A Titanic Coup? The Trump-Sanders Debate

In the latest bizarre twist in this election season, Jimmy Kimmel broached the subject of a debate with Bernie Sanders when he was interviewing Donald Trump last night. He said he’d do it for charity. Sanders was quick to respond with an acceptance.

From a marketing standpoint, a Trump-Sanders debate is pure genius on every level. It’s in fact the most brilliant play on the operational level in this election cycle so far, and it shows that both of them just run circles around Hillary Clinton’s pathetic attempts at persuasion. In a shot across Clinton’s bow, Bernie Sanders cleverly said that he “looked forward to debating before the primary on June 7th.”

Donald Trump Bernie Sanders debate

What Trump will do:

The point isn’t so much to “debate” or “crush” Bernie. The frame Trump will undoubtedly try to foster is that he and Bernie (and by extension, their supporters), are part of the same overall in-group, that they’re on the same “team.” What themes would be discussed?

  1. A rigged party system, reinforcing the outsider frame and casting the party elites as an out-group.
  2. A rigged campaign finance system, casting the donor class as an out-group to the populist outsider campaigns that both of them represent.
  3. Trade policy and bringing jobs back.
  4. How to best benefit the working poor and middle class. He will attempt to show that both he and Bernie Sanders want the same thing, but just have different ways of getting there.
  5. A stupid warmongering foreign policy as well as our “allies” not paying enough, free riding off the American people.
  6. The creation of an out-group in the “rich,” meaning that Trump would try to point out the difference between people like him, the productive rich who create jobs, and speculators who just move money around.

These are just a few I can think of. Trump’s strategy is probably not an all-out artillery barrage. It will just be to maintain a strong frame and try to act as chummy with Bernie as he reasonably can to demonstrate their overall in-group team.

What Sanders will do:

His play wouldn’t nearly be so chummy. From the simple standpoint of strategy, Donald Trump is now in a general election mode while Bernie Sanders still has to fight hard for every vote in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton. Therefore his general audience needs to be those primary voters.

This means he is going to have to strike a delicate balance. He won’t want to alienate independent voters that could potentially support his platform in the general election, but he also needs to win the nomination. With that in mind, his themes will probably be the following:

  1. Some of the issues that Donald Trump brings up are important (i.e., trade and foreign adventurism), but he is emblematic of the billionaire class that benefits from the status quo, so why trust him? He’ll attempt to remove Trump from the in-group he’s trying to create.
  2. He’ll attack him on the political correctness line, of course. In this, his primary audience will be Democratic primary voters and party loyalists.
  3. His overall strategic goal here will be to show that he, in fact, is the better candidate to take on Donald Trump in the general election, with every poll backing him on this.

Donald Trump Bernie Sanders 2016 debate

What Trump gains:

Donald Trump knows that he needs some of Bernie Sanders’ supporters to win the election, and that he, in fact, has the potential to get a lot of these crossover voters, as West Virginia’s primary results have shown. This debate with Bernie Sanders, taking place on the operational level of the campaign’s grand plan, leverages the following on the strategic level:

  1. The issues discussed in the debate will present Donald Trump as their champion against Hillary Clinton in the general election.
  2. It would frame Donald Trump as the logical choice for a critical number of Bernie Sanders supporters.
  3. It gets Bernie Sanders’ supporters to think past the sale and see him as the nominee. As the mathematics of that are currently impossible, it will mean further division in the Democratic Party by making Bernie Sanders essentially more relevant than Hillary Clinton. This will set the stage for a messy convention fight in Philadelphia. As such, it draws the process out and gets the recency effect to harbor as many bad memories against Hillary Clinton among Bernie Sanders’ supporters as possible. This in turn will keep them more motivated to jump ship to Trump or just stay home and not come out to vote against him.

Donald Trump debates Bernie Sanders

What Sanders gains:

Sometimes it’s difficult to know for sure, but Bernie Sanders has to know by now that he won’t be the Democratic nominee. What then, could he gain from this debate?

  1. Perhaps Bernie Sanders believes that this move, especially if he does well, will convince the superdelegates to go over to him, as the debate (and the polls) would show that he’s in fact better suited to beating Donald Trump in the general election (he is).
  2. Reinforcing the above, this debate gets people to think past the sale and view him that way anyway. Democratic primary challengers don’t debate Republican presidential nominees. The very act of debating Donald Trump automatically makes it seem like Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee.
  3. Influence. Even if, as I suspect, this debate doesn’t make a difference (the party insiders are dead-set on running Hillary Clinton) it sends the message that he’s not going away. It gives him more leverage to influence the party’s platform and become one of the most powerful members of the Senate.

What they both gain:

The debate makes Hillary Clinton look even more like a hapless idiot. It sets the frame as “here’s the frontrunner for the Democratic Party who’s too afraid to debate her opponent because she thinks she just might lose California. Meanwhile, the guy who looks all but certain to lose the nomination is now debating the presumptive Republican nominee.”

Hillary Clinton gets ignored entirely. If you don’t exist, you can’t influence people, and for the record ratings this debate will potentially draw, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t, or would only just barely, exist. Even that “just barely” would consist of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders dictating the terms of her campaign, dominating all the space on her, and she wouldn’t be able to respond. As such, she can’t win.

Crooked Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders

Conclusion:

A Trump-Sanders debate is a brilliant play for both candidates. It dominates all conversational space. This operation allows both candidates to reach out to the strategic groups of voters they need while Hillary Clinton continues to flail like a helpless fish on a hook. This debate might just be the most brilliant plan I’ve ever seen in politics, and I’ve worked in the field for some time.

This kind of play was in fact predictable by the persuasion system you’ll see in Stumped. Read it to get a step-by-step guide to making your own equally brilliant plans to humiliate your haters and baffle your opponents.

  • Alphonsius Lardos

    Who will pay for it, though?

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    • As it’s for charity it does raise that question. They could just stream it at Trump Tower and get the biggest internet audience ever, but it’s probably not their style (that will have to wait for a new generation).

      Maybe do it on public broadcasting and solicit contributions that all go to charity except for the administrative costs.

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      • Alphonsius Lardos

        Well now we know it won’t happen. Don’t know why Donald backed off but I heard of an DNC/RNC agreement forbidding unsanctionned debates, giving Hillary an opening to avoid debating in the fall.

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  • VisionNow A

    I don’t know. It has been a while since this incident and looking back shows me that Trump did the right thing by not participating. If I knew that Bernie was gonna eventually kiss Hillary arse a month ago (after all the Wall Street and special interest arguments he made against her), then I would have agreed with Trump in his decision. Bernie would have outright said to all his followers: “I don’t want you to vote for Trump if Hillary is our nominee” in Trump’s face. It would have been a huge negative for Trump.

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    • Possibly, but this was when he was campaigning hard for California so that wouldn’t have gone over well for him.

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