Why Trump Won (It’s the Marketing, Stupid)

Last week, a friend of mine commented on a Facebook post in which I asked who my friends voted for in this recent U.S. presidential election. Many said they voted for a third party, and this friend said, “That’s why Trump won.”

But is it really?

Aside from the flawed game theory that “voting for a third party candidate is really a vote for X,” the truth is this is not why Donald J. Trump won the election.

The reason Trump one is the same reason Obama won in 2008: he had a clear and simple message. And as any smart marketer will tell you, clarity trumps complexity any day of the week.

As a writer, I’m constantly facing this reality, as the facts and ideas I want to share are often complex and hard to understand — at least, they seem that way to me — and I feel that it is my job to make the reader understand how complex these ideas are and therefore how smart I am to share them.

But obviously that’s ridiculous. Readers don’t care how complex your ideas are; they don’t even care how good they are. What they want to know is that your ideas are interesting and easy to understand. A 1971 sociology study on what makes for interesting ideas explains why this is so.

In a paper titles “That’s Interesting!” researcher Murray S. Davis explains:

“It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great not because his theories are true but because they are interesting.”

In other words, when it comes to spreading ideas, it is better to be interesting than it is to be honest. Granted, it’s important to tell the truth for ethical reasons. But Davis does on to explain that “the truth of a theory has little to do with its impact.”

And this was something we saw again and again during Trump’s campaign — he would share things that he wasn’t explicitly saying were true, but he would say them nonetheless to get people talking about them. It was an expert example of media manipulation.

But this is besides the point. In the end, what people want to hear is what they already think they know. Seth Godin explains this in his bestselling book All Marketers Are Liars when he writes,

“We believe what we want to believe, and once we believe something, it becomes a self-fulfilling truth… What we want is the story we tell ourselves.”

When we buy something, including the message a politician is selling us, what are we actually buying? Is it the product? The thing that they’ll do? No. It’s far more simple than that.

“We’re buying the story,” Godin writes, “the way it makes us feel.”

So when Trump says “Make America Great Again,” Hillary Clinton said, “Better Together.” And her supporters said, I’m with her. Clinton’s message is potentially better, even more noble, but it is also more complex. And however much you think you like complexity, the average person does not.

We want to hear things that we agree with, without having to think too much about it.

Certainly, there is a place for cognitive dissonance, but when it comes to selling something — which is all an election really is — the smart message is the one that the constituents already know. The most persuasive story we listen to is is the story we tell ourselves.

So when Barack Obama, a largely unknown politician before the 2008 election season, comes out saying, “Yes, we can!” that is a powerful message for anyone who feels disenfranchised by the current system. And it’s a story they’re already telling themselves. They just need someone brave enough to step up and guide them.

This is an important point. Elections are not won by heroes, as author and entrepreneur Donald Miller argues in his popular marketing workshop StoryBrand. They’re won by guides. John McCain was a war hero. He lost. Mitt Romney was a capable businessman and effective governor whose slogan was “Believe in America.”

Believe in America? That’s a nice public service announcement, but it’s far from a war cry. And it doesn’t stand a chance against the empowering “Yes, We Can!”

In fact, it suggests that people aren’t believing in America, which is the opposite of what you want when you’re campaigning for the job to run this country. In the end, it’s the simplest messages that tell stories the audience wants to hear that win.

Maybe this doesn’t seem right or fair. But those kinds of gripings do not get you elected, and they do not get people to buy your product. Any marketer worth their chops knows that you have to follow the market. And the truth is if you understand the rules of the game, you stand a chance at winning it.

Did third-party votes cost Hillary Clinton the election?


Did a campaign message that was far from easy to understand contribute to it, as well?

Most definitely.

Just take note at the things people have said in the surprising results of Trump sweeping the electoral votes. “Isn’t HRC qualified for the job? Doesn’t she deserve to be president, after all the work she’s done for America?”

As noble as those questions may be, they are the wrong ones to ask. The right question is: Who told the better story?

As Murray S. Davis wrote,

“If the defining characteristic of anything which some audience considers interesting is that it stands out in their attention in contrast to the routinized taken-for-granted world of their everyday life, then the defining characteristic of a theory which some audience considers interesting is that it stands out in their attention in contrast to the web of routinely taken-for-granted propositions which make up the theoretical structure of their everyday life.”

So when Hillary Clinton said, “America is already great,” it was not as interesting as “Make America Great Again.”

A friend of mine told me days before the election, “If Trump wins, it will be because nostalgia is greater than novelty.”

It turns out, he was right. America would rather return to some nondescript Golden Age than it would make gradual progress in the same direction. And that’s what it really comes down to.

If you want to share a compelling message that moves people to action, you must tell them the story they want to hear, do it in an interesting way that is an attack on the taken-for-granted, and do so in a clear and concise way.

And that, boys and girls, is how you become president, regardless of how true or good your ideas may be.

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