Sixth Trigger: The candidate with the strongest social proof will usually win.
The entire political and media apparatus pushed for Hillary Clinton. Celebrities came out in droves to support her, especially at the end. President Obama campaigned vigorously for her. And yet, Hillary Clinton herself had campaign events that can only be considered a string of extreme duds. She was never able to even come close to getting 1,000 people to show up at any of her own independent events. The only time she could draw substantial crowds was when she had concerts with celebrities. This is obviously in contrast to Donald Trump, who drew tens of thousands of people to every rally he held. These massive rallies, in fact, may have acted as an effective “ground game” for the Trump campaign, enabling him to vastly outperform Hillary Clinton’s own get out the vote efforts in the battleground states.
In addition to the massive crowds showing up at his rallies, there were other indications that Donald Trump would easily defeat Hillary Clinton based on his social proof. The data was there for those who searched for it.
Donald Trump’s social media messages got vastly more impressions than Hillary Clinton’s, for starters. Typical Hillary Clinton speeches streamed live on YouTube from her official channel would routinely have views in the hundreds. Donald Trump’s would have views in the tens of thousands every time.
It’s possible to argue impressions by themselves don’t mean a whole lot on their own. I would be inclined to agree. It didn’t matter. Trump’s social media messages also tended to get far more engagement than Hillary Clinton’s, showing that people were more interested in what he was saying.
Trump was also the most searched-for and mentioned candidate in the election, by a factor of about three. More tellingly, the phrase “how to vote for Trump” vastly outperformed “how to vote for Hillary” on Google, with the former being roughly equal in search volume to “how to vote for Obama” in 2008 and 2012. I didn’t think it was possible, but much of the data suggests that in the online communicational space where it mattered most, Donald Trump’s massive social proof aided him in nearly denying Hillary Clinton’s existence.
And what about one of the surest of all measures of social proof, the amount of merchandise you sell?
Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton there too.
It’s often been postulated that in politics, the candidate that sells the most merchandise is the candidate that wins. 2016 was no exception, and Donald Trump vastly outsold Hillary Clinton. This was in part a calculated marketer’s move, as he made his campaign hats iconic, but he outsold her on other merchandise also. Humorously, a week or so prior to the election, Donald Trump Halloween masks were outselling those of Hillary Clinton by a ratio of 3:1.
Online retail giant CafePress, which used its sales aggregates to predict the winner of every election since 2000, reported in September that Donald Trump-related merchandise was outselling that of Hillary Clinton by 20%, and that anti-Hillary merchandise was outselling anti-Trump gear by a massive 815%.
Perhaps most tellingly of all, Hillary Clinton’s campaign book, Stronger Together, couldn’t even sell 3,000 copies in its launch week (when sales are higher than normal). As I said at the time, for a presidential candidate of a major party, much less one with the entire political, media, and Hollywood establishment behind her, this was utterly embarrassing. In contrast, I saw far more people lined up around the block at Trump Tower on November 3rd, 2015 for the Crippled America launch, later re-branded as Great Again.
The data backs up what we saw with our own eyes. Donald Trump built a massive following rivaling the one that Barack Obama created in 2008. He deftly called this following a “movement,” inviting everyone to do their own part in making America great again. When people saw the massive crowds, the signs of team affiliation (including ways to lower the status of the opposing side), and the “great cause” for which this movement was engaged, it really almost did feel like a momentous, life-changing event, and a chance to be a part of history. New friendships were forged and old ones sometimes withered away in the controversy. Friend came out for Trump alongside friend. Neighbor alongside neighbor. All involved wanted to be part of it, felt connected to it, and were eager to rally around their leader.
Hillary Clinton couldn’t even come close. She didn’t even try to use what she had, such as her poll numbers or the amount of people that thought Trump was scary, as a way to build up her own social proof, and celebrity endorsements often backfire because they come close to feeling like an arrogant lecture. People don’t like to feel like they’re being sold or looked down on. Donald Trump simply used her high-profile endorsements as a way to reinforce his narrative of “the people vs. the establishment” while flaunting his more organic, and therefore more authentic, social proof.
The Trump campaign was almost in another galaxy as far as this factor was concerned.
Seventh Trigger: The candidate with the strongest, better-known personal brand will usually win.
While Donald Trump’s personal brand helped him tremendously in the crowded primary field, it could often be seen to work against him in the general election against a single opponent. While he ran on being a businessman that would create jobs and make America successful, his being an unknown political quantity tended to work against him because people inherently fear what they don’t know, and Donald Trump gave people many reasons to be even more afraid. Hillary Clinton’s campaign used all of it to her advantage.
