The American primary election season, particularly on the Republican side, is being dominated by one name: flashy reality TV host Donald Trump.

Last week, he had two massive primary wins — he secured 33% in South Carolina and a whopping 46% of the caucus votes cast in Nevada. It comes on top of an earlier win in New Hampshire and a second-place finish in Iowa.

For a long time, Trump looked like a joke candidate. He’s now being taken very seriously. Even in Australia his success isn’t going unnoticed. Earlier this month, Labor Senator Sam Dastyari held up a copy of Trump’s book The Art of the Deal during a segment on Insiders. The point Dastyari was making was that the old “Obama-style” campaign run by the American Democrats in 2008 was no longer the template for progressive party campaign strategy. Instead, he pointed to Trump.

“There’s a lot to learn from Trump in all this,” the NSW numbers man said. “It’s about cutting out the middle man … cutting out the filter. Learning to talk to people directly.”

But is approachability really the route of Trump’s success? Or has he simply been impossible to ignore?

In America, pundits are beginning to dig into the mechanics of Trump’s success. Commentary has shifted from calling him a buffoon to marvelling at his political instincts. One recent investigation by Politico spoke to a New York political consultant who recalled a conversation with Trump.

“Trump told us, ‘I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.’”

Trump’s always been more of a media personality than a successful businessman. His style has worked. A University of Pennsylvania analysis of the media mentions of the major Republican candidates shows how from July to September 2015, Trump had nine mentions to every one for his closest rivals. The gap has since been narrowing — in February 2016 he had slightly more than twice as many mentions as his closest competitor, Ted Cruz.

The disparity in coverage is something Australians, particularly those in Western Australia, would be familiar with. In the 2014 WA Senate election (the one that was rerun after 1375 ballots were “misplaced”), Clive Palmer went all out to ensure the election of Dio Wang to the Senate. “Gaffes”, stunts and outlandish statements were the order of the day. An Isentia analysis conducted for Crikey at the time found Palmer had nearly twice as many media mentions during the campaign as the entire Liberal Party.

Trump, like Palmer, has been able to keep the attention on him through a relentless supply of highly quotable, outrage-inducing statements likely to, at the very least, capture people’s attention.

It’s a cheaper way to campaign, says lobbyist and veteran Liberal Party election strategist Toby Ralph.

“Jeb Bush had campaign funds of $155 million, Hilary Clinton much the same, while Trump only had $19 million — yet he utterly dominates coverage because he’s so gloriously, inappropriately newsworthy,” Ralph said. “Idiocies like ‘I’ll build a wall and Mexicans will pay for it’ are worth hundreds of millions in free exposure.”

The strategy’s been around forever, Ralph hastens to add. Before Palmer, there was Pauline Hanson.

That said, the veteran campaigner does reckon such strategic use of outrage is getting more common. He gives a few reasons why this could be, such as “the rise of reality TV” and the “increasingly pervasive fog of anti-social media”.

But shouldn’t the constant outrage turn people off? The odd thing, says Melbourne University’s Nicholas Reece — who was director of strategy in Julia Gillard’s office and Victorian Labor secretary — is it doesn’t.

Reece says Trump’s success sounds a note of caution to mainstream parties. “It’s a reminder that the public are desperate for authenticity in politics.

“He appears to have this strategy of going out and saying outrageous things that garner him plenty of media attention and free publicity. Then, in the days afterwards, he tidies up his position, which usually involves him backing away or compromising what he said.”

Last week, Trump called Pope Francis “disgraceful” after the Pontiff questioned his policy of a wall to halt Mexican undocumented migration into America. A day later, Trump was saying the Pope was actually “very nice”. Previously, he said former Republican president George W. Bush “lied” to Americans to get into the Iraq War in 2003. A few days later he had softened his statements to saying Bush made “a mistake”.

“Trump’s overall approach is successful because he strikes people as authentic, even though, when you put it all together, this strategy is quite inauthentic,” Reece said. “The outrageousness of what he says strikes a chord with people who are sick of mealy-mouthed politicians who speak in political babble … People feel like they’re hearing from a real person.”

Saying things no politician would dare, regardless of the content, fits Trump’s style anyway, notes ANU political marketing professor Andrew Hughes. “He’s playing to this image of doing things no one else would say and do — thus he comes across as an honest politician.

“He’s open, he’s honest … he may be a fool, but that’s what people want to see.”

The extent to which mainstream parties can adopt the style is uncertain. In Australia’s democracy, the major parties work hard to keep their pollies on message — regardless of how wooden this makes them sound. The ability to garner attention through outrage is largely left to maverick independents and those on the fringes of political parties.

Australia also has a rather different voting system — most of those who use tactics like Trump have been aiming for the Senate, rather than the House of Reps.

Whether Trump’s current tactics can bring him to the White House is unlikely. While dozens of American pundits have made a habit of wrongly insisting Trump’s demise is imminent, few think he has a chance in a general election. Ad creative Dee Madigan, who’s worked on a number of recent Labor campaigns, says running a general election campaign against Trump would be easy. “Trump will scare people into turning up just so they can vote against him,” she said.

“The thing that astonishes me is the utter failure of Trump rivals to counter him effectively,” Ralph said. “Trump’s opponents should be attacking his financial incompetence.”

Madigan agrees. “Most of the people who’ve had a go at Trump have had a go at him by saying that he’s an idiot. Not only does that not work, it entrenches the positions of his supporters. It’s like appealing to climate sceptics by calling them idiots. That kind of stuff does the opposite to changing people’s minds.”

She recommends the classic tactic of building risk into people’s decision to vote for him. “Attack what he’s likely to do. I would attack his economic record. There’s a perception out there that he knows what he’s doing — that he’s a self-made man. But he got his first million from his dad, and since then has had business after business go belly-up.”

While the parallel, Ralph cautions, is imperfect, one could argue it was such a focus on financial (mis)management that finally rubbed the gloss off Palmer (the Palmer United’s Party’s poll numbers have gone from 5% at the 2013 election to 1% now). Meanwhile Palmer’s media coverage has taken a decidedly negative turn — one only has to look at Lisa Wilkinson’s recent interview with the iron ore mogul to see how even light-hearted shows seem to have had enough of him.

“Clive Palmer has certainly been bruised by financial faux pas,” Ralph said. Squabbling with party members and funding his party from a company that then sacked its workers helped. Such criticisms, Ralph believes, will bugger Palmer at the ballot box come this year’s Australian election. It’s hard to be a media darling for long.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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