Sunday, December 13, 2015

Why I am obsessed with Trump - and everyone else should be too

The reason is simple: Trump's appeal to the GOP masses appears (to me) to be something quite new and different in American politics. I know, you could cite other demagogues like Joe McCarthy. But the difference here is that McCarthy was not running for President of the United States. And when he got called out on national TV, his power deflated. Unlike McCarthy, Trump has survived every criticism by Dems, the media, and even by those in his own party. And now we learn that such criticisms just solidify his support amongst the GOP base.

Four reasons explain Trump's popularity. Simply stated, in the Washington Post article, the first is simply stated.

  1. Trump has simple answers for everything.
  2. A lot of people dislike immigrants.
  3. People are sick of the political establishment.
  4. He says things that people have been afraid to say.

Let's unpack that outline.

Simple answers

Trump is often wrong, but what matters is that he always sounds right. In politics, force of character can be as important as facts (which nobody can agree on anyway). Trump’s charisma, his confident and decisive air, forms a huge part of his appeal, psychologists told my colleague Max Ehrenfreund:

"They're responding to dynamism, to force, to movement, to smiling, to facial expressions that convey authority," said Stanford psychologist Jeffrey Pfeffer. Trump "does it with more force. He does it with more energy. Energy is contagious."

Combine that supreme confidence with simple, intuitive answers that resonate with voters on a deep level. The result is a psychologically intoxicating mix. If you don’t like immigration, build a wall. If you’re suspicious of Muslims, track them in a database. If you support police officers, impose the death penalty on cop killers.

These are thrilling ideas to many voters, especially when a candidate like Trump articulates them with such authority.

"People like the idea that deep down, the world is simple; that they can grasp it and that politicians can't," John Hibbing, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska, told Wonkblog. "That's certainly a message that I think Trump is radiating."

Immigration

Nearly half of registered GOP voters agree with him that undocumented immigrants should be deported, and that America should turn away refugees. This is a passionate base. They believe Trump is electable and will make a difference.

Political establishment

The more Trump is criticized, the more popular he seems to get. As my colleague Dave Weigel reported yesterday from a focus group of Trump supporters, nothing seems to be able to put them off their candidate. In fact, when rivals attack him, Trump’s numbers go up ...

See the related article covered below for more on this one.

What people want to say

A lot has been made of Trump’s ability to shrug off gaffes. He often makes insensitive or factually wrong statements that in the past would have torpedoed any other candidate’s prospects.

Again, see below.

Focus group provides insights into Trump's appeal

These latter two points lead to a related article reporting results from a focus group reviewed by Steve Benen.

The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who was on hand for the Luntz panel, reported on the unexpected findings.

To Luntz’s amazement, hearing negative information about the candidate made the voters, only a few of whom gave their full names to the press, hug the candidate tighter.

“Normally, if I did this for a campaign, I’d have destroyed the candidate by this point,” Luntz told a group of reporters when the session ended. “After three hours of showing that stuff?”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Luntz added. “There is no sign of them leaving. He has created or found the magic formula.”

This, however, was probably the most important tidbit from the Post’s article:

At 6:30, when the session began, all 29 participants were asked to rate their likelihood of voting for Trump, and just 10 people said they were at nine or 10. After one hour of mostly negative questions about Trump, six more people joined that confident group.

“I’ve been talking about negatives, and you’re up on him!” said an astounded Luntz. “That’s the story of Trump’s poll numbers.”

This is no small detail. In the usual scenario, a consultant will host a focus group, present them attack ads and negative messaging, and then gauge what had the most significant effect. Campaigns will sometimes even do this for their own candidate, so they can address their most pronounced vulnerabilities.

But this week, in this group, the more criticisms they heard about Trump, the more they ended up liking him. Two of the 29 focus-group participants began the discussion saying they’d cooled on the Republican candidate, but after hearing two-and-a-half hours of negative messaging, they said they were leaving more supportive, not less.

... imagine you’re a Republican consultant or a strategist for one of the 13 other GOP presidential candidates. Imagine you’re looking at the calendar, worried about the polls, and looking for ways to bring Trump down a peg. After reading about the focus group’s reactions to attacks on Trump, what in the world do you do?

The answer, I suspect, is to wait and hope – for Trump to defeat himself, for his supporters to get bored, and for other candidates to drop out.

GOP strategists can "wait and hope" but Scriber hopes for their sake they are not holding their breath. On my reading of all this, Trump is not going away anytime soon. It's a real problem for the GOP. Let's hope it does not turn out to be a real problem for the country.

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