Popular votes, hanging chads and Caesar salads

[Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Trump!” harrumphed my friend over her Caesar salad. She almost made it sound like a swear word, and waited for me to commiserate. 

I pointed out that whatever people thought, he was still democratically elected. So the more interesting question to ask was… but I never got the chance to finish my sentence. 

“He didn’t win the popular vote!” she hissed, brandishing her serrated knife menacingly.

The thing is, you don’t need to.

In fact, the first president elected without winning the popular vote was John Quincy Adams, way back in 1824. So the flaw in the electoral-college system – if indeed it is one – has been known about for over 200 years.

I was going to point out to my friend that if Americans had a problem with the loophole, they would have long since closed it. As recently as 2000, George W Bush was elected that way, amid the endless political soap-opera of the ‘hanging chads’, so it’s not as if we didn’t have a precedent in recent history.

But with her knife still hovering in mid-air, I thought it best to keep that thought to myself.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas Washington anymore

In the interests of full disclosure, I should just say that I’m not American, or a member of the Democratic or Republican parties. Or a supporter of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Or anybody else who fought for the nomination in the primaries.

I’m just somebody who’s fascinated by the fact that the most unpopular president in US history (and after just a month, that’s quite a record) actually got elected in the first place.

Viewed as a brand, he was borderline toxic late last year, especially after the off-the-record comments that surfaced just a month before the election.

Then again, nobody was surprised, as it was consistent with his track record. As the Huffington Post put it, They Never Cringed (though reading that article may cause you to, so exercise caution before clicking). 

So how did we get here? More to the point, how did he get there?

I don’t think there’s any great mystery about it. He just went back to first principles.

Politics meets marketing

He told a simple story: make America great again. It may be have been simplistic rather than simple, but it struck a chord.

If you’re one of the long-term unemployed in the Rust Belt, the idea of repatriating jobs is music to your ears. If you’re barely surviving on a low income (because all those illegal immigrants are pushing down wages) or living in a crime-ridden area (those immigrants again) then why would you not think the wall or mass deportations were a good idea? 

They always say that you should act fast, and use up any goodwill – such as it is, in this case – to get things done in the first 100 days. But the speed with which Donald Trump has acted has taken everybody by surprise.

But the measures shouldn’t: after all, he’s just doing what he said he would. The wall, the travel ban, the TPP withdrawal, targeting the Affordable Care Act, pulling funding from aid groups supporting abortion. You name it, he was upfront about it.

He also differentiated himself: he was a businessman who wasn’t part of the Beltway set or any political clan. He was the anti-politician who wanted to challenge the politicians.

He funded his campaign from his vast personal wealth, and so felt indebted to no one – least of all the Republican Party. And that independence gave him the ability to speak freely and tell it like it is (or at least, how he thought it was). 

It’s easy to level charges of sexism, racism and bigotry at him, but then what does that say about half the electorate (OK, a smidgen less than half) who voted for him? That they’re also guilty on all counts? Or that they were duped, and simply didn’t understand what they were voting for?

Here’s another possibility: maybe in a world where politicians hedge their bets and duck and dive, where they’re more spun than candy floss at a funfair, straight talking gets you noticed.

And even if people disagree with you, maybe they admire you for saying what you really think.

Though many marketers would recoil in horror if you said that there was a parallel between Donald Trump’s approach and theirs, I think it’s worth pointing out that he obeys some of the basic rules of the marketing game (or maybe Kellyanne Conway keeps him on track – and I wouldn’t want to mess with her): 

  • Tell a story
  • Be consistent.
  • Be different. 
  • Do what you say you’ll do. 
  • Don’t try to appeal to everybody.
  • Be authentic (even if, to some people, you’re saying unpalatable or unacceptable things).

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next four years. My knife-wielding friend scarcely knows how she’s going to make it through to 2020, and wonders if the nightmare will be prolonged with the call for ‘four more years’.

Personally, I think brand fatigue will have kicked in by then, and the GOP will have lined up a reserve candidate. And prepared an escape hatch for Donald and Melania.

But then what do I know? I got the 2015 UK election, Brexit and the US election wrong. One thing is for certain: I’m no Nate Silver. But then, that’s probably for the best.

Because I like surprises too much.