Explaining The Rise Of Donald Trump

Orlando Wood reviews the results of our latest self-funded project – predicting the US election results and understanding the deeper dynamics at play.

Psychology tells us that humans are fast and frugal in our decision-making, that we ‘think much less than we think we think’. Instead, we are guided by impressions, associations, past experience, stories and feelings. We use mental shortcuts or rules of thumb to help us decide between options, products, brands – and indeed politicians. This is what psychologists refer to as ‘fast’ or ‘System 1’ thinking.

Back in late January, before the very first Caucus or Primary vote was cast – when the prediction markets and polls were in a state of flux (and indeed you might say they still are!) – we conducted research in the US to understand how well the US candidates had established the important mental shortcuts of Fame, Feeling and Fluency.

To our fast and frugal thinking minds:

  •  If I’ve heard of a politician, they must be a good choice (FAME: not so much what I think – but that I think – of a politician)
  • If I feel good about a politician, they must be a good choice (FEELING: feelings guide and simplify decision-making)
  • If I recognise a politician, they must be a good choice (FLUENCY: recognition speeds decision)

Our research – conducted before a single vote was cast – confirms that the two clear frontrunners in this race are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The other candidates are a sideshow. And sure enough, other candidates have indeed subsequently dropped out of the running one by one, as this illustration shows:

FFF chart

(If you’re new to our FFF charts, remember they aren’t pie charts – it’s not the size of the wedge, it’s how close to the edge!)

With Fame a tie, the dynamics of the presidential race depend on Feeling and Fluency. Neither candidate is well-liked, but Clinton has a slim advantage on Feeling – she makes more people happy. Meanwhile Trump easily wins on Fluency. From the hair to the ‘border wall’, he dominates distinctive assets and associations.

So it’s going to be closer than many think. What could break the tie?

Perhaps just telling the best story. We also explored the narratives that could win the election. Clinton is quite strongly associated with the liberal “grand narrative”, a Quest towards the goal of ‘opportunity for all’. But while that’s the right story for the Democrats, she’s not its best storyteller – Bernie Sanders scores higher, helping explain his popularity and persistence.

On the other side, the conservative grand narrative of renewal, traditional values and faith – the one which helped Ronald Reagan sweep to office in 1980 – isn’t a great fit for Trump, even though he’s a powerful storyteller. Which may be why he seems to be tearing the Republicans apart. Trump could end up shifting the Republican party in a new and different direction. If they can’t change their candidate, they may have to change their story.

For more detail on our political work, including deeper dives into Feeling, Fluency and the campaign stories, check out our webinar, Happiness, Hatred, Heuristics and Hair.

Go on, tell us how you feel!

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