The secret of Trump’s success

Looking at US presidential elections through the lens of empirical investigation of word use shows that there’s a pattern of language that is associated with electoral success. Those who use it win, and the difference in the intensity of the pattern correlates well with the margin of victory.

The effective pattern is, in a way, intuitive: use positive language, eliminate negative language completely, talk in the abstract rather than about specific policies, and pay no attention to the other candidates.

In other words, a successful candidate should appear “statesmanlike”.

Candidates find it extremely difficult to use this approach — they feel compelled to compare themselves to the other candidates, dragging in negativity, and to explain the cleverness of their policies. Only incumbent presidents, in our investigation, were able to use this language pattern reliably.

I listened to some of Trump’s speech in Texas last night, and I’ve come to see that the media are completely and utterly wrong about why he is doing so well in the polls. It’s not that he’s tapping into a vein of disaffection with the political system; it is that he’s using this language model. In previous cycles, it’s only been incumbent presidents who’ve had the self-confidence to use it, but Trump, of course, has enough self-confidence to start a retail business selling it.

Let’s look at the components of the model:

Positive language: Trump’s positivity is orders of magnitude above that of the other candidates, and in two ways. First, he is relentlessly positive about the U.S. and about the future (catchphrase: “we can do better”). Second, he’s positive about almost everyone he mentions (catchphrase: “he’s a great guy”).

Negative language: Trump doesn’t avoid negativity altogether, but he uses it cleverly. First, his individual negative targets are not the other candidates (by and large) but pundits — Karl Rove and George Will were mentioned last night, but I doubt if more than 1% of the audience could have identified either in a line-up; so this kind of negativity acts as a lightning rod, without making Trump seem mean. And the negative references to others lack the bitterness that often bleeds through in the negative comments of more typical candidates. Second, when he mentions negative aspects of the Obama administration and its policies and actions, he does it be implication and contrast (“that’s not what I would do”, “I could do better”).

Vision not policies: the media cannot stand that Trump doesn’t come out with detailed policy plans, but it’s been clear for a while that voters don’t pay a lot of attention to policies. They’ve learned that (a) there’s a huge gap between what a president can want to do and what he can actually make happen, and (b) policies are generated with one eye on the polls and focus groups, so they often aren’t something that the candidate has much invested in doing in the first place. [It’s incredible that Secretary Clinton ran focus groups to prep her “apology”, which was actually a meta-apology for not having apologized better or earlier.]

Trump has one huge “policy” advantage — he isn’t beholden to donors, and so is freer of the behind-the-scenes pressure that most candidates face. In the present climate, this has to be a huge selling point.

Ignore the other candidates: Trump doesn’t quite do this (and it gets him into trouble), But he’s learning fast — in last night’s speech, he only mentioned a handful of his competitors and his comments about all of them were positive.

If Trump continues to give this kind of speech, then the more exposure he gets, the more voters are going to like him. I remain doubtful that he will be the Republican nominee, but I don’t see him flaming out any time soon. Even if he makes some serious gaffe, he’ll apologize in seconds and move on (in contrast to Clinton who seems determined to make acute issues into chronic ones).

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