The problem was that Hillary Clinton’s personal brand was also tarnished by scandal and it progressively got worse as Election Day drew near. Donald Trump’s ads hammered her while offering a positive alternative. She simply couldn’t leverage her personal brand to create a good counteroffer to Donald Trump, and as this election taught us, people want to have a reason to vote for something rather than just coming out to vote against the other person. Donald Trump created such a reason elsewhere. My overall assessment on this factor is that it was even, as each side cancelled the other out with numerous scandals. Hillary Clinton was simply the wrong messenger to try to take Trump’s brand down in the end.
Eighth: The candidate with the strongest perceived offer to the most concerning issues of the time, the ones that people react to in the most visceral, rather than cerebral way, will usually win.
It seems the only mistake in my prediction when Stumped: How Trump Triumphed was first published was to assume that Hillary Clinton would attempt to throw in a counteroffer to Donald Trump. She didn’t. Hillary Clinton’s entire campaign was essentially based on one thing and one thing only: “Donald Trump is scary, mean, and bad, and you’re a bad person for supporting him.” To the very end, I still didn’t know what affirmative reason there was to vote for Hillary Clinton rather than simply against Donald Trump.
Donald Trump defined the big issues of the campaign – immigration, trade, stopping needless wars, “draining the swamp” by ridding Washington of corruption, and conducting a policy of “America first” in general. These themes were simple, potent, and direct, with emotionally engaging solutions, such as building the wall, stopping “bad” new trade deals and renegotiating old ones, overhauling immigration in general, and destroying ISIS while refraining from repeating the regime change mistakes of presidencies past. All of this was part of and reinforced Donald Trump’s core offer – to “Make America Great Again.”
Hillary Clinton not only had no themes she called upon in her campaign that were easily and instantly recognizable, but she had no central offer either. This can be seen by her failure throughout the entire campaign to formulate a motivational, aspirational slogan that called to action.
Around the time Stumped was first published, Hillary Clinton began using the phrase “love trumps hate.” This was an idiotic slogan. Firstly, there was no call to action that invited readers and potential supporters to get onboard the Clinton campaign and help achieve a vision. Secondly, love trumping hate might be great in terms of feeling good, but unlike “Make America Great Again,” it’s hard to immediately draw a conclusion as to how this would benefit you personally. In other words, it failed to play radio station WIFM – “what’s in it for me?” It was selling features, not benefits.
Perhaps most disastrously of all, the slogan may have wound up helping Donald Trump. Scott Adams laid out why:
- It referenced the name of the campaign’s opponent, giving him exposure in Hillary’s own headline, which should have been used to grab attention in her favor.
- The slogan could literally be seen as telling you to love Trump.
- If not, it could be read as telling you to love a feature about Trump, namely his “hate.”
Hillary’s next slogan, which debuted about a month after “love trumps hate,” was “Stronger Together.” This was an improvement in that it didn’t actively promote her opponent, but still failed to provide a call to action or answer radio WIFM. “Stronger Together” is somewhat better because everyone wants to be “stronger,” but both phrases together sound more like a feature than a benefit. Furthermore, “Stronger Together” didn’t allow Hillary Clinton to easily connect campaign themes to an overall vision that people could aspire to, take action for, and get onboard with. The only thing that it reinforced was essentially that Donald Trump was mean and divisive, completely ignoring that Americans were increasingly getting fed up with politically correct identity politics upon which this message was based. By putting everyone at each other’s throat in this way, particularly after the “basket of deplorables” comment in September, the Clinton campaign seemed to go against its own slogan.
Hillary Clinton essentially had no core offer, far less one that was emotionally investing. Even her holier-than-thou stance that she wasn’t Trump was essentially inauthentic because of her terrible personal brand.
She proved to be an even worse candidate than I thought she’d be.
Ninth: The candidate benefitting from the pendulum effect, the reaction against the previous regime, will usually win.
This one was actively debated, because by many traditional factors in political science, it appeared that there wasn’t a major pendulum factor present in the campaign. Private sector job growth continued apace, if not a spectacular one. The economy was growing. President Obama’s approval rating was very good for an incumbent president at this moment in his presidency, hovering around 53%.
And yet, people still wanted change, badly. 63% of people in the country said it was going in the wrong direction, according to the CBS exit poll, and 69% of those people voted for Donald Trump. 48% of the electorate wanted a shift to more “conservative” policies, compared with 45% that either wanted no change or more “liberal” policies, and of that 48%, 83% voted for Trump. Of the qualities that people most wanted in the next president, 39% wanted someone who could “bring needed change,” and 83% of those voters chose Trump. Hillary Clinton won a whopping 90% of those who said they prioritized someone with “the right experience,” but that category lagged significantly behind people who prioritized change, coming in at 21% of those polled.
