How TV’s most hated boss became America’s most watched presidential candidate

Jan 29, 2016 04.14PM |

by Reuben Wang

SINGAPOREAN audiences will be familiar with this phrase: “You’re fired!” Not because they were actually fired, but because of the hit TV reality show The Apprentice, where Donald Trump fires one contestant off each week for not being a sufficiently competent businessman.

This year, however, he has chosen to use his business and reality TV aptitude in another field – the presidential race. The Iowa caucus is in a few days, and he is going to be back in the news dominating headlines. He will either cement his spot in American political history or be relegated to the dustbin of history as yet another American political wannabe.

We take a look at his chances of winning, his platforms and why the media just can’t get enough of him (or his hairdo).

Where we are at in the American election cycle

The American presidential election is a long, drawn out process – if it was a soccer game, both teams will still be off the pitch, trying to decide on the starting 11 players. Early in the election process, each of the two major political parties chooses a member of their party to rally behind via an internal primary election, before backing him to run in the official nation-wide general elections which decide who becomes the president.

It is not rare that non-mainstream, more radical candidates take the spotlight in the early stages of these internal elections. The grassroots supporters of the party want someone who holds their level of ideological conviction, while the party establishment wants someone who can win over the non-partisan independent voters. Or, as we call them in Singapore: the swing-voters.

Trump is currently taking part in the Republican Party primaries – the election to be the Republican Party’s nominee in the actual general election. In these primaries, each local state party branch holds their own primary election on different dates.

In a recent Gallup poll, Trump had a -27 (that’s a minus) percentage point unfavourability amongst Independents (the second worst was Jeb Bush with -13), and a -70 percentage point unfavourability amongst Democrats (second worst was Mike Huckabee with -34).

Before Trump, Mr Jeb Bush was the presumptive, moderate candidate polling almost double his next competitor. Trump went after him, making him appear weak and soft-spoken in debates. Bush went into a tailspin, bringing his key selling point – that he can win over Independents – down with him. Mr Mike Huckabee made a career by espousing conservative values, in-office as Arkansas’ Governor and out-of-office as the host of his own political commentary programme on Fox News . Somehow Trump has managed to make more Democrats hate him more in just a few months, even though Mr Huckabee has been at it for decades.

What this means is that even if he wins the endorsement to run as the Republican Party’s nominee, he will find it extremely difficult to bring neutral voters to his cause, and near impossible to get supporters of the other party to defect. In short, he suffers from the same problem Singapore Democratic Party’s Mr Chee Soon Juan faces here in Singapore: He may have a small loyal following, but the general population doesn’t find him particularly appealing.

So why would the Republican Party put its weight behind someone so unelectable in the national election? Here is the curious thing about Trump: The bigwigs of the Republican Party abhor him. Out of the 331 elected Republican lawmakers in Washington, zero have endorsed him as their preferred candidate. Big name Republican-leaning political pundits have lined up one after another to condemn him.


So, why is he still winning?

Trump started his campaign by appealing to the grassroots of the party. Campaigning as a “strong” leader “who is the only one that can keep you safe“, he built himself up as his persona from The Apprentice – no rubbish and to the point, and capable of making the tough decisions in an uncertain world dominated by headlines from a rising China and an expanding ISIS.

But his real secret is his appeal to the populist heart of the Republican Party. While historically, many populist candidates had their moment in the spotlight as the “outsider” railing against the Washington elite, every one of them had failed to maintain their poll numbers after their gimmick wore off in the media. They promptly proceed to lose badly in Iowa, the first state to hold party primaries, which confirms the perception that they are just a gimmick and not worth the electorate’s vote. And on goes the downward spiral.

Trump, however, has defied this. When he started campaigning, pundits laughed at his self-funded campaign. He promptly replied “I don’t care. I’m really rich,” and grew stronger in the polls. No less a political guru as statistician Nate Silver said he had “roughly five per cent chance” of beating his rivals. By the time mainstream candidates took him seriously, he was polling above all of them combined.

