The psychology of national elections is something that is long debated and often discussed, with every election cycle offering new developments for everyone to marvel at. With the presidential election cycle seeming to begin earlier and earlier every four years with cycles now starting roughly eighteen months before the final polling date, there is increasingly a larger and larger window for candidate exposure, leaving room for more candidates to join the playing field. And while campaigns are increasingly won or lost based on the amount of money that a candidate can spend on advertising, at the same time social media and media coverage make presidential campaigns far more unpredictable.
Trump’s Remarkable Surge
This brings to the fore the current candidate for the 2016 presidential election, the man who has the most money to spend and the highest name recognition - Donald Trump. Trump claims that he is willing to spend one billion dollars on his campaign, and he has been polling in the top spot among Republican contenders for the majority of the campaign season thus far. In fact he stands at over 25% among Republican candidates among registered Republican voters following the early August debate. The next closest candidates are neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 12%, Senator Ted Cruz at 10% and Governor Jeb Bush at 9%.
Given that Trump announced his candidacy only in mid June, months after the other members of the field of candidates, his rise is again truly remarkable, with nothing like it having been seen in a presidential election before.
Why is he capturing the public imagination in a way that no other candidate is, despite his continued public relations missteps and his lack of experience?
Why Trump is Doing Well
Donald Trump rates consistently as the candidate with the highest name recognition. People know who he is thanks to his decades in the media spotlight, starting in 1980’s with his rise as a casino owner and his sponsorship of champion boxers. He’s gone on to run beauty pageants, to have movie cameos, and to star in commercials. Of course he shot to superstardom with his television show The Apprentice, which debuted a dozen years ago in 2003. Trump’s name recognition is higher than any other candidate in the race, including Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Whether they like him or not, Trump is well known and has been in people’s living rooms for decades.
Familiarity is important in a presidential campaign because people will gravitate towards the name that they know. One thing that Trump does not have going for him is that boosts that come from name recognition tend to fade rapidly as the election moves forward. While Trump might have the edge at the moment, that is not likely to last. Hillary Clinton boasted huge name recognition and high poll numbers at this point in the 2008 election, only to be overcome by unknown Barack Obama.
The electorate is highly distrustful of political candidates, particularly of those who have been in politics for a long time. One reason is that we hold our elected officials to a high standard, at least in theory. We expect them to both be able to be stalwart in their beliefs and in their ability to make consistent choices while in office. As Trump does not have a political background, we do not expect this of him. Instead, at least at this early stage in the election cycle, the electorate is in the “getting to know you” part of the election cycle. While Donald Trump is certainly a familiar face, and one that Americans have known for decades, as a presidential candidate he is a fairly unknown entity. There is an extreme novelty to the idea of a man who is essential at this point viewed as an entertainer becoming the most powerful political figure in America. There is also a sense that perhaps Trump will bring something novel and new to politics, which is largely perceived to be a broken system full of corruption. His ideas are unlike those of other candidates, and his style is completely removed from the style of others in the running.
In a nutshell, Trump sticks out while all of the other candidates at this point seem to be very similar in both their level of familiarity and their opinions. Lanning and Maruyama (2010) have done extensive research into the psychology of the election cycle, and have found in part that novelty does play a serious role in aiding in candidate choice, particularly in the primary process. In fact Trump’s consistent media missteps actually add to his novelty and likeability as he is consistently offering directions that, though often inflammatory, are also unlike what any other candidate is communicating in the race.
Americans are in LOVE with their entertainment. There is a celebrity obsession in the US that far exceeds the interest in the political process. Trump offers voters the chance to have their entertainment and their election. In addition, face recognition and likeability are high markers in election cycles (Ballew & Todorov, 2007). Thanks to his immense popularity in the media, Trump has an advantage. His coverage far exceeds that of any other candidate, even in the wake of huge email scandals coming from his biggest rival, Hillary Clinton. People are interested in his less calculated, shoot from the hip style that is devoid of the familiar calculated nature of national politics.
People enjoy talking about Trump as his story offers them the most accessible narrative in the election cycle. The are able to follow his story arc and to connect with not only Trump the man, but also Trump the presidential candidate. That means that when they’re asked who they would vote for, then part of that drive to say “Trump” includes the desire to see how the narrative plays out with him in the starring role.
What remains to be seen is whether Trump will be able to spin this surge into solid numbers that are needed to win primaries, or if this bump in numbers is simply an early election uptick that will fall away before next spring’s primary.
Ballew, C. & Todorov, A. (2007). Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments. PNAS. vol. 104 no. 46.
Lanning, K., & Maruyama, G. (2010). The social psychology of the 2008 US presidential election. ANALYSES OF SOCIAL ISSUES AND PUBLIC POLICY, 10(1), 171-181.
Shutt, J. (2015) Trump leads in first post-debate Fox national poll. Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/story/2015/08/donald-trump-debate-fox-news-2016-poll-121412.html#ixzz3j3mN9DMq
Tani, M. (2015). Donald Trump is still rocketing up polls in dominating fashion. Business Inside. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/poll-donald-trump-leads-jeb-bush-scott-walker-2015-7