Message discipline propelled Trump to victory

Trump's slogan 'Make America Great Again' was the key to his victory. Amidst information overload, message discipline triumphs.

Ben Graham Jones
28 November 2016

(credit: Steve Baker via Flickr, some rights reserved)

(credit: Steve Baker via Flickr, some rights reserved)Election surprises are only surprises when their causes are poorly understood. Three recent nationwide votes in the USA and UK have produced three dramatic surprises – Trump’s victory, Brexit, and the Conservative party’s 2015 Commons majority.

It is my view that observers have failed to predict each in large part because they have failed to understand the importance of message discipline. As a professional election observer, I am convinced that in the age of mass information, use of message discipline is one of the defining characteristics separating winners from losers.

Message discipline is so important because we are all exposed to more information than ever before. A billion people’s opinions vie for our attention through a ceaseless bombardment of notifications, status updates, and alerts, whilst we have a million encyclopedia’s worth of information at our fingertips.

When so many messages compete for our attention, only the clearest cut through. Those that are not clear, consistent and coherent simply never touch our consciousness. They are left in the message wasteland, unshared and unnoticed. The political causes that would benefit from these unclear messages wither and fail, and will continue to do so as information overload continues to become a larger part of our lives.

Strategic communications too often focuses on the words of the message at the expense of the feeling those words evoke.

Message discipline is not just about the things a candidate says – it is about consistently evoking the same symbols, the same core idea, and the same emotional response. Strategic communications too often focuses on the words of the message at the expense of the feeling those words evoke.

Message discipline is most certainly very different from policy discipline – a campaign can put forward a changing set of unclear policies yet still consistently present the same core message. Likewise, a campaign can consistently promote a set of detailed, coherent policies whilst lacking message discipline.

What was the response of the Clinton campaign? Detail over clarity. A disciplined message provides structure and order, forcing others to respond on your terms. The key is not in the detail, but in the discipline. But the Clinton campaign was always responding to an agenda set by Trump. 

Indeed, the Clinton campaign was forced to invest considerable energy in responding to the agenda set by underdog Sanders, whose slogan #feelthebern is still more memorable than anything they came up with. The Sanders campaign amassed millions of followers precisely because it deployed an easily understood message that consistently tapped into resentment of a clear target, the ‘top one percent of one percent’. Commentators fell over themselves with surprise as the Sanders campaign consistently outperformed its rivals, putting in a phenomenal performance given its lack of big-money donors. The sandcastle is easily distinguishable from the beach it stands on, even though it is made of the same stuff.

In times of uncertainty, people gravitate towards order. A well-disciplined message that consistently evokes a particular emotional response provides exactly that order. Out of informational anarchy, consistency prevails. The sandcastle is easily distinguishable from the beach it stands on, even though it is made of the same stuff.

It is surprising that the Clinton campaign did not harness the most important lesson in modern strategic communications when others, elsewhere, had made the same mistakes. Here in the UK, we remember well the lack of clarity of the campaign to remain in the European Union. The Brexiteers invoked one powerful (though misleading) message relating to redeploying the ‘savings’ from leaving the EU to the National Health Service again and again, with the bright red bus bearing this statistic appearing in their most visible campaigning.

Nigel Farage had already done the groundwork, creating the parameters of debate by making his core message - we need to leave the EU - relevant to every issue area. Whatever the perceived problem, from levels of inwards migration to economic turbulence, the solution was always the same - leaving the EU. In Farage’s argumentation, all peripheral issues linked into the same core message.

Farage went from being the leader of a single issue party to a national agenda-setter. So strong was the message that it ballooned beyond the boundaries of Farage’s party and took hold of a national movement. UKIP became less relevant as they lost ownership of a tight, disciplined message which was stronger than the institution of their party. The remainers, meanwhile, shouted lots of different, uncoordinated messages. 

A similar story goes for Cameron’s 2015 routing of Labour. Just about all government communications invoked the phrase ‘long-term economic plan’ in order to cement the idea that the Conservative Party was synonymous with economic competence. Every issue was linked to this ‘plan’, every session Prime Minister’s Questions was laden with references to it, and every interview with a Tory minister heralded the existence of such a plan.

Those who expressed surprise when Cameron became the first Prime Minister in a century to deliver a larger share of the vote after serving a full term did not understand how the internet has changed everything. Communicative leadership is now a precondition of political leadership. Message discipline will continue to win votes, and until commentators start appreciating its importance, we will continue to be surprised by election results.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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