This latest election has been described as one of the most unusual or weirdest in history, but why? In this article, I will be looking at how the 45th president, Donald Trump, rose to the White House using certain strategies in the “Challenger Style” discussed in the 8th edition of Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices. 

I will then show how it relates to significant choice. It should be said that my political affiliation doesn’t go along with president Trump. I’m not here to debate his politics or his policies, but analyze his journey through the election process. I will explain how he used the challenger style to get to presidency. First, we need to discuss what is the challenger style? Per Trent, Friedenberg and Denton, the challenger style is a strategy that non-incumbents can use to better increase their likelihood to win the presidential election. It suggests the use of seven components which are, 

  1. Attacking the record of opponents
  2. Talking the offensive position on issues
  3. Calling for a change
  4. Emphasizing optimism for the future
  5. Speaking to traditional values rather than calling for value changes
  6. Appearing to represent the philosophical center of the political party
  7. Delegating personal or harsh attacks in an effort to control demagogic rhetoric.

(Judith S. Trent, 2016)

After discussing how Trump either used or didn’t use these tactics, I will relate them to significant choice.

            It is important to know that significant choice is an ideal goal and not always reached. This is especially true when looking at this particular election. Significant choice is about making a decision that’s voluntary, where no physical or mental coercion is involved. The decision is based on all the information that is available at the time, knowing the full range of alternative choices available. It includes the knowledge of both short and long-term consequences of the choices, the motivations of those who would influence us and our own personal needs and motivations. Nilsen defined the concept of significant choice as a, “choice making that is voluntary, free from physical or mental coercion . . . based on all the information available when the decision must be made.” Significant choice is an important component of political free will. We must gather as much information as possible, without mental and physical coercion. The challenger technique is important to having significant choice in our elections. Even though it is an ideal, these tactics allow voters to receive more   information on a candidate and enlighten their choice. We get to learn more about the candidates through these tactics a create opinions on the candidates.

Attacking the Record of Opponents

            The 2016 presidential election was an interesting one considering how many candidates had entered the race. On the Republican side, we started with 19 candidates (Ericsson, List of Declared Republican Presidential Candidates, 2015) and on the Democratic side we had 6 (Ericsson, List of Declared Democratic Presidential Candidates, 2015). This relates to significant choice greatly because there was a very wide range of candidates throughout the election. With all of these candidates though, Trump had to go on the offensive by attacking the record of opponents. This was an important key for Trump to win the election.

            As a matter of fact, the ability to criticize freely (and often in exaggerated terms) may well be one of the most important benefits the challenger possesses. When there is no incumbent, candidates attack the record of the current administration (if they do not represent the same political party) or even an opponent’s record in a previous position. (Judith S. Trent, 2016)

            Factual or not, throughout his campaign Trump discussed his opposition to the war in Iraq.Most of his opponents were in favor of the Iraqi War and Trump used this as leverage against them. (Kiely, 2016) In the first debate between Trump and Clinton, he brought Clinton's use of the word "super-predator," in describing young criminals. Trump referred to it as being a racial term for African American children. (Graves, 2016; Patrick Healy, 2016) With Trump having no prior political experience, this allowed him to attack his opponent's faults. In turn, Clinton could only raise issues related to his lack of political experience or his complicated personal life.

Taking the Offensive Position on Issues

            This strategy is when the challenger takes offensive position on issues important to the campaign and proceeds to question, challenge and attack the other candidate, but never presents solutions for the issues. It is then the job of the incumbent to defend these issues and their plans and policies to solve them. When relating to significant choice it includes knowledge of the motivations of those who try to influence us and the short and long-term consequences of each. By learning more about their plans and policies we discover their motivations and find out the short and long-term consequences of their actions. In the debates between the two, this strategy was very evident. For example, during the election Donald Trump said things like “I will take care of ISIS” and “I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS” (Golshan, 2016), but provided no real solution to the problem. (Bobic, 2016) Another example is when he discussed Obamacare in the second debate. He stated

"Obamacare will never work. It's very bad. Very bad health insurance. Far too expensive. And not only expensive for the person that has it, unbelievably expensive for our country. One of the biggest line items very shortly. We have to repeal it. And replace it. With something absolutely much less expensive. (Golshan, 2016)"

            Trump is among many presidents who have done this. Trent, Friedenberg and Denton describe it as being an important challenger strategy that only someone foolish wouldn’t use.

