Power Sheet – April 15, 2016
Authenticity is Donald Trump’s crowning political strength and his fatal flaw. Those two conflicting aspects of his brief political career are about to crash into each other.
Polling shows that Trump’s strongest attribute among Republican voters is that he “speaks his mind” or “tells it like it is.” In every state that has held a Republican primary or caucus, he holds a huge – excuse me, a “yuuuuuge” – advantage over Ted Cruz among voters who think that’s the most important quality in a candidate; his margins over Cruz by that measure range from 45% to 80%, says polling compiled by the New York Times. Trump’s second-strongest trait is that he’s “outside the political establishment.” On that dimension also he has trounced Cruz, by 30% to 70%, in every state among voters who consider that attribute most important.
Trump has racked up those giant margins among a certain group of voters by being himself. Alone among presidential candidates, he has no stump speech, no mental list of carefully strategized talking points. He just shows up and vents. On many important issues he seemingly doesn’t know what he thinks until he starts talking about it. He sins against political correctness several times every day. He talks like a real person, unfiltered, not like a politician. At a campaign event in Pennsylvania yesterday he asked the crowd, “How’s Joe Paterno?,” apparently unaware that the legendary Penn State football coach died four years ago. But, well, he was being real. That’s why his supporters love him.
The problem, which can no longer be dodged, is that it’s also why most Americans can’t stand him. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that 67% of U.S. adults have an unfavorable impression of him. Some 53% of adults have a “strongly unfavorable” impression; he tops Cruz on that unfortunate measure by 20 points. If Trump gets the Republican nomination, he’ll be the most disliked major-party nominee in at least 32 years.
Not wanting to be “a loser,” Trump is belatedly addressing this problem. In recent weeks he has hired a delegate strategist, Paul Manafort, and a high-level campaign adviser, Rick Wiley. The strategy taking shape will have Trump making a series of speeches on such major issues as the economy and foreign policy. Trump will read these speeches from texts written by professional speechwriters. No ad-libbing. The objective is to recast him among the majority who loathe him by making him sound serious, intelligent, thoughtful.
You can see the problem. He’ll sound just like a politician. He’ll be filtered, careful, the opposite of what his supporters love. His handlers hope they’ll be giving everyone something to like. But psychologists know that as we form judgments about others, negatives are far more influential than positives. It seems possible that Trump’s strategy could disaffect at least some of his supporters while doing little to attract others.
Authenticity is powerful in a leader, for better and for worse. The ideal candidate, unlike Trump, would be authentically serious, intelligent, thoughtful, optimistic, and likable – someone like, say, Paul Ryan. But apparently he’s not an option this year.
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