It is always fashionable in the light of an unexpected event to declare that the world will be changed forever. And that’s the latest fashion when it comes to Donald Trump. However, what is remarkable about Trump’s victory is how it confirms to most of the conventional wisdom on how you win a Republican Presidential nomination – and win most elections. Attack politics works. Communicate with simple sound bites. Experience really does matter. Play to win.
Negative campaigning works. From the start Trump went on the attack hitting Jeb Bush. From that first salvo, Trump never let up. Every time one of the other candidates got close to him, he attacked. The other GOP candidates were left on the defensive, trying to fend off Trump. Worse, they were afraid to go after Trump. Each of the candidates was reduced to vainly trying to explain away Trump’s attacks. And in politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. Winning with a negative campaign is hardly new. In fact, it is a 200-year tradition in America.
The sound bite still rules. Trump mastered the sound bite better than any of his opponents, to the extent that the only memorable lines from the campaign were from Trump. Two easily remembered sound bites defined his campaign: "Make America Great Again" and "Build a Wall." Both phrases were umbrella appeals to Republican voters, easily recalled and repeated. Even Trump’s attack lines were memorable. Whenever Kasich expounded on his record in Ohio, Trump’s "You struck oil" riposte was crushing. Ted Cruz could never escape the "Lyin’ Ted" moniker – in spite of all the money spent on TrusTED banners.
Experience counts. It is a fallacy that Trump is inexperienced. He is the most experienced Republican candidate where it counts – in the national media. Any candidate’s electoral experience is just a proxy for experience in handling the media and communicating to voters. While the others had local and regional experience, none of them had more than fleeting time under the glare of the national spotlight.
The two original GOP favorites, Rubio and Cruz were just first-term Senators. Cruz had only won two elections to date: a GOP run-off primary for US Senate and the subsequent general election. Trump may not have run for office, but he has been in the national media spotlight for over 20 years – not always in the most favorable circumstances. As a result, when the spotlight is on Trump he knows how to perform – and when he makes mistakes he knows how to recover.
Historically, Republicans have nominated the candidate with the most national experience. Since 1948 in elections where the Presidency was open or occupied by a Democrat, 7 of 10 GOP nominees had previously run for President or was the Vice-Presidential nominee. The only exceptions were Dwight Eisenhower who was recruited by both the Republicans and Democrats in 1952, George W. Bush who had firsthand experience in his father’s four campaigns for national office, and Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s inexperience showed as he suffered the largest defeat for a Republican since 1936 – and the largest vote deficit ever for a GOP Presidential candidate.
In the 2016 cycle, with past candidates Huckabee and Santorum exciting nobody, Trump was the one competitive candidate with the experience and savvy required to compete on the national stage.
Last, but most important, Trump was playing to win from the start. Trump never took his eye off the main prize. The media and pundits had a good time mocking Trump’s obsession with his polling numbers, but that was just the most consistent manifestation of his determination to win at all costs. Meanwhile, his main opponents spend more time working to knock each other out than they did going after Trump.
Cruz, in particular, thought he had a brilliant strategy where he would be nice to Trump while positioning himself to be the Trump alternative as the other candidates faded away. In other words, Cruz spent most of the primary season running for second place. And that’s exactly what he got.
There is no question that Trump is not the normal Presidential candidate and he got away with the kind of incendiary rhetoric that was assumed to be fatal in politics. He went over the heads of the leaders of the various ideological interest groups within the Republican Party. There is a good deal that is unconventional about Trump’s campaign. But the fact is that Trump, more than anything, mastered conventional politics and did so far better than any of the other Republicans.