Talking heads in the media and the Republican “establishment,” whoever that may be at this point, had long held firm to the belief that Donald Trump could not run a successful primary campaign nor be the party’s presidential nominee because he lacked many traditional Republican positions, or had only recently come to support them. In spite of how completely wrong the media and the establishment were, the reasoning behind their beliefs seemed sound as Trump holds many positions that run counter to the traditional Republican platform:

  • Trump is against free trade
  • Until recently was pro-choice and pro-gay marriage
  • Had at various points supported a single-payer healthcare system
  • And, in the past, had voiced support for Hillary Clinton and donated to her campaigns

He also has been called too extreme to gain the support of moderates based on his support of South Korea and Japan developing nuclear weapons (despite their own objections); his tough stance on immigration; the demeaning comments he has made about women; and his avocation for banning Muslims from entering the U.S. purchase-decision-question-cloudBased on his stated beliefs and doctrine, it’s clear that “The Donald” has the potential to raise some serious concerns for just about everyone, regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum.

Despite these issues, Trump won the Republican primary with a record number of votes. How is this possible?

The answer is a concept that should be familiar to market researchers. Nearly all qualitative interviews include some version of: “Okay. And who makes the purchase decision for this type of product?” The concerns listed above seemed perfectly legitimate to political insiders, but ultimately they didn’t make the purchase decision during the primaries and won’t be making the purchase decision in November. Party leaders can influence donors, encourage or discourage candidates to run, and give endorsements that normally hold considerable weight, but on election day they still only get one vote. And their “purchase criteria” has never been more different than that of the general public.

So where does the disconnect lie? I believe it lies in the emotional state of the voting public. How do you understand the emotions inherent in any purchase decision? By asking questions that can’t be answered by clicking check boxes.

In the business world, when high-level executives or engineers assess the market for a new product, they tend to focus on what would be ideal, and they’re often not in tune with practical considerations. The ideal product often looks great on a spreadsheet, especially if it maximizes out a few technical capabilities or cost measures. Political commentators and insiders are very similar to those high-level executives. To compare again to the presidential race, the ideal candidate seemingly would be a Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. They both have strong political experience, excellent connections, and beliefs that generally fall neatly in line with the party’s platform. Another thing that these candidates have in common: they are very unpopular. Jeb Bush never had a chance at winning a single state in the Republican primary; and despite Hillary Clinton’s capture of the Democratic nomination, she remains, statistically, one of the most disliked candidates to ever win a nomination for a major party (closely behind Donald Trump).

In-depth interviews can get to the underlying attitudes among the people who really make decisions. It’s not that these people don’t want the best product (or politician, to keep our example going), it’s that they have a different idea of what “best” is. If political commentators had spent more time having in-depth discussions with voters about their feelings, rather than relying on polling and fundraising numbers, they would have found many of the traditional positives for candidates had become negatives. Government experience made candidates part of the “establishment;” international cooperation was “globalism” or “weakness;” and voters seemed to identify more with what they were against than what they were for (on both sides of the aisle). This time around, voters in the Republican primaries didn’t want any new policy ideas or innovative solutions, they wanted someone who felt the same as they did about the direction of the country, and who promised to restore America to “how it was.” Simplicity, security and trust are powerful feelings, and can be difficult to measure in a poll or focus group.

Emotions play a huge part in every decision that’s made, regardless of how rational and calculated we would like to think the decision making process is … and let’s be honest, selecting a president is charged with emotional issues. In-depth interviews certainly would have helped expose the unique combination of anger, fear, nostalgia and optimism driving this election season better than polling or an examination of the candidates by experts, but these techniques still only get at what respondents are consciously thinking. Purchase decisions, whether in B2B markets, consumer packaged goods or political campaigns, all rely on emotional factors that can’t be discerned through traditional research techniques. Other techniques are needed to get a deeper understanding of the emotions that drive actions, and also to quantify those emotions for effective decision making.

So, before you write off a potential outcome or a set of information as a fluke, think about what might be under the surface and who is actually making the important decisions. This data may not be as easy to get to, but it is certainly worth the effort. You could be figuratively saying “Never Trump” while your customers are asking “Why not Trump?”

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