As I have taught you over the past year, the strongest form of persuasion involves fear. And the stronger the fear, the better the persuasion. For example, in the primaries, the biggest physical-fear story on the Republican side was terrorism and immigration risks, and that favored Trump’s bad-ass messaging. Result: Trump got the nomination.
For Democrats the biggest fear was that Trump might become president. That favored Clinton over Sanders in the primaries because it was believed she had the best chance against Trump in the general election.
Once the contest became Trump versus Clinton, Trump had the early fear advantage because Clinton was talking about her policies and experiences while Trump was talking about rapists, terrorists, and ISIS drowning people in cages. If that matchup had stayed the same, Trump would have coasted to victory. We saw him briefly pull ahead earlier in the summer.
Then Clinton went “full fear” in her messaging, cleverly framing Trump himself as the biggest risk to humanity. While Trump was scaring the public about crimes and atrocities that might affect some of us, Clinton was talking about Trump’s “temperament” leading to nuclear war, and his “dog whistles” leading to a new American racism. That would affect all of us. You can’t top that kind of fear message. And so we saw Clinton’s poll number zoom ahead of Trump’s later in the summer.
Then came the Wikileaks. And Project Veritas. And the FBI’s latest announcement about the emails on Weiner’s computer. We watched Clinton physically collapse in public. Individually, none of that news was big enough to make a difference. But collectively it framed Clinton as a drinker in dubious health, who hired bullies to start violence at Trump rallies, and runs a Mafia-like shadow-government called The Clinton Foundation, funded in part by companies that benefit from war. Add that to Clinton’s confrontational language about Russia, and suddenly Clinton looks as dangerous as Trump. The fear persuasion was approaching a tie.
Then the Access Hollywood tape dropped. Our brains forgot about fear for awhile and concentrated on the appalling things Trump said and – according to several women – actually did. Voters abandoned Trump and put his poll numbers in a big hole.
But here’s the catch. You might be disgusted by Trump’s interactions with women. You might think he is a terrible role model. You might think it is an insult to the women you know and love to even consider such a person for President of the United States. You might think a dozen different bad things about Trump. But – and here is the important part – you probably are not afraid he will try to kiss you personally, or grab your p*ssy. And given his busy schedule, there is not much chance he will get around to acting inappropriate with anyone you know. Fear-wise, Trump’s interactions with women don’t have much impact on you as an individual. Your brain took a vacation from “Trump has a bad temperament and might destroy the Earth” to “Trump is a p*ssy-grabber.” The new frame is the less scary version of Trump, albeit icky.
Quite by accident, the Access Hollywood tape took the scare off of Trump. It made you think of Trump as an ordinary flawed human and not Hitler planning the Holocaust. Every minute you spent thinking of Trump as a horn-dog was a minute you weren’t worried about him blowing up the world. Meanwhile, the slow drip of revelations from Wikileaks and Project Veritas, plus the FBI announcement, was making Clinton look scarier. After an initial pearl-clutching period about the Access Hollywood tape, the fear gap started to close. And we see the results now in the tightening polls.
Clinton’s new messaging this week is focused on Trump’s views on women. She wants you to think a President Trump would take the country backwards in terms of how men treat women. Her persuaders are doing a good job of piecing together evidence and producing ads. But there is one problem.
It doesn’t scare anyone.
And we already knew Trump was “no angel” as he once said of himself. He never tried to sell himself as a role model. In fact, every voter who heard the Access Hollywood tape probably already believed Trump was guilty of private behavior that each of us would find appalling. The thing that appalls you might differ from the thing that appalls me, but Trump probably has something for everyone in his personal history. So does every voter. Most of us would fail the hot mic test. We aren’t angels either.
Persuasion-wise, Clinton’s message that Trump is bad for women sounds credible enough for her base, but it is largely inert persuasion for most of the public. We can’t imagine a scenario in which Trump tries to kiss us, or someone we know, without permission. Nor can we imagine that society will treat women worse because a guy with an appalling personal history is president. Frankly, we’ve outgrown that type of thinking. (Thanks to Bill Clinton.)
We’re down to the final week before election day. As things stand, Clinton’s “Trump is mean to women” message is weak compared to Trump’s generic stump speech plus the Wikileaks/FBI/Project Veritas stuff that keeps dripping out.
In summary, Clinton’s message this closing week is that Trump is politically incorrect, offensive to many people, and sexually aggressive beyond the point of appropriate social behavior. That’s all the stuff you already assumed about Trump a year ago. And it doesn’t scare you, no matter how badly it offends you.
Meanwhile, the current news cycle along with Trump’s supporters have framed Clinton as a low-stamina liar with a drinking problem who is running a criminal enterprise (The Clinton Foundation) that sells influence to foreign countries and companies that are more interested in war than peace. While she trash-talks Putin. That stuff could get all of us killed.
Fear is the strongest persuasion. Clinton has largely abandoned her fear message in the final weeks to focus on Trump’s words and behaviors involving women. Comparing the persuasion game on both sides, I predict Trump wins in a landslide.
Remember, facts don’t matter. Policies don’t matter. They never did. People care about their “tribe.” People care about their income. And people care about their fears. Everything else is less persuasive.
You might like my book because people in your tribe like it.