The man laughed off, scoffed at, and put down by the entire punditry for so many months could wrap up the nomination in a more dominant fashion than any nominee since George W. Bush in 2000.
Donald Trump is slightly favored in the latest polling to win the first 2016 GOP contest in Iowa, potentially setting the mogul up to sweep the early states in the Republican presidential primary contest.
Trump has spent less money on television than his rivals in the Hawkeye State and has little ground game to speak off in Iowa. Instead, Trump has followed a novel campaign strategy built around dominating the conversation of the contest by refusing to play by the rules of politics.
The Trump playbook has followed a simple, yet debilitating, formula for opponents hamstrung by the conventions of traditional campaigns: Make a seemingly outrageous statement, let that fiery rhetoric dominate the conversation in the media, and then make another statement right when a new adversary seems poised to gain momentum, or when the attention of the media wanes.
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” — Trump’s campaign announcement June 16, 2015
When the history books are written on the 2016 presidential election, this line from Trump’s campaign kickoff announcement will be among the first pages. In a single line, Trump summed up the angry mood of conservatives who’ve known illegal immigration to be a crime driver, yet have seen Congress after Congress, Republican after Republican, fail to stop it.
The phrase blanketed the media for weeks, with every pundit pontificating about how the phrase proved Trump’s lack of seriousness. But the media also broadcast to the entire Republican base that Trump was the guy unconcerned with political correctness and ready to call a spade a spade in order to address a pressing issue, too often ignored by the political class. Trump’s rise began with the media’s own pride blinding it to a brilliant strategy that made them the conduit for the mogul’s populism.
“I like people who weren’t captured.” — Trump at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, July 18, 2015
In a harbinger of the brilliant irreverence to follow, Trump alerted the nation to his lack of respect for those Republicans who came before him and lost by slamming Arizona Sen. John McCain during a forum in Iowa.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
The media again bit the bait. While they continued to broadcast to the country Trump’s non-PC outrage at the lasting issue of illegal immigration, they deepened the narrative that Trump wouldn’t play by the rules with their coverage of the McCain comments.
Attempting to make a mockery of Trump, the media instead built up the no-nonsense icon the nation craved. McCain had deeply disappointed Republicans by refusing to hammer Obama in 2008, and had betrayed conservatives in successive fights following. When Trump refused to kiss the Arizona senator’s ring, many quietly delighted in it.
The stage was set for Trump to bring the media to bear on his opponents, be they rivals or adversaries within the media itself.
“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes.” — Trump on CNN Aug. 7, 2015
Polling over the past year has shown the American people hold an all time low opinion of the media. Trump moved early to corner the market as the anti-media candidate.
When Trump was faced in the first official GOP debate with what he described as hostile questioning from Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly over past comments about women, Trump struck.
Following the debate, Trump dominated the post-event coverage by building a massive public feud with Kelly. Most of the media spectacle was generated from a single line during an interview with CNN where Trump said: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base.”
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Again, the pundits took to the airwaves to declare Trump had gone too far and this time would surely suffer in the polls. Conservative activist Erick Erickson disinvited Trump from a conservative confab and invited Kelly instead. Trump’s rivals expressed their shock. Rival Carly Fiorina tweeted: “Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse.”
Trump rose in the polls. The electorate distrusts and reviles the media. To take center stage as their adversary was a boon that again allowed Trump to dominate the conversation. Hardly anyone remembers the best lines, zingers, or comebacks of the other contenders from that first debate.
Jeb is “low-energy.” — Trump Instagram post Sept. 8, 2015
Having defined himself already as the anti-political correctness candidate and the enemy of the mainstream media, Trump began to set his sights on 2016 rivals.
The first to bear the brunt of Trump’s media mastery was Jeb Bush. The man everyone had predicted would be the contender to beat, who had the most money in his super PAC, and much of the Establishment world behind him was relegated to bottom-tier contention two words: “low-energy.”
Trump’s campaign posted a short video on Instagram highlighting a sleeping attendee at a Bush rally.
The Jeb-slam was played in full three times, and mentioned six times on CNN alone in the first several hours after it was posted, according to an analysis by Mediate.
