Clinton’s Reframing of Trump As Risky is Risky Itself

Photo: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Just a couple of quick observations about how Trump is currently being framed in the 2016 US Presidential election. First, how Team Trump is framing The Donald. Then a look at how the Clinton campaign is trying to reframe him, and why that new approach might backfire.

Trump continues to ferociously stick with his winners win; losers lose frame. For example, in yesterday’s interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox, Trump said that if he doesn’t win the presidency in November, his campaign will have been “a total and complete waste of time, energy, and money.”

In other words, he’s talking as though he doesn’t care that he’s completely rattled the Republican party, vanquishing the establishment candidates (e.g., Jeb, Marco), the Tea Party types (e.g., Cruz, Paul), and the experienced outsiders (e.g., Kasich, Christie). None of that matters because in that’s not the same as winning, and winners win.1

On the other side, it appears that the Clinton campaign is shifting their Trump frame. Until a couple of weeks ago, it seemed as though they were set on framing Trump as anti-women, anti-gay, anti-minority, anti-veteran. The problems with this approach are 1) it appeals most strongly to those least likely to vote for Trump anyway, 2) it ignores that Trump seems very, well um, “fluid” on most of his positions, and 3)  it borders on a litany.  And litanies usually get trounced by tighter narratives.

In a shift, the new anti-Trump frame is all about him being too risky. When asked about Trump, Clinton told CNN’s Anderson Cooper,

“I don’t think we can take a risk on a loose cannon like Donald Trump running our country,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an exclusive interview. “I do think he is a loose cannon, and loose cannons tend to misfire.”

Bloomberg quotes Democratic guru David Axelrod further unpacks this frame:

“The question with Trump, at the end of the day, is not his positions but his temperament,” Axelrod said. He said Trump’s multiple positions on a single issue “raise concerns about his suitability for a job in which sobriety, consistency and reliability are absolutely required.”

In some ways, this makes sense: it’s really hard to paint a moving target with the anti-this, anti-that brush. Instead, it looks as though Camp Clinton is going to frame all that moving around as too risky.

The problem with this approach is that too risky works because people are exquisitely sensitive to losses. In other words, a chance of a loss with respect to the status quo looms large. This is part of prospect theory, one of the very early challenges to the rational model of decision making.

But prospect theory also tells us that people tend to be risk seeking on losses. In other words, if the status quo looks like a loss, taking a chance — even one with poor odds — looks more attractive than usual.

Which Trump frame will work better? I imagine it depends a lot on whether the undecided voters – people who might consider voting for Trump and are motivated enough to show up at the polling booth – feel as though the status quo is neutral or good versus feeling as though it’s headed south.

  1. Even Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” is cleanly aligned with the winners win, losers lose frame.

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