Yikes. Here we go again. If you thought the hysteria was bad last time around, you haven’t seen anything yet!
Still, students of power and persuasion should take the chance to put their knowledge and training to the test.
I published Stumped in May 2016, and it did a damn good job of predicting the subsequent election. I’m proud of this, because until the night of November 8th, 2016, most “experts” thought Hillary Clinton had an almost-zero chance of losing.
So I’ll be using the Stumped model again, though refined from the experience of the last two years.
One thing I learned from last time is that the weekly news cycle and its “scandals” matter little, so I won’t be doing a weekly series this time around (thank God). Fundamentals, not news cycles or polls, decide elections, so from now until then, this series will drop on a quarterly basis. Each one examines the fundamentals of the time.
This article contains…
- A look at the state of the Democratic Party.
- A look at the state of the political marketplace.
- A look at how Trump and his opponents score on the Stumped persuasion triggers.
The state of the race – The Democratic Royal Rumble Match
While you should be skeptical of polls, you should be particularly skeptical now. In Q2 2019, they’re meaningless, both for a primary and general election.
Instead, what we should be looking for is a refinement of the candidates and their offers – their characters, if you will – and see which ones start getting over. Read this article about some of the pro-wrestling terminology I’ll be using. Politics and pro-wrestling are almost the same art form.
Right now, the Democrats are basically in a Royal Rumble match, trying to eliminate each other to become the #1 contender against Donald Trump for the world championship at Wrestlemania.
For the left, Donald Trump is the hated heel titleholder. Think nWo Hulk Hogan in 1996. But as we know, it isn’t enough to say that the other guy is bad. Candidates need something to offer. Babyface good guy characters have to actually become popular with fans in order for them to convincingly beat the heel. In other words, the babyface needs to be loved more than the heel is hated. A bland, uncharismatic babyface isn’t going to beat the mega heel champion, period.
That’s what these early debates are all about – steadily gaining popularity with the Democratic audience and getting over at just the right time before the primaries so that leftist fans feel momentum and excitement. So far, that hasn’t been the case. Predictably, these primary contests have all been about signaling purity to the revolution and pouring on the hatred for Trump and his fans, not about the candidates actually getting over on their own merits.
The hatred for Trump will undoubtedly grow as the Rumble continues. In an attempt to develop their characters, the contenders will try to out-woke one another and make increasingly unpalatable offers for all but their hardcore fans. As such, the likelihood that any one of these candidates will get over enough to convincingly beat Trump diminishes.
It’s still early, but whoever it is (and it probably won’t be Biden), the Royal Rumble winner looks like a dud. Think Lex Luger in 1994 or Roman Reigns in 2015 rather than Stone Cold Steve Austin in 1998. The left will hate Trump more than they love their own guy, so the Democratic candidate won’t be over enough to beat the hated heel.
There was an enthusiasm gap in 2016. Early electoral results suggest there might well be one in 2020.
Right now, the candidates are ganging up on Joe Biden to try and eliminate him from the Royal Rumble early, using the fake outrage and mob tactics they love so much. Though I will always defend people from the mob, even Joe Biden, it’s amusing to see someone who encouraged this kind of culture now suffering from it.
Joe Biden is the biggest brand name, so the smaller candidates want him out. Joe Biden makes it easy for them. People like him only when he isn’t running. He’s the “front runner” by name recognition alone. Over time, the mob tactics will probably gas him out before the end. He may make it to the final four in this Rumble, but he probably won’t win.
That winner is still to be determined. My gut still tells me the establishment wants Kamala Harris (notice how she’s still the only one the media never criticizes). She’s flying under the radar with enough support to make a perfectly-timed surge possible and her persuasion technique is very good. Pete Buttigieg has the most charisma of the lot, but, as detailed in Stumped, his advertising effectiveness will probably diminish over the summer because most people don’t know him. He seems like a good bet to be the traditional summer surge candidate who flames out in the fall.
Elizabeth Warren is playing it smart and has a favorable debate stage next week where she can stand out and be memorable, since the other big guns won’t be there with her. She has enough of a brand among the Democratic base where her advertising effectiveness probably won’t doom her to flame out after the summer. We’ll see.
