Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few months, you know it's election season in the US of A. We've experienced surprises, disappointments and occasionally elation, regardless of our political persuasion. Now, with the Republican and Democratic conventions out of the way, we know the choice that lies before us: Team Trump or Team Clinton. Red or Blue. Conservative or Liberal. But, the biggest surprise of all has been the winnowing of this contest to a political neophyte and a career politician. How did we get to this point? How is the neophyte performing as well as the expert? And, what can we learn from this election?
While new to the political game, Donald Trump is no stranger to the public. He has always had an uncanny ability to publicize his brand and sell his image as a successful businessman to the public. He has published books on attaining success, hosted a successful television show promoting business skills and erected landmark buildings bearing his name in some of the most valuable locations on earth. Some people argue that his success was built on unsavory business practices, but I think we can all agree that the man knows a great deal about marketing and leveraging his own brand. In fact, his natural sense of showmanship may be his greatest asset.
After decimating his rivals in the Republican primary, he has emerged with a clear vision of America as he sees it, which he articulates with emotion and sincerity. His message never wavers and he rarely, if ever, apologizes. Again, you may not agree with his politics, but you have to admire his ability to sell an idea. Despite having deep billionaire pockets, he has spent surprisingly little on traditional campaign expenses, like advertising, polling and messaging. Instead, he has poured all of his efforts into self-publicity. Having hosted The Apprentice for a few years, he understands that television is still the main broadcast platform in America, yet he also leverages the power of social media to reach younger, urban and more tech-savvy individuals.
The most revolutionary part of this approach is that Trump controls the message all by himself, without staffers to feed him lines. He has seduced the media (mainstream and otherwise) by providing them with stream-of-consciousness rants that are ratings gold. The more controversy he generates, the better the ratings and the more attention he receives. Trump is proof that the medium is still the message: our perception of him is influenced by his TV avatar who seems to share what appears to be his unfiltered opinion, much like an opinionated uncle at your Thanksgiving dinner. Television seems to have removed the middle man and allowed the candidate to speak directly to the viewer, thereby breaking the fourth wall. This technique holds tremendous appeal for viewers who feel alienated and marginalized by society. Some of these people at the Thanksgiving dinner table are suddenly taking the opinionated uncle seriously, because they can relate to some of his points.
Likewise, following Trump on Twitter is an intensely personal experience, because the medium seems to give us unfettered access to his thoughts and conversations, as well as his high-octane arguments with other celebrities. To use the kind of language Trump eschews, he is "authentic." Some people perceive him to be a straight shooter and they appreciate that he doesn't speak down to them. He seems to understand their concerns and doesn't hesitate to voice them, even if they are controversial—especially if they are controversial.
Think of the contrast with Hillary Clinton: she is perceived as a career politician and therefore untrustworthy and dishonest, mainly because she has "handlers" or middlemen—people who advise her and help her deliver a message. She does not have Trump's spontaneity. What she has instead is a wealth of political experience, honed over decades of public service. She is eminently qualified to be President, but she has trouble communicating and connecting with audiences. While she is a powerful politician, she lacks Trump's showmanship or President Obama's oratorical gifts. She is earnest and keen to debate the issues.
Unfortunately for Clinton, she has turned up at the proverbial gunfight with a knife. Her polling data and expert advisors are no match for Trump, because he has changed the rules of engagement. He has tapped into deep emotions that run like an undercurrent in the American psyche, positioning himself as the agent of change. The country is uncertain of its place on the global stage, feeling besieged by an ever-evolving world and wanting to return to simpler times. Trump's supporters see him as an outsider—just like them—seeking to shake up the status quo, while Clinton is believed to be part of a political dynasty that has contributed to the current predicament. In a curious twist in this election, the Republican Party is promising change, while the Democrats are making the case for continuity.
