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Trump’s mastery of business is Biden’s biggest obstacle

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During a recent trip to southern Georgia to visit family, my wife described the area as “Trump Country.” Her observation was spurred by the numerous Trump billboards and intersections overflowing with Trump lawn signs. 

The sheer volume of signs surprised me. While I’m certainly not a political junkie, I know enough about regional demographics to assume the southern part of Georgia leans Republican. So why would Donald Trump spend money on billboards in a part of the country that was already solidly his? Why did intersections look like flower beds full of re-electing Donald Trump signs? After all, those suckers are $20 a pop.

At first, I imagined collecting a few hundred MAGA signs and selling them online for $10 each. Then the part of my brain that’s spent the past five years teaching entrepreneurship at Duke University kicked in, and it told me to ask myself the same question I would encourage my students to ask: “What assumptions are you making?”

In this case, my wife and I were assuming all the pro-Trump signs reflected his enormous support in the region. When I thought more critically, I realized we had no factual evidence. It’s not like we’d seen local citizens erecting roadside Donald Trump monuments.

If anything, we had evidence to the contrary in the form of the Donald Trump billboards. After all, if yard signs seem pricey at $20 each, a monthly billboard rental is roughly 100 times that cost. While I know people can be passionate about their political candidates, I’m not sure many would go to the trouble of personally renting billboards. In other words, those Donald Trump billboards don’t inherently represent the president’s support. Instead, they’re both figurative and literal signs that the president is pumping lots of money into the area.

If southern Georgia is such a Republican stronghold, why is he doing that?

One potential reading of the Trump campaign’s emphasis on rural Georgia suggests that the president is doing so poorly that he’s even struggling to keep votes in historically Republican areas. But I don’t think that’s true. Instead, I believe the Trump campaign follows a fundamental principle of successful business operations: focusing on re-selling the base they already have. 

The importance of re-selling your current customer is common knowledge in the business world. Research indicates re-selling an existing customer is 60 to 80 percent easier than getting a new customer. Or, to paraphrase what one of my first business mentors told me: “Why sell someone something once when you can sell that person the same thing multiple times?”

Examples of this principle are everywhere. It’s why subscription products are becoming standard business models for everything from movie studios to workout equipment. Heck, it’s why every popular fiction book these days seems to be part of a series and every popular movie gets a sequel. Again, why sell someone something once when you can sell that person the same thing multiple times?

Donald Trump understands this because he is a businessman first, a politician second. As a businessman, Trump realizes his best strategy for closing the sale — i.e., winning the election — doesn’t come from convincing new people to support him. It comes from convincing the people who already voted for him to keep voting for him. The best way to re-sell those former voters is to convince them everyone else who voted for Trump in 2016 is still voting for him in 2020.

To understand why this is an effective strategy, consider your decision-making process. Imagine you’re on vacation, walking down the street, and start to feel hungry. You turn a corner and find two pizza places on opposite sides of the road. One has a line out the door; the other is empty. Which do you choose? The one with all the people, right? It’s better.

This same phenomenon surely helped Donald Trump in 2016. Traditional Republicans and swing voters who may have been concerned about Trump’s unusual candidacy could feel more comfortable voting for him simply because the Trump campaign did a great job projecting a sense of enthusiasm. For example, the massive rallies that were hallmarks of Trump’s 2016 campaign (and that he’s struggling to replicate in 2020 during the pandemic) were not, as some people might assume, just a reflection of Trump’s ego. Stadiums filled with people waving MAGA flags is powerful imagery to help project an appearance of broad appeal. Those rallies were, in a sense, the crowded pizza place.

In 2020, Trump’s strategy is a little different. He’s more of a known entity than he was in 2016, so he has to convince his base that everyone else is still voting for him despite what they know.

To return to our pizza example, imagine you’re considering which restaurant to choose when you suddenly remember eating at the crowded pizza place during a previous trip a few years back. It wasn’t the best pizza you’ve ever had. You vaguely remember it having a bad aftertaste. Still, it’s packed, and the other pizza place is empty. Since everyone else seems to like it, you tell yourself you must have ordered the wrong thing last time and decide to give it another try.

From that perspective, all of the Trump campaign’s advertising in southern Georgia makes more sense. To win Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, Donald Trump doesn’t need to convince people in Atlanta to switch their votes to Trump/Pence in 2020. He needs to make sure every person living in southern Georgia believes every other person is voting Trump/Pence again in 2020. That puts pressure on former Trump voters to vote for him again, even if his first term wasn’t as good as they’d hoped.

Compare that with the Biden campaign. I live in Durham, N.C., a liberal stronghold in another southern swing state. How many Biden billboards have I seen? Zero. How many Biden/Harris yard signs are sprouting from every corner? Almost none. The Biden campaign assumes they already have my area won, so they’re not doing anything to try to make sure I show up to the polls. Instead, they’re focused on capturing undecided voters or flipping Trump voters in other parts of the state. That seems to be how most politicians (not named Donald Trump) approach campaigning but is it the best strategy?

Biden’s strategy is a bit like the owner of the empty pizza parlor standing outside trying to convince passersby that his pizza is better. In other words, it seems a bit desperate. Even worse for Biden, it could backfire precisely because he’s not just asking people to ignore Trump’s big crowds and billboards. By trying to flip voters, he’s asking them to admit they made the wrong choice voting for Trump in 2016.

Remember, most people hate admitting they’re wrong, and they like following crowds. So which strategy do you think will be more effective? Biden’s “you were wrong last time” strategy or Trump’s “everyone else is doing it” strategy?

I believe this is Biden’s biggest obstacle to the presidency. He’s not just trying to convince 2016 Trump voters he’s the better option. He’s trying to convince those voters they were wrong the first time and that all the other people they see who still support Donald Trump — i.e., all the other people choosing Trump’s pizza parlor over his — are still wrong. In the business world, that’s an incredibly hard sell. I’m guessing it’s equally difficult in the political world.

Aaron Dinin is a lecturing fellow at Duke University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative.

Tags American people of German descent Donald Trump Economy of the United States Foreign policy of the Donald Trump administration Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Right-wing populism in the United States

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