Update: It’s still early, but realistically, the final four or five will be some combination that includes Warren, Harris, and Sanders. That’s pretty clear after the first debates. O’Rourke has been eliminated. Joe Biden can still ride somewhat on his extensive brand but he’s on the ropes already as his opponents are ganging up to toss him over the top and onto the floor. He needs a big comeback.
The state of the political marketplace
1. Pendulum: The candidate benefiting from the pendulum effect, the reaction against the previous regime, will usually win.
This is actually the ninth persuasion trigger outlined in Stumped, but I’m looking at this one first because in comparative weight, it’s probably the most important. This is the one that does the most to determine the political marketplace and as such, the audience that each candidate will need to sell to.
No matter how good a salesman you are, you can’t sell a car to someone that isn’t looking for one. No matter how good your “game” is, you can’t sleep with a woman who isn’t looking for sex.
So is the market swinging against the incumbent president or not? Is there a pendulum and if so, how strong?
While Donald Trump usually gets good marks on the economy, his overall approval rating is about 45%. This seems low, although Barack Obama had a similar approval rating at this point in his own presidency. Donald Trump won in 2016 with worse numbers. Despite the good economy, more people still think the country is headed in the wrong direction than the right one, at 55.8% to 38.6%, although this represents an improvement from 2016, so that’s good news for the president. That’s a lot better than where Obama was at in 2011 and most of 2012.
But polls are polls. There’s another way to look at this, the Keys to the White House system developed by Allan Lichtman. Using this system, Lichtman has predicted election winners for decades, including Donald Trump in 2016, so it has some weight.
The Keys system is based on the theory that news cycles and campaigns usually don’t matter and instead elections are referendums on the incumbent party. This isn’t a view I entirely agree with, hence it’s only part of my analysis here, but it’s nevertheless true that the performance of the incumbent party determines in large part the makeup of the marketplace and thus the campaigns of the candidates.
There are 13 keys. If five or less of them are false, the incumbent party will remain in power. If six or more are false, the challenging party wins. Let’s run each down one by one.
1. Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.
False. Republicans lost 40 seats in 2018.
2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
True. William Weld is planning on challenging President Trump, but this has no chance of success.
3. Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.
True. Much as Democrats don’t like it, there’s no chance of this one changing.
4. Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.
True as of now. There is a chance this changes. Mike Bloomberg is reportedly attempting to fund a third-party run. We’ll see how it goes.
5. Short term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
6. Long term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
True. The economy is Trump’s strongest selling point. We just need to see if it holds.
7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
True. My instinct was to actually turn this one negative, because I think a lot of supporters from 2016 are disappointed, myself among them, but Lichtman was on TV the other day and said that he had changed national policy. Who am I to question the guy that created the system?
8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
True. In 2017 I might have turned this one red, but the screeching protests and riots have died down in 2018 and 2019.
9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
True. Muh Russia didn’t work and without that, there’s nothing. Lichtman himself acknowledges this, which is why he wants the Democrats to impeach the president so that it can trigger the scandal key through discovery. We’ll see.
10. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
True. If President Trump can resist the whispers of those trying to steer him wrong and avoid attacking Iran, this should stay true. His would be the first administration heading into an election cycle in nearly 20 years without starting a war. It would be a big accomplishment and a true “promise kept.”
11. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
False. Denuclearization talks with North Korea have broken down for now, trade talks with China remain incomplete, the USMCA has yet to pass congress, and there appears to be no progress toward a Middle East peace deal, as he so ambitiously touted during the campaign.
12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
False. We’ll get into this later, but in Lichtman’s model, Trump isn’t a charismatic crossover candidate of the kind that measures up to the Roosevelts, Kennedy, or Reagan. I won’t question his reasoning for his own model.
13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.
True for now. Like I said, the Democrats don’t appear to have a star in their midst. Mayor Pete is the most charismatic of the bunch and he doesn’t have much chance of winning the Royal Rumble. As of now, I don’t see anyone else among this motley crew triggering this key.
That’s three false keys and 10 true ones, so Trump is in a good spot as of Q2 2019. There doesn’t appear to be a pendulum against him, though the actual vote totals will still be close. As always, twitter is not real life. The pendulum goes to Trump for now.
The other persuasion triggers
2. Recognition of the irrational: Humans are usually not acting as rational, self-interested agents, but can be influenced by many, often completely irrational factors. Visceral cues are far more potent than rational ones.
