“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.” – Sec. Hillary Clinton
In political marketing, branding during elections is about the overall public perception of a candidate. The key aspects of a candidate’s brand are not things that can be created or changed overnight. But confirming or re-establishing positive or negative aspects of a candidate’s brand can have drastic consequences on their electoral success (Lees-Marshment, 2014: 104-112). With audiences ranging from 60 to 83 million viewers, the three 2016 US presidential debates provided presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with their best chances to highlight the best aspects of their respective personal brands. Strategically, as the market leader (see Collin and Butler, 2002: 6), Clinton needed to stabilise her lead in swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania after her basket of deplorables comments and her campaign’s poor handling of her pneumonia. While a major party nominee, Trump could still be considered a nicher (Collins and Butler, 2002: 13), and had to expand his appeal past the predominately white, lower-educated demographic within the Republican base to become a realistic challenger or market leader in his own right. Trump’s targeting strategy had been effective in securing the Republican nomination, but alienated an ever more culturally diverse presidential election electorate. While the debates themselves were unusual, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s performances reinforced salient aspects to their established personal brands. However, a key aspect of a successful political brand is that it is different from the competition (Needham, 2005: 347-8). While Clinton was able to present her brand in a positive fashion, she was also able to manipulate Trump into illustrating the polar opposite negative aspects of his.
As suggested by President Obama’s former speech writer, David Plouffe, the first debate in any cycle is about twice as important as the latter two. Over the course of 90 minutes, the first debate gives presidential candidates a chance to confirm or re-establish the greater public perceptions of their brands. The first debate in the 2016 cycle illustrated the established difference between the two candidates. Clinton herself defended the fact that she came to the debate prepared, if to the point of seeming overly scripted. Lines such as “Trumped up trickle-down economics” seemed over-prepared and harkened back to themes from the early 1990s, thus emphasising Clinton’s brand as a traditional politician who had been in the political spotlight for decades. Trump, having reportedly prepared less extensively for the debate, ad-libbed more than his opponent. He remained, by his own standards, calm for the first 30 minutes of the debate; focusing on his perceived problems with the economy and trade deals, rather than providing solutions. This helped him present the more authentic (see Elder, 2016: 104-7) and ‘tells it like it is’ aspect of his brand that appeals to his supporters.
But Clinton’s preparation gave her the tools to use a version of a flank attack (Marland, 2003: 111) to goad Trump into accentuating certain aspects of his established personal brand that would not be viewed positively by potential swing voters. Starting with a line about Trump’s father loaning him $14 million, Clinton had a clear strategy to bring out the same Trump performance that he had delivered in the primary debates. Trump took the bait. Rather than focusing on the preceding question by moderator Lester Holt on manufacturing, a subject he is relatively strong on, Trump went back to Clinton’s comments about the loan. From that point forward Trump became more boisterous and blustery, including consistently interrupting his opponent and having confrontations with the moderator. In the primary debates, with 9 other candidates on the stage, Trump was able to use his bluster and his confrontational style to present a strong, authentic and not politically conventional brand that appealed to the disenfranchised segment of the Republican base. But, to the larger presidential election audience, this emphasised Trump’s lack of temperament; a theme that had developed and accelerated since he verbally attacked a gold star family.
At face value, the second and third debates followed a similar narrative to the first. But the coverage following these debates also highlights the importance of style over substance. In the second debate, while Trump had a disastrous first 30 minutes, he became more composed as the debate went on; including a relatively gracious answer regarding Clinton’s fighting spirit to end the debate. In the third, Trump was relatively more composed, partly due to the more structured issue format of the segments, while also seeming more prepared for Clinton’s prods.
But Trump did not act like a regular politician in these debates. In the second debate, in particular, Trump loomed over Clinton or wandered around aimlessly while she answered questions. This again highlighted Trump’s lack of preparation and understanding about aesthetics in comparison to Clinton’s. Most importantly, however, Trump was again unable to appeal to demographics outside his niche. This was thanks to communication that included threatening to jail his opponent, talking about Clinton’s husband’s infidelity, questioning information he received from government security agencies, and refusing to declare he would accept the result of the election. But, as TVNZ’s Jack Tame noted on a University of Auckland discussion panel after the third debate, Trump’s inability or unwillingness to reach outside his niche was best summed up by his statement that electing Hillary Clinton would mean “four more years of Barack Obama.” Given Obama’s national approval rating was north of 50% at the time of the debate, this comment was unlikely to appeal to the audience Trump needed to attract.
Clinton, in line with her brand image of being prepared, showed the importance of thinking past the debate to appeal to a wider audience. This could be seen in how the Clinton campaign were able to create and distribute political advertising based on carefully prepared communication spots throughout the debates within hours of their conclusion. This strategy was most effectively utilised by the Clinton campaign around the first debate, in relation to Clinton’s accusation of misogyny and racism by Trump towards a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado. With this specific flank attack, seemingly designed to appeal to female and Hispanic voters, the Clinton campaign had an entire communication strategy based on comments Clinton planned to make during the first debate about the issue. This included interviews with the former Miss Universe and advertising playing off Trump’s perceived misogynistic and racist tendencies; negative aspects of his brand that had spotlighted since he announced his candidacy the previous June. Trump did what Clinton wanted him to do, he became aggressively defensive. This included defending himself without prompting on Fox News the next morning, by again commenting on Machado’s weight, as well as posting numerous insulting tweets about her at around 3am on the proceeding Friday. Again, while appealing his niche, this further emphasised Trump’s lack of temperament to the larger general election audience.
Hillary Clinton, by her own admission, is not a natural campaigner. She has been criticised for being over-prepared, over focused grouped, and inauthentic. However, by playing to this image of herself, Clinton was able to emphasise the difference between herself and the leading negative perceptions of Donald Trump. While in most debates candidates contrast their positives with their opponent’s negatives through rhetoric, Clinton was able to manipulate her opponent into highlighting those negative attributes himself. This played into the broader narrative the Clinton campaign had been pushing since the nominees for the presidential election became clear in May – Donald Trump lacks the discipline and the temperament to be president, while Hillary Clinton is the most prepared and qualified person in history to do the job. The effect of this debate strategy can be seen in the polls following these debates, with Clinton position as the market leader grew from around 2.3 points prior to the first debate to 5.9 by the end of the weekend following the last debate (according to Real Clear Politics). Trump, on the other hand, was manipulated into positioning himself as a nicher; appealing to a section of voters insufficient to win a presidential election, while alienating himself from potential floating voters. Hillary Clinton may not have had the best debate performances in history. However, through branding and positioning, she probably had the most effective.
Edward Elder is a PhD graduate from Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.
Featured Image credit: Paul J. Richards, Getty Images
Collins, Neil and Patrick Butler (2002) ‘Considerations on Market Analysis for Political Parties.’ In Nicolas O’Saughnessy and Stephan Henneberg (eds) The Idea of Political Marketing. London; Praeger: 1-18.
Elder, Edward (2016) Marketing Leadership in Government: communicating responsiveness, leadership and credibility. London; Palgrave Studies in Political Marketing and Management.
Lees-Marshment, Jennifer (2014) Political Marketing: Principles and Applications (2nd Ed). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, New York; Routledge.
Marland, Alex (2003) ‘Marketing Political Soap: A political marketing view of selling candidates like soap, of electioneering as a ritual, and of electoral military analogies.’ Journal of Public Affairs. Vol. 3 (2): 103–115