The repeated “energy” digs at Bush during debates, on the campaign trail, and on social media defined the former Florida governor. Jeb’s inability to respond to Trump made him appear weak.
“I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.” — Campaign rally in Florida Oct. 24, 2015
The first candidate to seriously threaten Trump’s front-runner status post-summer 2015 was fellow-outsider Dr. Ben Carson. But Carson, supported by a weak campaign staff and without extensive media experience himself, was a soft target in-waiting for the Trump juggernaut.
In his signature move of stick and carrot for the media Trump questioned Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith, thought by some evangelicals to not be a real Christian denomination.
The line brought in the usual non-stop coverage and analysis of Trump’s attack, ensuring Iowa evangelical voters could not escape hearing the insinuation that Carson was, in fact, not a real Christian. And when the media began analyzing Carson’s life story for possible holes, Trump attacked.
“So I have a belt: Somebody hits me with a belt, it’s going in because the belt moves this way. It moves this way, it moves that way,” Trump told a crown in Iowa on Nov. 13, mocking Carson’s questionable story about trying unsuccessfully to stab his friend as a young man.
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“He hit the belt buckle. Anybody have a knife? Want to try it on me? Believe me, it ain’t gonna work,” Trump said.
Before Trump threw Carson off his horse with the faith-ploy and berated his life story, Carson led the mogul 32 to 18 percent in Iowa, according to a Monmouth University poll released Oct. 25. By the Dec. 6 poll from Monmouth, Carson had fallen to a distant third.
Trump calls for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” — Trump campaign statement released Dec. 7, 2015.
In a lull between successfully smacking down rivals, Trump capitalized on the insanity of President Obama’s call to increase the number of dubiously vetted Syrian refugees to be admitted into the United States.
Calling for a total ban of new Muslim migrants in the wake of the deadly extremist shooting in San Bernardino, California, Trump adroitly read the mood of the nation. Americans knew the danger posed by admitting barely vetted refugees from war-torn regions and the even larger threat of radicalization among non-fully integrated refugee populations in the country.
While the media and many political leaders condemned the ban proposal as racist, and extreme, Trump earned a nod from the many Americans eager to hear that their safety would be the top concern of at least one public figure, and that their well-being would be paramount over all other considerations.
“Republicans are going to have to ask themselves the question: ‘Do we want a candidate who could be tied up in court for two years?’ That’d be a big problem.” — Trump in a Washington Post interview Jan. 5, 2016.
Faced with the surging momentum of Ted Cruz in late December, Trump kicked off the new year with a blistering birther assault on the Canadian-born Cruz’s quite-settled eligibility to be president.
Following the Jan. 5 interview with the Washington Post where Trump first raised birther questions around Cruz, the mogul kept up the pressure, bringing the issue to nearly every interview and campaign rally around the country, and repeatedly mocking Cruz as Canadian.
The Cruz campaign initially tried to shrug off the attacks but was later forced to take them more seriously and push back as the conversation of the race increasingly focused on the issue, depleting Cruz’s momentum.
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Then, just as he had against Carson, Trump shifted the focus of the onslaught just as Cruz appeared to be regaining his footing, calling the Texas senator “nasty” and saying “no one likes him,” in a Jan. 17 interview with ABC News. Pounding Cruz from another angle with the media bob-and-weaving skills of a champion boxer, Trump also hammered Cruz for being aligned with Wall Street for taking a personal loan from Goldman Sachs and Citibank during his 2012 campaign for U.S. Senate.
Cruz has largely survived the attacks, held-up by his strong buffer of favorability among GOP voters, a deep war chest, and a capable staff of veteran political operatives. But Cruz’s upward momentum was arrested, allowing Trump to regain a slim lead headed into Iowa.
With a final media circus built around his refusal to participate in the final Iowa debate, Trump has dominated the conversation right up until the very first votes will be cast in the 2016 contest.
Trump stands on the precipice of either winning the Hawkeye State, or at least setting himself up for further victories with a second-place showing. That he got here at all is a product of unprecedented media mastery.