Clinton can reassure us that the situation is not as dire as it seems—which the data confirms—but she hasn't painted as extensive or as compelling a picture of her America, her vision of who we are and what we can be. How will the U.S. fare until her leadership? Will she restore the country to its former grandeur? Mostly, she has delivered broad policy messages that poll well with Democrats, delivering an overarching message of inclusion, which may or may not convince Independents. However, she hasn't boiled it down to a simple concept. What will these policies mean for the average American? What is her "Change" mantra? What is her "Morning in America" message? Who is she as a person? What does she really stand for?
Clinton's writers have helped her take some significant steps toward answering these questions at the recent Democratic National Convention, but she isn't necessarily convincing the undecideds or on-the-fence Republicans, because it doesn't seem authentic. By all accounts, Clinton is a smart, warm and humorous person in private. However, after a lifetime on the public scene, she is understandably guarded in front of audiences. She has also been attacked for much of her career, so she tends to be defensive. Yet, she is going to have to sacrifice some self-control if she wants to win the election: let Hillary be Hillary. If she can find a way to convey her values and vision to the American people with feeling and off-script, while showing that she can relate to their everyday concerns, she may be able to turn the tide. It is her ultimate crucible; she is the only obstacle between herself and the most powerful office in the world. Framing the contest as a referendum on Donald Trump is a far riskier proposition.
Many voters like Trump, because they believe they know what he stands for: they are in fact projecting their idealized version of Trump on the man, much as people did with President Obama in 2008 and 2012. Likeability is something American voters always look for in their presidents. My favorite example dates back to 2004, when 57% of undecided voters stated they would rather have a beer with George W. Bush than with John Kerry, despite the fact that Bush was a recovering alcoholic who couldn't have a beer with them anyhow. In short, voters found him more likeable. Voters this time around seem to dislike Trump and Clinton equally, but they may think Trump is more genuine. After all, Trump has sold himself as a straight talker, who is unafraid to tackle politically incorrect topics and who is speaking for those who don't have a platform. He portrays himself as the underdog representing underdogs, giving voice to the frustrations of regular Americans. Yes, he is a billionaire and they are disenfranchised, but this election is not about logic; it's about emotion.
You can't have a high-level, logical conversation with someone who is engaging at an emotional level and appealing to feelings. In other words, Clinton is speaking in facts and data, while Trump is speaking in soundbites. The contrast between the two candidates couldn't be starker: this is a pitched battle between inclusion versus exclusion; the group versus the individual; and, head versus heart. Clinton is appealing to society's better angels, while Trump is speaking to people's self-interest. After the recent Brexit vote in the UK, it is clear that voters can be ruthlessly pragmatic when politicians make a seemingly simple case for self-actualization. After all, this same approach helped Barack Obama win the White House with a basic message of change. This election, the American people need to believe in their President. They want to know s/he will make a difference, not just conduct business as usual. After President Obama's two terms, they want "Change Plus."
So, what can we learn from all this election-season tension and who will prevail?
Maya Angelou famously said, "At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel."
Even a high-stakes competition like this election boils down to a popularity contest. The more vivid and compelling the vision, the more it will resonate with voters.
When you're trying to make your case in public, tell your story with a compelling argument and an engaging narrative arc.
Hillary Clinton is trying to articulate her vision and argument for America's future. Whether she succeeds in doing so or not will determine the outcome of this election.
Depending on the situation, logic or emotion may be the more convincing method to win over an audience, but the best recipe for success is to include both.
We're human, with a head and a heart. Appeal to both.
If you are at a critical junction, try to be yourself. Your life experiences have brought you to this point, so enjoy the moment and let your personality shine through.
Donald Trump clearly enjoys a healthy dose of self-confidence with unwavering enthusiasm for his message, while Hillary Clinton still appears to struggle with finding her sense of destiny. She needs to connect with people at an emotional level and make them feel she is the right choice.
Four months is an eternity in politics. There's a reason why we call elections "political theater": after all, it is a performance. The candidates represent radically different world views, so this election will undoubtedly determine our shared future. But, try to enjoy the show and remember that there will be a new dawn in America again, regardless of who wins.