In normal circumstances, you’d say that Donald Trump was a loser at last night’s GOP debate. But these aren’t normal circumstances. His supposed missteps haven’t hurt him in the polls and some polls suggest they may have actually helped.
In the debate, Trump was once again blustery (starting the debate by asking why Rand Paul was even on stage and later taking on Jeb Bush’s brother, George W) and many of the other candidates were more aggressive in taking him on. Trump was still Trump. Highly entertaining, but short on specifics.
Before we go any further, let’s remember that it is so, so early in the nomination process. Remember Michelle Bachmann? The former Representative from Minnesota won one of the early primaries in the 2012 election, only to drop out eight months later.
Last night’s GOP debate was a survival contest for a few of the candidates as donors decide to monetarily support one candidate over another, leaving some (like Texas Governor Rick Perry) without funding.
In a vacuum, I’d say Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (once among the frontrunners) is in trouble and, despite a strong showing last night, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may be too far behind to garner much more financial support.
The dividing line at the GOP debate.
The establishment candidate remains Bush, who was far stronger in this debate than the previous one, meaning he may have shored up his base and regained the confidence of his supporters.
However, in this point of the election cycle, there is a strong current of anti-establishment running strong, even in The Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton, besieged by the email scandal and generally negative media coverage, is seeing her poll numbers drop while the numbers for Bernie Sanders rise. Sanders may be a US Senator but he positions himself as an outsider.
In the Republican Party, we are seeing three candidates – Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – in the lead. They are the outside-the-Beltway candidates that speak to many who feel Washington DC is corrupt and ineffectual, and that electing a professional politician just means more of the same.
This question is whether that feeling is long lasting and will have an effect with voters whey they actually cast a ballot. What you saw last night was most of the candidates doing a form of brand positioning. To be a coveted brand, you must be three things: You must represent a high emotional intensity (for the moment, anti-DC sentiment), be able to fulfill your brand promise and be positioned against your competition (to, therefore, offer a true choice).
The outsiders (Trump, Carson, Fiorina) are positioning themselves against the insiders (Bush, Paul, Rubio, Cruz and even Kasich). Fiorina, who is getting good reviews from the morning press, did take on Trump, but her messages are more similar to that of Trump’s than you might think. (They are just more detailed.)
The insiders are positioning themselves against the outsiders, which is why Trump became their primary target.
How emotionally intensive the anti-Washington belief is will determine whether the outsiders have the right message for this marathon. When voters get to the ballot box, they may actually want somebody who knows how to get things done inside our nation’s capital.