A lot of us believed the polls, but woke up to a big surprise on Wednesday morning.
Hillary Rodham Clinton looked like a shoe-in to win the US presidency on 8 November. But things didn’t turn out that way. Donald J. Trump became the US president elect. Why? It has everything to do with his communications strategy, likely ad hoc, but whose often divisive messages produced raving fans. Those messages elicited fear, anger and even hatred. He appealed to the emotions of his voting base who came out in droves to vote for their candidate, unlike those who pledged to support Hillary.
Trump’s divisive messaging
Among Trump’s more tame messages were sentiments like “Make America great again!” which included the supposition of consensus that was shared by his followers: America is broken. Kind of standard for a presidential campaign.
But then there were the toxic messages, the ones that brought together the tribe that would eventually show up at the ballot box. “Mexicans are rapists and murderers” was likely popular in the hearts of those who hate immigrants, not to mention Trump’s “ban on Muslims,” which also tapped into a heartfelt sentiment, given recent incidents in the country committed by those of Muslim faith.
Let’s not forget the incessant repetition of “I’m going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.” It was preaching to the choir. People at the Trump rallies finished the sentence before he could they’d heard it so many times before.
His constant repetition of “crooked Hillary” branded her as corrupt, even if it was childish. The two words now almost seem inseparable, even to those who were in her camp.
Hillary’s lukewarm communication
Almost a bit sheepish in her efforts to promote her own candidacy (at least in these last couple of weeks), Hillary Clinton pounded the message that Donald Trump’s temperament made him uniquely unqualified for the office of the presidency. She did not say too much about herself, or why she was qualified (or at least it didn’t get much traction). “Stronger together,” and “I’m with her” sound lukewarm in retrospect.
Her big question was something like, “How, pray tell, could we entrust this mercurial character, who will seemingly say or do anything at any moment, with the nuclear armament launch codes?” That seemed to be more a message to the brain, not the heart. It may have been patently obvious to undecided voters, maybe even to his supporters, that Trump was a misogynist, racist, etc. but he had connected with them on a visceral level. They felt it. He was their man.
And then there was the disparaging “basket of deplorables” comment Hillary made about Trump’s supporters, which was actually a message that resonated, but only in buttressing the suspicions about the “liberal elites” (like Secretary Clinton) among the Trump supporters. This likely alienated or even shamed some undecided voters who could have voted for her.
Trump knew his customers’ needs
Throughout the campaign, president-elect Trump’s messaging was seemingly reckless, but somehow he managed to strike a nerve with his camp on almost every occasion that he said something controversial. And it didn’t matter that much what he said, just that the steady trickle of outrageous statements continued. His devotees were like junkies in their fervor for the candidate’s nasty sentiments, and Trump continued to set them up with their next fix. He was a successful pusher, who knew what his followers were addicted to: vitriol. It worked – now he’s president.
So, if there’s a takeaway from this, it is to stay consistent and keep pounding the same messages, over and over – whatever they may be. That seemed to close the sale on his candidacy. Now we’ll have to wait and see if his deeds match his words.
Drew Leifheit is the founder of Sounds Serious, a boutique communications consultancy in Central & Eastern Europe.