Five Trump Cards

Key Lessons Learned From the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Michael Cohen
Nov 22, 2016 · 4 min read

We are now two weeks into trying to explain how Donald J. Trump became the President-elect of the United States. Over the course of the campaign, we chronicled his unlikely rise in the primaries, overtaking the field on Twitter, and defeating one of the most qualified people to run for the nation’s highest office.

We learned a lot from Trump. Here are five cards (on sale now, of course!) he played most effectively in 2016, lessons that may help us better evaluate campaigns at all levels.

Donald Trump’s ace of “Make America Great Again” was a clear, concise, way of reaching disaffected voters who were frustrated with Washington and felt the country was going in the wrong direction.

Many derided it as backward looking but when a supermajority of Americans believe that the nation is on the wrong track it’s simply a recognition that to move forward, we need to first remember what it was like to be great.

Clinton’s message, however, was muddled throughout the campaign and finally landing on “Stronger Together” was a play to demographics, not to rationale. The results speak for themselves. How’s a 22:1 ratio?

2016 Volume of Tweets including Make America Great Again or MAGA | Crimson Hexagon
2016 Volume of Tweets including Stronger Together | Crimson Hexagon

As we tracked on Twitter, Trump’s feed was largely his own. While observers chastised Trump for late night tweeting, or dictating his tweets, his followers knew there was a real person on their timelines. Ironically, Trump’s fumbles on social media reinforced his humanity.

In contrast, Clinton left most of her tweeting to her team, who viewed the platform as another way to disseminate their message. Even some tweets signed by Clinton appear to have been worked through the machine. This left Clinton’s many supporters feeling like they were backing something corporate, soulless.

Authenticity, not corporate professionalism, inspires people to go to the polls. Even the highpoint of the Clinton campaign on Twitter turned into a way for Trump to unmask her inauthentic, professional campaign.

When polls are wrong, there are generally problems with the sample interviewed or the questions asked. This time there were problems with both. Voting for Trump was socially undesirable and it led to fewer supporters participating in polls, skewing predictions.

Trump consistently mocked polls when they underrepresented his support, providing cover for people to ignore invitations or hang up on pollsters.

Models of behavior only work when the information reflects reality. Distort the measurement of reality with social desirability bias and you break election models.

While Clinton has been in the public eye for over thirty years, news is all about covering new things. Trump’s unique candidacy helped him gain millions of dollars in free air time, fueling his rise on social media and in polls.

Remember, Trump was able to close his gap in followers on Twitter with Clinton in October 2015, before primary voting began. Trump’s rise in polls within the GOP primary happened despite a limited effort at running a traditional campaign.

The Clinton campaign was supposed to be light-years ahead of Trump’s. They had a consistent leadership team, stronger data operation, and a best-in-class turnout machine ready to be deployed on Election Day. It wasn’t enough and some of it was dead wrong.

On November 8, 2016 Trump had over 13 million Twitter followers and Clinton had 10.6 million.

One iron law of politics is that the winning team can’t wait to tell their story while the losing side, particularly the candidate, can’t wait to tell us why others are responsible for their loss.

This campaign was no exception.

Everything Trump’s team did in the closing days of the campaign, such as traveling to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, looks smart in retrospect. Everything Clinton’s team failed to do in those states, including connecting with middle class whites, looks like a simple reason for failure.

The bottom line is winning always explains winning and losing.

If you enjoyed this article, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium. Follow me on Twitter @michaelcohen. You can follow our research on this website or on Twitter @PEORIAProject, which is funded by a generous grant from Mark R. Shenkman. To learn more about the Graduate School of Political Management visit our website or follow us on Twitter @GSPMgwu.


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Michael Cohen

Written by

Founder of Cohen Research Group. Publisher of Congress in Your Pocket. Lecturer at Johns Hopkins. Author of Modern Political Campaigns


Not interested in your hot takes