Put simply, 2016 was a change election, and Donald Trump was the change candidate. He rode the pendulum swing. Whether it was because it’s very rare that the same party gets elected for three consecutive terms historically, the rise of ISIS abroad and the Social Justice Warriors at home, people simply being driven by negative news cycles, or all of the above, change was the mantra of 2016, and Hillary Clinton wasn’t positioned to be the change candidate, where Donald Trump’s offer and persona were perfectly tailored for it.
The end result was clear – the Stumped model of elections, which holds that the best persuader acting in the proper environment wins the election, held up nearly perfectly, far exceeding even my own expectations, particularly when it seemed that things looked bad for Trump. In the end, he was decisively superior on six persuasion factors (strong leadership/team appeal, spatial dominance, charisma, social proof, best offer, pendulum swing), had a slight edge in the visceral/irrational cues factor, and was relatively even on the frame and personal brand factors. Hillary Clinton didn’t win on any of them, suggesting that she was a terribly weak candidate indeed.
This election was more learning experience than spectator sport. It’s now time to refine and improve the Stumped model as time goes on. A few things that I’ll be keeping in mind for the future are the following:
- The weekly horse race and the latest “scandals,” matter relatively little in comparison to the overall atmosphere and “theme” of the race, unless they’re so huge in comparison to the other person that they overwhelm all other things. In the end, people will tend to find ways and excuses to “come home” and support the candidate they were predisposed to prior to the controversy. While both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s “scandals” were quite major and visceral, the poll gaps after each new shock always closed after a couple of weeks. Additionally, since each candidate was “scandal”-ridden, these factors tended to be baked in to the fundamentals. The overall atmosphere and the offers and persuasion tactics within it were far more influential to the vote than any particular scandal. For instance, the “pussy gate” infamy of early October damaged Donald Trump severely at first, but it didn’t change his vastly superior social proof or charisma. It didn’t change the fact that people were looking for change. It didn’t change the fact that Hillary Clinton still hadn’t put together an articulate offer and had a terrible personal brand which didn’t allow her to profit in the long run from her opponent’s scandals and controversies. Given enough time, the fundamentals will reassert themselves as the recency effect takes over, aided greatly by today’s hyperactive news cycle. Note, for instance, that even before the infamous Comey letter that Democratic pundits are using to blame for Hillary’s loss, the poll gap had narrowed considerably in the three or so weeks since “pussy gate.”
- Merchandise sales and advertising engagement are more accurate indicators than polls, particularly when a race is so volatile. Social proof will tell you much more about the state of the race than how people answer a polling question.
- Indicators of dissatisfaction are probably the most reliable way to gauge how someone will vote, suggesting that the pendulum factor is the most important of all the persuasion criteria. Most people had an unfavorable impression of Donald Trump but still voted for him anyway because they were dissatisfied with the status quo and wanted change.
- People want an aspirational reason to vote for something. In politics, running solely on the negatives of your opponent means you won’t inspire enough of your voters to come out to support you.
- The basic hypothesis of chapter 7 of Stumped was dead on the mark. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, supported by major donors, outspent Donald Trump significantly and still lost. The major influencing was done online. From here on, the most important attempts at influence will be communicated online, including candidates in the future doing “press conferences” directly with the people on places like YouTube or Twitter’s Periscope app. The 2016 election proved that the traditional press is entirely optional in influencing the electorate, and deft candidates can sidestep it. It also proved that narrower, more highly focused and targeted ads for specific demographics are the most decisive, especially on TV. This was seen in Jared Kushner’s magnificent handling of the Trump campaign’s content. Nothing escaped its ad operations. Extensive research and testing was done into what ads would resonate the most with specific people. For example, anti-Obamacare ads may have resonated with NCIS viewers in certain battleground states, while immigration ads resonated more with Walking Dead viewers in other areas. The Trump campaign made the most of every dollar, not spending a ton on TV ads but making each one count for a lot. The end result of all forms of ad spending was a total cost of less than $5 per vote.
People don’t like to feel that they’re being sold. What Robert Greene calls the “soft sell,” where you appear as “news, never publicity,” “speak your target’s language,” and “change their identity by telling them who they are,” are likely to rule the day in the future.
Other elections now await, and the path is open. Whether future candidates apply the Stumped model to their campaigns in full and have learned the lessons of the 2016 campaign, particularly in smaller, more localized races with less publicity, remains to be seen.
I await the next race to further test and refine the Stumped model. Make sure you don’t get left behind and appear like the hysterical pundits we see now who can’t explain why their preciously-held predictions were so far off. Read Stumped today!