Donald Trump hit another jackpot in Nevada yesterday, giving political scientists plenty to chew on while establishment politicians nurse an upset stomach. But there are a couple of important public relations lessons here too.
And they all have to do with the essential strategy of any winning campaign -- to create meaning.
What the candidates mean to us is the context within which we judge their competence and within which our feelings or affinity for them are formed.
Competence, affinity, and meaning are the basic elements of trust, which is critical to winning their vote.
Competence is a largely rational judgment of someone's capabilities. It's necessarily second-hand so it's heavily influenced by network effects. The more people believe a candidate is competent, the more competent he appears to others.
Affinity can be based on shared values, common goals, admiration, or any association that make us feel close to someone. It's appearing to share someone's cares and "caring about people like me." It has to be genuine, but it's also heavily influenced by network effects.
Meaning is what the candidates represent to voters, i.e., their significance or import. It can be shaped by a candidate, by the candidate's opponents, by the media, or by exogenous events. But it has to be credible or at least plausible, grounded in something you can point to both in behavior and words. Most importantly, it has to matter to voters, reflect their biggest concerns.
Gov. Bush -- who is clearly a competent and likable man -- tried to build meaning around his experience and proven ability to fix things. But while many voters believe Washington needs to be fixed, they are looking for an outsider to do it. And what Bush meant to them is "more of the same."
Mr. Trump, who is too brash to be very likable, has amassed enough money in business to wear the mantle of competence. But more importantly, he has acquired the meaning of "getting things done," without letting something like "political correctness" stand in his way. He's like the guy on the next barstool, saying out loud what everyone is thinking. People may not feel personally close to Trump, but they feel he's close to them.
Messrs. Rubio and Cruz, meanwhile, have been struggling with their meaning.
Rubio's biggest stumble came when he allowed another candidate to define him as a robotic candidate programmed to repeat the same applause lines over and over, questioning both his authenticity (a key component of likability) and his competence. Rubio eventually regained his footing by admitting he had a bad night and promising to do better.
Mr. Cruz has allowed other candidates to define him as nasty and unlikable. Mr. Cruz tried to rehabilitate himself by firing his communications director. Time will tell whether it works. Unfortunately, a long trail of questionable campaign tactics make the accusations look at least plausible.
On the Democratic side, Secretary Clinton is clearly competent, but she's only "likable enough." Her biggest failing to date has been an inability to create meaning in a way that makes her seem less calculating and more relatable. There are early signs she's trying to change, but she still has a way to go.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, couldn't be more curmudgeonly, which isn't exactly a likable trait. But everything he says and does (e.g., habitually flying coach in a middle seat) demonstrates he is for the little guy and against the fat cats in finance and politics. Like Trump, he speaks his mind (though with less profanity) and seems sincere. Voters like him so much for sharing their concerns, they're willing, for now at least, to ignore questions about his ability to govern, i.e., actually achieve his goals.
All of which suggests that the biggest challenge facing the second and third place candidates in the primaries is to redefine the leader. And whichever two candidates emerge victorious from the primaries (or conventions), they need to create meaning around their competencies in a way that makes voters in the general election feel good about them.