Americans don’t analyze political platform planks. They don’t study position papers. Voters in the world’s most influential democracy pick candidates for high office the same way they sort through the choices consumers face: based on general impressions.
Those impressions, of course, are what’s known in the marketing and advertising businesses as branding.
Any politician who stands a chance at making it in the United States has to develop a brand that is appealing as well as easy-to-understand.
Consider, for example, the current crop of presidential hopefuls on the Democratic side. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brand is tough, competence, seasoned. (If 2016 proves to be a 2008-like “change” election, that choice of brand may wind up being a mistake, as it did then. We’ll see.) Bernie Sanders’ brand is consistent and principled. Joe Biden: amiable (if a little goofy) and down-to-earth. Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, doesn’t have a brand; he’s polling around 2% of Democrats.
For months, real estate developer Donald Trump’s brand has been irresistible to rebellious Republicans and not a few Democrats: honest and straightforward to a fault.
OK, a lot of faults.
I’ve been telling fellow political pundits not to write off a President Trump: there is definitely a scenario in which he seizes the nomination and goes on to win next November. After all, readers in their 50s and older remember a time when Ronald Reagan, so lionized today, was ridiculed and reviled, a right-wing wild man most Beltway insiders considered to be a joke. That was just a year or two before he won in a landslide.
In recent days, however, Trump has been making a mistake that he of all people should be smart enough to avoid: undermining his very powerful, very popular brand.
He’s talking like a typical politician.
Asked about Ben Carson’s remark that a Muslim should not be president, Trump hemmed and hawed like, well, Obama. Or a Clinton. Or Jeb Bush.
“I can say that, you know, it’s something that at some point could happen,” Trump told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press.”
“We’ll see. You know, it’s something that could happen. Would I be comfortable? I don’t know if we have to address it right now. But I think it is certainly something that could happen. I mean, some people have said it already happened, frankly. But of course you wouldn’t agree with that,” Trump said.
I get it: Trump was filling up dead air while conjuring up a reply to a question to which he hadn’t previously given any thought. We’ve all been there. Certainly, his die-hard supporters can take comfort in his latest insinuation that Obama is a covert Muslim.
Setting aside the obvious lie, this is a question that calls for a simple Trumpian declarative answer: yes or no. Plus, ideally, a hilarious aside. This was not a good moment for him.
Nor was his latest comment, in response to Pope Francis, about the environment: “I am not a believe in climate change,” he said.
This is brazen pandering to the Republican base — something every major GOP contender has done for years.
Trump is too smart not to believe in human-caused climate change. Even right-wing Republican primary voters know this guy believes in science. This line was exactly the kind of thing a typical politician — the one thing Trump is not supposed to be — does and says.
The Republican presidential race has now entered its winnowing-down phase. Scott Walker has bowed out, and is encouraging his formal rivals to follow his lead — or lack thereof. That leaves a smaller group of contenders to consolidate support in order to gear up for the fight betwixt them. Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio are surfing media support and garnering increased poll numbers as a result.
Trump still leads the polls, but now he shares that lead with the sleep-inducing Ben Carson. If he wants to keep his commanding position in the GOP race, he’ll have to avoid the entreaties of his advisers, who are no doubt telling him what such people always tell those in the lead: be careful, lest you lose what you have.
Trump didn’t get where he is now (in the 2016 race) by playing it safe or parsing words. If he wants to keep his competitors on their heels, he needs to charge ahead with typically Trump, reliably outrageous insults and pronouncements about everyone and everything.