Chairman's Desk

How Donald Trump rewrote the election handbook

Trump’s larger-than-life rallies, his brilliant use of social media, and his ability to churn headlines touched more voters than any army of door-knockers could ever hope for.

Thisarticle first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 20, 2016.


The sky hasn’t fallen.

It has been nearly two weeks since the U.S. presidential election; the stock market is coasting along, the nuclear arsenal has yet to be launched, Americans are still going to work every day and the President-elect continues his passion for unfiltered tweeting.

Trump’s campaign’s successful unorthodoxy demonstrated there is no longer a cookie-cutter formula to winning political campaigns.

This success will have meaningful implications for upcoming election cycles. Trump’s winning campaign, which will be deconstructed for years, has fundamentally altered who is able to run for public office, who votes in elections and what matters during campaigns.

Cable news commentators spent weeks analyzing, prodding and lambasting not only Trump’s debate performances but his whole campaign. While they laughed at his Republican convention, and criticized his lack of policy chops, Trump’s voters didn’t care.

Trump threw out the campaign rule book because he had never read the campaign rule book. And, in doing so, created at least three new rules for elections to come.

First, the person with the best ground game no longer necessarily wins. Second, television advertising is no longer the key to success. Third, authenticity no longer matters.

Throughout the campaign, Trump insisted he did not need to rely on traditional campaign tactics to win. Hillary Clinton used the data-driven, on-the-ground machine that propelled President Barack Obama to two straight electoral victories. Trump, meanwhile, pointed to the overwhelming nomination victory he achieved with a relatively small team on a tight budget, and he stuck to that strategy for the election campaign.

Defying all convention, Trump registered new voters in record numbers. Since 2012, Republicans in Florida alone registered more than 350,000 more voters than the Democrats. Trump’s larger-than-life rallies, his brilliant use of social media, and his ability to churn headlines touched more voters on a sustained basis than any army of door-knockers could ever hope for.

Nationally, Clinton had more than twice the number of field offices Trump had — 489 to 207 — and three times Trump’s presence in North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado, yet won only Colorado. In crucial battleground states, the Democratic National Committee had the edge over the Republicans. The Democrats employed five times more staff and organizers in Florida, seven times more in Pennsylvania, and an eye-popping 26 times more in Ohio.

Second, Trump campaigned in a different way. Instead of spending millions of dollars on television advertising, he focused on old-school rallies, his message seeping through the free media coverage and his often-ridiculous Twitter posts.

Never before, in a presidential race, has there been such a disparity in the amount of money spent on television advertising. But this advantage did nothing to move independent and undecided voters to Clinton. Rather, it was Trump’s strategy of earned media, alongside an active and well-run social media presence that was most effective.

At the end of the campaign, Trump had raised $258 million, which was only a bit more than the Clinton campaign’s spending on TV ads alone, and far behind Clinton’s total spending of $502 million.

Some pundits have claimed it was Trump’s masterful use of social media that pushed him over the top. Rather, it was the combination of earned media, social media and rock-concert-sized rallies that defeated a stunned Clinton machine in both swing states and traditionally Democratic U.S. Rust Belt states.

Finally, rather than strive for authenticity, he played a consistent role just as he had done on his reality TV shows,

The Apprentice


The Celebrity Apprentice


Campaign professionals strive to create an authentic candidate who people can relate to; one with a back story that captures the essence of people’s aspirations.

This was never going to happen with Trump, an unusually privileged son of a businessman, a billionaire who hasn’t paid federal taxes in years.

But for what Trump lacked in authenticity, he made up for with consistency. His contrivance was perfectly constant, across all media, whether it was a major network interview, a stadium appearance in front of 10,000 adoring fans or a late-night Tweet.

This bombastic, entertaining and egotistical character had a message. And he knew it. He stuck to it. And his supporters latched on. And he won.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 20, 2016.

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