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It's the Strategy, Stupid! The Secret of Trump's Success

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In June, when Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, many pundits dismissed him as not a serious contender. Six months have proven that wrong. Trump is a wily political operator with, so far, a winning strategy.

In order to win the Republican nomination for President, a candidate has to survive 12 months of campaigning countless, spend millions of dollars, and capture 1191 of the 2380 delegate votes. Trump has a strategy to accomplish this. His plan is best understood by contrasting it with the winning strategies used by George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008.

In 2000, George W. Bush had a relatively easy time winning the Republican nomination. Based upon his family name, and the support of GOP insiders, Dubya amassed a broad base of support. Bush's strategy: build upon family name recognition and overwhelm opposition with money and endorsements. Bush assembled an experienced campaign team that deftly handled the mechanics of the early state caucuses and primaries.

In 2008, Barack Obama had a more difficult task. Hillary Clinton was the early favorite to win the Democratic nomination. She had the insider support both in terms of money and endorsements plus strong name recognition. Nonetheless, Obama was able to compete by developing an effective online fundraising apparatus and giving a series of speeches that attracted national attention. While Clinton relied upon the conventional party apparatus, Obama had a network of volunteers directed by savvy field organizers. After Obama won the Iowa caucuses, he was able to string together a set of victories (mostly in caucuses) and seize the nomination from Clinton.

As he entered the 2016 campaign, Trump was very better known than either Dubya or Obama, at a comparable time in the campaign. And Trump has more personal wealth than either.

Trump has had three challenges: the first was to stay competitive while not using a lot of his own money. After all, when he started he was competing against the fundraising prowess of the Bush machine (now employed by Jeb!) and the dark-money alliance headed by the Koch brothers and other billionaire conservative funders. The second was to stake out his unique territory on the Republican political landscape. And the third was to negotiate the labyrinth of early caucuses and primaries; to build a staff to seize the nomination as quickly as possible.

So far, Trump has brilliantly met these challenges. He's used his media skills to dominate the mainstream media. While his competitors had to spend money to run advertising, Trump has mainly avoided this by regularly spiking the attention of the media with a series of explosive statements such as: John McCain is "not a war hero;" Mexico is "pushing their worst elements into the US;" and calling for a "complete shutdown of Muslims coming to the United States." His plan has worked: MSNBC's Rachel Maddow recently reported that, as of December 1, Jeb Bush had spend $28.9 million on TV ads and Donald Trump had spent $220 thousand.

Trump has campaigned as a political outsider at a time when most Republicans hate the Washington establishment. (An Associated Press/GFK poll found that, "By an overwhelming 77 percent to 22 percent margin, Republican registered voters and leaners say they prefer an outsider candidate who will change how things are done, rather than someone with experience in Washington who can get things done.") Trump has distinguished himself from other outsider candidates, such as Ben Carson, by saying he will not accept funds from political action committees (PACs). (Trump has accepted a modest amount of money, roughly $5 million, from online fundraising.)

It's a large Republican field and Trump has differentiated himself not only by his savvy media presence but also by his extreme position on immigration. It's become the litmus test for all GOP candidates: "I will build a great great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall." Trump's position of immigration not only instantly established his conservative bona fides but, in effect, took other supposedly hot-button issues off the table: abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. (Trump's recent remarks about Muslims offended many Americans but his helped him with his base. A Bloomberg poll found that 51 percent of Republicans strongly favored Trump's proposal and 14 percent favored it somewhat. )

Finally, Trump hasn't forgotten the nuts-and-bolts of political campaigns, the Get-Out-the-Vote operation. He's got an infrastructure in place in all the early primary states -- unlike his centrist GOP opponent Marco Rubio who does not.

Donald Trump isn't a dolt; he 's a wily political operator. His strategy will secure the Republican presidential nomination.

What remains to be seen is whether Trump can win the general election. When Bush and Obama ran they were, for most voters, undefined. Bush portrayed himself as a "compassionate conservative." Obama promised "change we can believe in."

In comparison, Trump is well defined. Only 5 percent of voters view him favorably (versus 42.5 percent for Hillary Clinton).

Get used to it! Trump will be around until November 8, 2016.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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