As the drama of the 2016 presidential race played out, it became evident that there were too many “mainstream” or “establishment” candidates – at one point eight – resulting in a deeply diluted vote share.

He instantly stood out from the rest of the crowd as an oddity, and media attention subsequently focused on him. It also helped that he is extremely good at playing the media – he leaves his policy positions extremely vague, but gives outlandish and (to many people) offensive remarks periodically to bring the media’s focus back to him.

On Mexican immigrants, he said: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” On Muslims, he called for banning them from immigrating to the US, and claimed “thousands and thousands” were cheering in full view of the twin towers during the Sept 11 attacks.

His political campaign, however, does not resemble that of a usual “outsider” candidate. His closest opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, seems to fit that mould better. Mr Cruz is favourable with all three legs of the Republican party stool. For social (Christian) conservatives, he abhors abortion and is for a greater role of faith in government. For libertarians, he is for a small government diehard. For foreign policy hawks, he wants to “bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age”, and install nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe.


So where does Trump stand compared to this?

Studies have shown Trump’s support base are working class people who could usually care less about voting in a general election, much less a primary election. As the New York Times Magazine puts it: “Trump campaign attracting very angry people who also are relatively ill-inclined to vote.” And by mobilising these people, he fundamentally changed the rules of the game for every other candidate. All traditional lines of undermining the New Yorker had been tried, but none created even a dent.

After months of political attacks against him, his supporters have developed a siege mentality. They believe the press is biased. When they are subjected to criticism of their candidate, they support him even more. When he makes a blatantly false statement, it has virtually zero impact on his supporters’ resolve, nor his poll ratings. Just more media attention.

He has also recently acquired a new trump card – the endorsement of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. While Ms Palin quit pursuing public office after resigning the Governorship of Alaska in a scandal about public funds, she has remained deeply engaged in the Republican Party’s grassroots. Her endorsement of Trump may just be enough to sway the people Mr Cruz had cornered. This is crucial, particularly in more conservative states, where Mr Cruz narrowly leads Trump.

One of those more conservative states is Iowa. Ms Palin’s support also goes a long way towards winning over female voters – which will come in handy if he faces presumptive democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the general election.

But perhaps most importantly, Trump is the only candidate who makes the world seem simple. The nuanced and complicated issue of immigration? Build a wall along the border. What about the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas? He replied: “I will know more about it than you know, and believe me, it won’t take me long… I will know far more than you know within 24 hours after I get the job

At this point, with the number of supporters he has, if he chooses to continue running as an Independent after losing the Republican primary, he will likely fatally dilute the Republican Party’s vote share, and their shot at the White House.

This exact scenario played out once before, in 1992. An eccentric billionaire named Mr Ross Perot decided, after failing to secure either party’s nomination, to run as an independent. He received 18.9 per cent of the vote share, while Mr George Bush Sr lost by 5.5 per cent of the popular vote – Mr Perot has destroyed the elder Bush in key swing states. The 1992 election still haunts the dreams of many high-ranking Republicans – not least the second son of Mr Bush Sr, current presidential candidate Jeb Bush.

No one ever believed Trump would make it this far, and in doing so he has rallied quite a substantial base of support. While his chances of winning the presidency appear slim, his current poll numbers, at the very least, give him a viable shot at winning the Republican Party’s nomination. Whether he will, like Obama, defy the odds to beat the establishment, and enter the White House on the “outsider” ticket remains to be seen.

The first indication of his chances will be the Iowa primaries, which take place on Feb 1. Many have speculated that his supporters, who don’t usually vote, won’t turn out. But his campaign has, so far, responded to every crisis by changing how the political game is played. Conventional logic may not apply – especially when TV’s most hated boss has become America’s most watched presidential candidate.


Featured Image by Natassya Siregar. 

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