win on ANY team. But if you think picking the RIGHT policies to put yourself in first place is an accident, and not an element of persuasion itself, you are very wrong. Picking your fights is an element of both persuasion and strategy. Trump is good at both.
Why did Trump go all-in this year but not in past elections? It is because he saw a weak field this time. He knows how to pick his battles. That’s a skill.
The bottom line is that having the right policies is a requirement for doing well in a presidential campaign. But all the candidates had the same policy options as Trump. It isn’t luck that Trump picked right.
Back in August of 2015, you could be forgiven for thinking Trump got lucky by picking a hard line on immigration and finding that it worked out for him. But by February 2016 you probably see the pattern to his work. Everything you thought was Trump’s craziness is actually science – specifically the science of persuasion.
The candidate you think is the least science-minded is the only one using science to win.
And none of it is an accident.