Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trump Out-Foxes Them All

How does he do it?

Or, to synthesize conservative commentators seemingly everywhere, how can a man with multiple marriages, bankruptcies, and casinos, variant positions on seminal issues, and the broadest possible variety of insults—including calling a former Republican President a liar—possibly be the next Republican nominee for President? 

It has them gobstruck.  Michael Gerson might have framed it best last week, when, before South Carolina, he led with, “At first, in the summer of 2015, it seemed like a joke. Then a novelty. Then a bubble that must surely burst. Then a spectacle, overshadowing all the earnestness and experience of the Republican presidential field.

It has left those of us in the center and on the left a little stunned as well.  “President Trump?” 

It could happen.  How is fascinating—because if anyone seriously thought one year ago that a Donald Trump-like candidate could get this far, they didn’t make exactly make themselves known.  The more I watch Trump, the more I see the whole act, the more convinced I am that The Donald is winning by applying smart business principles. Success may come in many ways, but one of the surest is identifying an underserved market and dominating it.  That, in a nutshell, is what Trump is doing.

Imagine that you own a buggy-whip shop.  You make a decent living out of it, but with nine other competitors in your market, there seems to be no way to break out.  You have a handsome store, you have 24 varieties of buggy-whips, you’ve added free delivery and personal shoppers, but, after all that, you are still just making a decent living. One day, while sorting through invoices, you happen to notice that while just about all 24 varieties of buggy-whips sell decently, if you add up all the ones with shades of red, they represent a good 35% of your sales.

An idea is born. You call an architect, and over a single weekend convert your beautiful retail space into a plush salon of red.  No more heather, or taupe, or black, brown, no more blue—just reds.  Crimson, raspberry, rust, orange, burgundy, even hot pink.

It’s a hit.  What you found out was that many others shared your secret passion, and they flock to your store.  You add book readings, red coffee cups, even an all-red wine tasting once a month.  You have built a community.  Your competitors are getting killed, because while they might be getting 1/9th of your dingy old gray-black-brown-blue business, they are losing most of their reds to you.  Your sales double, and double again, your profitability higher still, because you don’t have to waste space with slower-moving items.

That’s what Rupert Murdoch did with Fox News.  He looked out at the dull media landscape, with major networks sending bland eminences out there to sell dull (liberal and dull) shades of buggy-whips, and realize he didn’t need to compete for every percent of market share with the same products everyone else was selling.  Rather, he could have complete market dominance in one area—and who cared about the viewers who wanted a traditional product?  Tune in to Fox with the right mind-set, and you can go weeks on end being educated and entertained and enabled with friends who tell you that there’s nothing in the world like red, and you are a special person for realizing it, and that people who want to wear other colors are the ones with the problems.  Reds stick together.   

This Murdochian lesson was absorbed by the master salesman, who incorporated it into his own brand.  Donald Trump doesn’t want everyone—in fact, he makes a point of saying some folk are just not welcome in his store.  That makes his product even more appealing to his core customers, who really don’t want to hang out with the people on the wrong side of the red rope anyway. 

Trump’s brilliance, however, has not been confined to just exploiting an exclusive market niche.  He has four other advantages.  The first is obvious—he’s Donald Trump, and gets an enormous amount of free publicity just as a result of his fame.  The second is structural—a multiplayer race is gold to him in a winner-take-most-or-all primary environment.  It’s like owning the buggy-whip shop selling all the red—his competitors are still getting customers, but with reduced traffic their overhead is now eating all their profits.  In South Carolina, Trump, with 33% of the vote, spread it out so well he got every single delegate to the Convention, even though Cruz and Rubio, combined, had substantially more “sales.” 

Republicans have comforted themselves with Trump’s “low ceiling” but they have also run up against another part of Trump’s secret sauce.  No one is really sure what that “low ceiling” consists of.  The Trump coalition is like nothing that makes sense using contemporary metrics.  In the beginning, when Trump was thought of as a loud-mouthed rich guy indulging himself, they guessed he might broaden their coalition, then fade from view in time for them to pocket those new voters while reassuring those he offended that the GOP big tent was quite big.  So, institutionally, they took a hands-off approach and let the media (including Fox) have at him.  Cruz, in particular, assumed that Trump’s people would warm to his appeal once Donald had had his fun, and was particularly nice to him.

Again, Trump confounded people with his staying power, leaving all his opponents with a terrible problem—they need to get Donald one-on-one (or, at least, one-on-two) to reduce that seemingly irreducible 30-odd percent he has.  That has meant that all the crabs in the pot have had to go after each other, leaving Donald to watch.  I saw a stunning number—only about two percent of the more than $200 Million campaign ad dollars were spent in negative ads against Trump himself—something that makes absolutely no sense, given that he’s the frontrunner.

The problem is now time as well as money.  We have three non-Trump candidates left (besides Carson)—Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich.  Each one of the three thinks they can take Trump one-on-one.           

Unfortunately for them, there won’t be mano-a-mano any time soon.  Cruz isn’t going anywhere—he owes nothing to the Establishment, and while he should have done better in South Carolina, there are a lot of southern states Super Tuesday.  Rubio should pick up a huge amount of cash now that Jeb is out—but some of Jeb’s voters may be more inclined to move to Kasich, who is closer in temperament to Jeb and didn’t “betray” him.  Since that could split the “moderate” vote, there are a lot of people really leaning on Kasich—and Kasich is out of money.  But Kasich is a legitimately different voice with his own lane to run in, and could take Midwestern states if he can hold on.  That’s why they have floated a "Kasich falls on his sword/ Rubio/Kasich super-team” rumor. 

Of course, it’s only February, and the sheer weight of Trump’s undisciplined language may finally take him down.  Or, he could just keep going and going, and it could take him down in the general election. 

Or, crimson buggy whips could become a national craze, and the Lincoln Bedroom may get gold bathroom hardware and be renamed the “Donald J. Trump Presidential Suite.”

Scary? It does make a lot of people see red.  Or get blue. 

I’ll give Michael Gerson a last word on who could be the next Republican nominee:

“Trumpism is an existential threat to conservatism.” 

Sly Fox, that Donald.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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