Underlying Messaging in Action — How Donald Trump Won the First Presidential Debate

In the autumn, I teach the writing portion of a 4th year course at one of the local universities. My second lecture is about strategic communications, specifically how to craft, send, and ensure receipt of an underlying message. And one of the best examples at my disposal is the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

(For disclosure’s sake, I am a Canadian living in Canada, and this article is provided solely as analysis, and not as an endorsement or condemnation of either party.)

Underlying messages are everywhere. When it comes to product lines, it’s literally how brands are built. When you go to a job interview in a suit, you are engaging in strategic messaging. Even your posture when you talk to somebody sends a message. And underlying messages interact — sometimes they reinforce one another, and sometimes they undermine one another.

In my class, I use a simple demonstration to show how this works. I have two student volunteers come up to the front of the class. The first is dressed in their most professional suit. The second is dressed as though they just got out of bed and are planning to return there in short order. I tell the student in the suit to slump their shoulders, look down at the floor, and repeat in their mind “I don’t want to be here.” The student in the grubbies, however, I tell to stand straight, maintain eye contact with the class, and repeat in their mind “I know what I’m doing.”

The effect is dramatic. The clothes are sending one signal, and the posture is sending the exact opposite signal — they cancel each other out. Then, I reverse the roles — now the student in the suit is standing straight and looking at the class, and the student in the grubbies is slumped and staring at the floor. The new effect is equally dramatic. Now the signals are reinforcing each other, making each signal stronger than they would have been alone.

So how does this play out in the first presidential debate?

Most of the time in an election debate, everybody is sending the same basic signal: “I am the best person for the job.” In many ways, the winner is the person who sends this signal the strongest — every salient point they make strengthens it, and every time they are rebutted weakens it. All things being equal, the debate between Trump and Clinton should have followed a similar pattern.

But it didn’t.

Hillary Clinton was sending the normal underlying messages for a political debate. She relied on her experience in politics to present herself as a seasoned hand to steer the ship of state. Had Donald Trump been attempting to send the same message, she would have trounced him.

Trump’s signalling, however, was very different. He had spent the primaries attacking the Republican party and presenting himself as an anti-establishment candidate. When Trump went into the first debate, he continued this messaging. His message was, in essence, “I am the clever roguish outsider who will shake up the establishment.”

This created a fascinating interplay that Clinton could not have defeated without a dramatic shift in messaging. Every time she emphasized her own experience, she played into Trump’s message. When she condemned him for weaseling out of paying contractors, this made Trump’s message of being a clever rogue ring truer. Even Trump’s missteps in the debate reinforced his message — of course he was making mistakes while debating, because he was the outsider.

By the time the debate came to a close, on a messaging level both candidates had been successful at transmitting their messages, but there had been a clear victor: Donald Trump. It was far from ordinary — the closest comparison might be getting into a card game only to discover that you are playing bridge while your opponent is playing poker.

So how might it have been done differently? If Hillary Clinton had recognized in time that her messaging was reinforcing Trump’s, what should she have done?

The most vulnerable part of Trump’s message was his attempt to appear clever. There is a lot of evidence that he’s not nearly as clever as he thinks, and presenting his apparent cleverness as buffoonery would have lessened the impact of his message.

Regardless of Clinton and Trump’s debate performance and the eventual victor of the 2016 election, the messaging interaction between the two candidates remains remarkable. A highly qualified and experienced candidate squared off against a very unqualified and inexperienced candidate, both were successful in transmitting their messages, and in proving her qualifications, the qualified candidate boosted the message of her unqualified opponent.

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Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks

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Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.