For Trump, projecting personality matters more than policy

GOP frontrunner Donald Trump may be teaching candidates of either party a valuable lesson.

Be yourself.

As pundits ponder the reason for his surprising success in polling about the Republican candidates and even in contests with Democrats, the explanation may be obvious. Trump comes across as a person who expresses himself spontaneously, revealing his real self.

His style stands in contrast to most traditional candidates who carefully plan their words to gain support and to avoid offending any voters. Often they end up speaking in generalities. The public sees them as politicians doing what politicians do.

Trump makes a point of saying that he does not seek to be “politically correct.” He appears to mean that he won’t say something that he doesn’t believe simply to ensure he remains in line with general opinion.

Not being “politically correct” or just plain “correct” may alienate parts of the voting public. Do that often enough and you could have a tough time winning an election.

Trump’s approach could help him in a huge field of candidates during the primaries in which relatively few Republicans will participate in selecting the party’s nominee. Still, it could make winning a general election impossible.

But Maine Gov. Paul LePage provides evidence to the contrary. His 2014 reelection victory after he was outspoken about his political opponents shows that the spontaneous style also used by Trump may work.

This style has so far been a substitute for Trump providing details on his policy positions. He shows a great deal of unexplained self-confidence and for some voters, that’s good enough. His success in the polls has allowed him to set the terms of the GOP selection process.

Among the other GOP hopefuls, some have tried to imitate him, though he appears to be too far ahead of them for their moves to matter. Except for Jeb Bush’s recent statements, they have hardly pushed back against his bold assertions and inaccuracies.

As he has struck a political nerve, the media has been covering him less as a political candidate than as a celebrity in world where celebrity news is journalistic gold. It seems almost hypnotized by his skillful exploitation of his visibility. If the media shifts its campaign coverage to the field, it will be worth watching to see if his attraction lessens.

As much as he has an effect on the Republican presidential race, there may also be an echo and an effect in the Democratic Party.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the echo. Though his positions are almost directly opposite to Trump’s, he, too, appears as a candidate who speaks his mind without fear of offending voters. If he’s not as spontaneous as Trump, he certainly seems as genuine.

For example, he has no problem labeling himself a “democratic socialist.” He does this with apparently growing support in a country where “socialism” is mostly used as a dirty word politically. Sanders seems to have long understood the virtues of being plain spoken.

Vice President Joe Biden may be Trump’s effect on the Democrats. In the past, his great problem has been unscripted remarks that may get him into trouble. He has had to apologize more than once. And he forced President Obama to take a public position on the issue, when he blurted out his support for same-sex marriage.

Now, what has been his main problem could turn into his chief asset if he chooses to run for the Democratic nomination. It’s difficult to doubt he is genuine and not programmed, and that has appeal these days.

Contrast Trump or Biden with Hillary Clinton. Hers is the model of a strictly planned campaign. No errors are to be admitted and all comments appear to be prepared. In short, talking points are known well in advance, much as was the case with President George W. Bush. She often looks like a parent talking down to her ignorant kids.

The Clinton approach may look even more obvious because of its contrast with Trump or Sanders and possibly Biden. There’s still time for her to unbend a bit, admit errors and look somewhat more human. Still, there’s no doubt that the seeming certainty of her getting the Democratic nomination has decreased.

Candidates for president promise much, but voters often choose based on their opinion of the person’s ability to govern and not on specific proposals. Spontaneity may reveal character better than do canned speeches.

Trump may be contributing to this year’s process, though plain speaking cannot completely substitute for a responsible platform.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.