Calling for Change

            What do the Obama “Hope” campaign and Trumps “Make America Great Again” campaign have in common? They were calling for change devices used by the last two challengers that became president. John F. Kennedy had a similar phrase that to Trump, which is “get the country moving again”.  The calling for change tactic often has our candidates saying that they are “willing” to run for president because they believe change is needed. (Judith S. Trent, 2016) Trump's entire campaign ran on the idea of change in the White House, to remove the corruption that plagued our government. When he reached the primaries, he was asked about what tax provisions he would change to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share. Trump responds"

"One of the greatest provisions for people like me, I give up a lot when I run because I knock out the tax code. She (referring to Clinton) could have done this years ago. She’s a United States senator. She complains that Donald Trump took advantage of the tax code. Well, why didn’t you change it?" (Golshan, 2016)

            Significant choice is important when discussing the calling for change topic because it includes knowledge of the motivations of those who try to influence. They must provide other information addressing why change is needed. Voters would  gain a clearer understanding of the candidate's policies and inform their choice.

Emphasizing Optimism for the Future

            Emphasizing optimism for the future is just as it sounds. Most candidates in any level of government who are running in some type of political campaign spend time discussing the vision of their topics and their optimism for the future. This optimism is used as a motivation tactic, which can give us motivation to go out and vote, rally and speak our mind. It's relationship to significant choice is when it allows politicians to hear our views, needs and motivations. Through this process, voters can discover which candidate most closely aligns with their needs.

            Even if you do or don’t agree on the state of the country, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is very optimistic. He used this strategy very frequently throughout his campaign all the way to the end. During his acceptance speech, he said, “We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.” (Here's the Full Text of Donald Trump's Victory Speech, 2016) This slogan and tactic drew massive crowds to Trump and was very helpful for him on his journey to the white house.

Speaking to Traditional Values

            During the election process, as a publicity stunt and the hope to gain more voters of color, Trump went to a primarily African American church in Detroit. After the election had concluded Breitbart, a conservative news organization, released an article which stated, “The leader of the Coalition of African American Pastors says Christians of all backgrounds helped elect Donald Trump because he promised to protect their religious liberty and family values.” The article then goes on to discuss how Trump was elected to protect these traditional values. (Berry, 2016) Speaking to traditional values is important for a challenger because successful challengers must reinforce majority values instead of trying to create new ones. This means that the challenger must have at least some understanding of the way people view themselves, their society and their interpretation of the American Dream. (Judith S. Trent, 2016)  Trump clearly used this tactic to try to gain more voters in the election process. When a candidate speaks of  promoting traditional values, voters are given more data to inform their decision. 

Appearing to Represent the Philosophical Center

            This tactic has been very successful for challengers in the past, but this is where Trump strays from the pack a bit. In our political history, successful challengers have been “ideological representatives from the mainstream of the major parties.” (Judith S. Trent, 2016) With Trump though, it’s different because his whole selling point as a candidate was that he was a businessman and not a politician. He was more an outsider to the Republican than any of his primary challengers. We live in a society where many people view politicians in a negative light. Even though Trump lost the popular vote, he had enough of a following to get him into office for this reason. When regarding significant choice, I believe that Trump being an “outsider” assisted us because we learned who he is as a person. If he did pretend to be this philosophical leader of the Republican Party, it would be a lie and mental coercion. Trump's outsider status may have seemed an asset to some voters.  

Delegating Personal or Harsh Attacks

            Attacks are a key aspect to the challenger style, but according to Trent, Friedenberg and Denton, a successful candidate doesn’t indulge in a demagogic rhetoric. A demagogue is a person who uses their oratorical skills, appealing to emotions and prejudices, to become a leader. This is another instance where Trump is a new kind of challenger and opponent for incumbents. Donald Trump spent a lot of time speaking to the emotions of the public. He was the presidential candidate that spoke for the anger felt by a large part of our country. Many in American society were angry with politics and decided to vote for someone who was an outsider and shared their same anger.

            Trump participated in a lot of demagogic rhetoric, especially when discussing Hillary Clinton. During the election, Clinton had a lot of negative media attention from the mainly republican news sources. Trump insulted her many times on the topics of Benghazi and emails which was an anger that his supporters felt. Even though the FBI and other sources said that she didn’t commit a crime, Trump said that he would throw her in jail and said, “Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of corruption. She’s a corrupt person. What she’s done with her e-mails, what she’s done with so many things.”  (Carrol, 2016)  How this relates to significant choice is not positive. Due to his anger and personal attacks, false information was disseminated which is a form of mental coercion. On his twitter feed, he retweeted “USA Crime Statistics” that were proven to be false. (Greenberg, 2015) Also on Twitter, he insulted the wife of primary opponent Ted Cruz, comparing her unfavorably with Trump's wife, Melania.


            Donald Trump used certain aspects of the challenger style discussed in Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices. The strategies he used were attacking the record of opponents, taking the offensive position on issue, calling for a change, emphasizing optimism for the future and speaking to traditional values. Where he differed from most other candidates was in changing in the strategy of appearing to represent the philosophical center of his political party and how he handled delegating personal and harsh attacks.The way Trump ran his campaign assisted in giving voters more information about who he was as a candidate for significant choice.

For better or worse, his strategy has changed how future candidates for public office will conduct their campaigns.

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