The initial GOP debate is days away. A new NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll has Donald Trump as the first choice with 19 percent of GOP primary voters, while Scott Walker has 15, Jeb Bush 14 Ben Carson 10. A year ago, I doubt anyone would have put their money on Trump being in the lead going into the first debate, but Trump is not your run-of-the-mil Republican candidate. No one in the field understands how to grab media attention like he does.
To review some of his recent quotes:
On Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
On John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.”
On Lindsey Graham: Trump called Graham an “idiot,” and gave out his private cell phone number.
On Rick Perry: “He did an absolutely horrible job of securing the border. He should be ashamed of himself… He put on glasses so people think he’s smart… [Perry] should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate.”
His words about McCain prompted a strong response from Republican candidates for president in 2016 – more immediate and forceful, than any reactions to his pronouncements on Mexico. The former Texas governor Rick Perry said the remarks represented “a new low in American politics” and demanded that Trump “immediately withdraw from the race for president.”
Well that ain’t happening anytime soon.
The quotes about Mexico were problematic on their own, since that framed the Republican perspective in a very specific way. To change the narrative, that other candidates would need to speak out and very few outside of Perry and Bush were willing to jump into the fray. So with that one statement, Trump was steering the media ship. He was shaping the agenda and others were being forced to react. It was as though overnight Donald Trump had hijacked and was running the Republicans’ PR campaign.
But then, when his pronouncements shifted from Mexico to his fellow Republicans, everything again changed. Trump wasn’t debating their policies. He was personally attacking them. He was forcing the Republican Party to take sides not on policy, but personality. And as he did this, his numbers continued to soar. He continued to poll at the top. How long this phenomena will last is anyone’s guess.
Trump probably has the same chance of securing the Republican nomination as Bernie Sanders has of landing as the Democratic nominee, but Trump is in a position to not only disrupt the Republican race, he can actually determine the outcome. He’s been a major donor to candidates and causes on both sides of the aisle, a fact that he’s already used to taunt Graham. Others who have asked for donations are probably quaking wondering if and when they will be singled out.
Many major news outlets who are holding the presidential debates are also looking at cutting the field by allowing candidates that rank in the top ten by evaluating the last five national polls ahead of the main event. Trump will definitely make those cuts meaning that another with more political experience will not.
He is completely controlling the Republican campaign’s agenda and talking points. For now he decides what will be addressed and the others respond. For weeks Trump has been polling ahead of Rick Perry, John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki. That will most likely not last, but it will definitely have an impact.
But, and most importantly, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that if Donald Trump follows through on his threats to run as an Independent, he will basically assure that a Democrat will remain in the White House. This could be another Ross Perrot affair, where Trump siphons enough votes from the Republican nominee to assure that Hilary Clinton (I’m going out on a limb here and calling Clinton the Democratic nominee – but it’s a strong limb) wins the Presidency.
This would not be possible if Trump wasn’t reaching and connecting with a large section of the Republican Party with his words and his style. Love him or hate him, Trump is an established brand, an American icon.
Polls will shift as the election grows nearer and the debates focus more on the issues. Still, regardless of the PR efforts that the rest of the party tries, in the long run, it might be very difficult to trump Trump.
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