Trump´s Triumph and the Failure to Focus
A critical aspect of success in business is to identify your path forward and focus on execution. Trump and the Republicans focused on their sole path to victory through the Blue Wall in the Rust Belt. In contrast, the Democratic party will undertake soul searching as it comes to terms with losing the election because of their failure to focus. The contrast between the two is a lesson in strategic focus.
Focus on their issues, not your issues. As I argued in a previous post, the failure to identify the issues was a critical failure. The media and the Clinton campaign focused on the crassness of Trump and the related social problems. The social issues, however, were at the bottom of a list of concern for voters. At the top of the list were the economy, terrorism, and foreign policy. It was evident where to focus: just listen to the electorate.
The economic divide is seen in the results of the election when ranking the counties by GDP: Clinton dominated the largest metropolitan areas and Trump dominated the small rural less productive counties. With the Democratic party drawing predominantly from the elites in the urban centers and along the coasts, they did not see or feel the pain experienced in the middle of the country. California and New York have enjoyed large gains in the last eight years, while the Rust Belt cities are still suffering higher unemployment.
Economic uncertainty feeds into terrorism and foreign policy worries, which have long been a staple of the Republican party platform. These are the same areas where the Democrats are historically weak. In an age of economic discomfort and palpable fear, discussions about social values and minority rights fall on deaf ears. While these are worthy causes, they are not the issues that would sway an undecided voter.
Aim big, miss small. Trump’s campaign was unlike any other in recent memory. His campaign broke with most norms of how to run a campaign. Trump offended a large part of the electorate while campaigning to become the leader of a multi-cultural country. Trump created clear lines of division between most minorities and genders. This divisive rhetoric was thought to imperil any possibility of election to the highest office. This outcome, however, was not the case.
The reality for Trump was that there was only one path to the Presidency: white America. His comments offended most minorities; however, this was not a necessary condition to succeed. When more than 69% of the electorate is white, this decision is an obvious strategic choice. Whether this focus was a conscious strategic choice or the result of an innate disposition of the candidate is largely irrelevant to the outcome. Reaching out to diversify his base was of no value since Trump could succeed without them. His singular focus was on what was required to succeed in the election.
Same data, different conclusions. There are arguments that the demographics provided paths to victory for each side. While some argued that the demographic profile was brutal for Republicans, there were those that highlighted the small margin needed to turn the Blue Wall into a Sea of Red. While the data was unambiguous, the perception of its impact was not. The Republican campaign was pushed into a corner from Trump´s actions with only one path out, but it was a winning path. There was no need to interpret the data: they needed to win white America.
In contrast to Trump, the Democratic party’s focus was on every other minority. Giving voice to these groups is an important part of a liberal democracy, particularly in the United States with its history of disenfranchisement. This desire does not remove the need to focus on the necessary conditions to succeed. The greatest failure of the Democratic party was to focus on states that were irrelevant to their success, while ignoring the voices that would solidify their Blue Wall in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. After winning the nomination, Clinton did not even show up in Wisconsin: this lack of focus surely did not play well with people wanting an outlet for their voice and who felt disenfranchised.
It is evident from the results of the election that people wanted change. It is also clear that the ability to identify the critical issues and focusing on a viable path to victory were hallmarks of Trump´s success. It´s not clear, however, that this was an inevitable certain victory for Trump. Just a week before the election more than 9% of the electorate were undecided or uncertain about their choice. When the election was decided by swinging just 0.6% of the vote in four key states, it is certainly open to debate whether the election could have gone the other way with the correct strategic response from the Clinton campaign.
This is the second article in a three-part series on the 2016 US Presidential election.