Donald Trump is still the master of this. Kamala Harris certainly gets it. Mayor Pete kind of looks like he gets it, but I need to see more from him before I judge him. In any case, it’s unlikely any other candidate currently in the race will beat Trump in terms of communicating to this aspect of human nature.
3. Tribal leadership: Humans are tribal animals that organize themselves in teams and in/out-groups. In such a structure, the strongest tribal leader, the one who inspires feelings in supporters that they’d want to follow him into battle, will usually have the most alluring leadership appeal. This is a factor closely related to masculinity. Thus, the candidate that can telegraph this strong, often masculine leadership ability will usually win.
I was unsure if Donald Trump still has quite this kind of a hold on his followers after two years of mixed results, but his rally in Orlando certainly blew anything the Democrats have done so far out of the water. We’ll need to see whether the Democratic candidate can create an in-group and get over in it to the extent Trump has. Kamala Harris looks like she might have the ability. It’s early, but the president still has a big advantage here.
4. Spatial dominance: Problems arise that people seek answers to, and communications are the key to power. The candidate that dominates the most space on the issues people want solved and the communicational space upon which they are intermediated with will usually win.
Donald Trump still has a huge advantage in this area. His instincts are still as good as ever with his announcement that he’ll be tweeting during the Democratic debate next week. His goal is to seize control of the conversation there.
No Democrats are likely to be masters of communication like Trump. Indeed, the president and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, are already channeling huge resources into targeted digital advertising to get the word out in the right places.
There is one handicap that can even the odds, though. Social media censorship has increased big time since 2016. If the president’s supporters can’t get the word out, this advantage won’t be as vast as it was in 2016.
The president has the advantage for now, but this one is more tenuous than last time.
5. Frame control: The candidate who has the strongest offense and the stronger frame to impose his will and deflect criticism will usually win.
Although I don’t think Trump’s frame is quite as strong as it was in 2016, it’s still much stronger than most of the Democrats. Only Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete look like they will be threats to it. We’ll see how it develops.
6. Charisma: The more charismatic candidate, naturally or otherwise, will usually win.
With the exception of Mayor Pete (who is himself a big step down from 1992 Bill Clinton or 2008 Barack Obama), the Democratic field is a pathetic lot. How is anyone going to get over with that little charisma? Is there a charismatic leftist babyface to defeat the charismatic heel Donald Trump? As of now, this contest looks more like a Lex Luger vs. Mr. McMahon match rather than Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Mr. McMahon match. Democrats should be worried about that.
Donald Trump might not qualify as charismatic under the Keys model, but he’s much more charismatic than the entire Democratic field so far.
7. Social proof: The candidate with the strongest social proof will usually win.
Look at Trump’s Orlando rally and then look at the Democratic rallies. There’s no comparison. I think the biggest one so far was an Elizabeth Warren rally that got a few thousand (correct me if I’m wrong). Joe Biden only gets a few hundred. One “candidate,” Eric Swalwell, got something like 10. Bill deBlasio and Kirsten Gillibrand have 0% support.
No one is touching Trump right now, though it’s still early. There’s also this:
Wow: New campaign finance filings made public last night show that so far in 2019, the RNC has a larger share (51%) of small-dollar donations under $200 than the DNC does (43%).
— Michelle Ye Hee Lee (@myhlee) June 21, 2019
8. Personal brand: The candidate with the strongest, better-known personal brand will usually win.
Only Joe Biden has a personal brand as big as Trump’s. Here he might have an advantage because he’s not as tainted, but that’s already changing as the primaries go on. No other candidate has a brand as big as his. That’s why they’ll need to grow quickly. We’ll see how it goes.
9. Best offer: 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.
So far, the only thing most of the Democrats are offering is Orange Man Bad and an unpopular agenda. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are trying to differentiate themselves with their economic agendas, but it’s not enough to beat Trump’s offer yet, especially with the economy good.
Instead, one part of the Democratic primary is so say on how bad Orange Man is. The other is an attempt to seize space on wokeness and issues that have no constituency. Open borders and reparations aren’t going to win back Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Forecast (Q2 2019)
Things look good for the incumbent president for now, but it’s still early. The forecast will get more accurate as the contest arrives, obviously, but if the election were held a month from now, Trump would win, despite all the ways he rustles people’s jimmies.
If you’re interested in understanding the power plays you’re sure to see in the coming year, Stumped is for you.