The presidential primary campaign is one of the most thrilling and interesting seasons, particularly for public affairs communicators. But this year has been an exception. It’s not just thrilling, but utterly mind blowing.
Who could have predicted that a billionaire businessman with a populist slant and affinity for inflammatory rhetoric would become the Republican front-runner? The other side is no less dramatic, where a self-identified democratic socialist and relatively obscure member of the Senate is posing a serious challenge and even out-fundraising the Clinton political machine.
There’s no question that this year’s primary is unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory, and maybe even in our nation’s history.
So what’s going on?
That’s something the historians will need time to figure out. But from a communications perspective, these two unconventional candidates are resonating with voters because of their mastery of political communication. Here’s how:
First, their communication is informed by a keen perception of the electorate’s state of mind.
Politicians can read all the polls, thought pieces, and studies they want, but if they don’t have the ability to draw keen insights about human feeling and experience, they will be at a disadvantage next to these two candidates. Both men have a visceral understanding of the public’s frustration that something is fundamentally wrong, and that deep change is needed.
Second, Trump and Sanders have translated their insight into a succinct message that they repeat over and over.
Sanders is the more disciplined candidate when it comes to this. You can ask him what he had for breakfast, and he’ll find a way to frame his answer around income inequality. He’ll make this leap in a manner that seems natural and sincere. Trump is less disciplined and polished, but still has a clear message that he reliably returns to: America doesn’t win anymore, and it’s because of bad deals and incompetent politicians. A savvy businessman like him is needed to fix the corrupt and damaged system, and bring back good jobs. This message may be disjointed and contradictory at times, but it speaks to the fear and frustration that many are feeling, and Trump has been saying it from the start.
These two qualities allow Trump to get away with remarks that would derail the candidacy of a less masterful communicator. It’s also what has allowed Sanders, a relatively powerless member of the Senate, to advance as far as he has against one of the most powerful political names in Democratic politics.
We’re approaching another string of primaries in important states, including Florida and Ohio. Trump is likely to further solidify his path to the nomination. Clinton also will likely do the same, but may continue to struggle against Sanders’ strong support. Whatever the outcome, the impact of Trump and Sanders on their respective parties will likely be felt for years to come.