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The art of the Donald: How Trump is winning the millennial vote

March 10 2016

Drew Patrick

This is the second of a two-part look at the unconventional candidates who’ve taken this year’s election by storm. Each has won a big portion of the much-coveted millennial vote, and – while miles apart ideologically – employ strategies that have been surprisingly effective with millennials.


When you picture the crowd supporting Donald Trump, young people might not spring to the top of your mind. But actually Trump is a hit with large segments of the millennial generation—at least more so than any other Republican candidate.1 And while young Republicans on elite college campuses may not see him as their candidate, don’t forget: This guy is a millennial too.

And there are plenty more young voters like him. While many would disagree with his view, there are a few reasons Trump has been successful at drawing an energized and supportive millennial crowd. As hard as it may be to accept, one of those reasons is that Trump is a great marketer. I know, I just threw up in my mouth a little too. But from a branding perspective, Trump has expertly wielded some key marketing tactics. And there is much to learn from his success, particularly as it relates to winning over the millennial voter. So, what is he doing right?

He sticks to the sound bite

Ask a friend or coworker what Donald Trump claims he would do as President. My money says they respond pretty quickly with “Build a wall” or “Make America Great Again”. Maybe even just “Win, win, win”. Then ask them what Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich would do. The answers won’t likely be as quick, clear, or concise.

That’s because Trump speaks in easily digestible sound bites. He’s so narrowly focused and consistent with his messaging that you don’t need to agree with him in order to remember what he’s said. This tactic works with audiences of all ages, however no age group is hearing the Trump sound bites as loudly and clearly as millennials. According to the American Press Institute, 88% of millennials get their news from Facebook and another 33% get their news from Twitter. Short sound bites like Trump’s are perfectly suited to character limited posts and mobile devices. What do you think is more effective: Trump’s “Build a wall!” or Rubio’s “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing”?

If you look to Yik Yak, a location-based messaging board with 98% millennial users, Trump’s ability to stick to a sound bite helped him dominate the conversation in Iowa leading up to their caucus. According to the site, Trump was mentioned in 76% of the posts during that time.2 Sure, only 20% of them were positive, but that’s a positive sentiment in 15% of the posts. The next highest performer was Rand Paul. He was mentioned 8% of the time, and though 60% of those instances were positive, that still only represents support from 5% of the audience, or 1/3 of what Trump got!

He’s all business

Also playing into Trump’s hands is millennials’ appreciation for capitalism. As the only businessman in the field, he’s pushing his “self-made” origin story, and millennials are loving it. We can save the debate on how self-made he truly is for another time. The fact is, his audience appreciates entrepreneurship and he’s using it to his advantage. According to a survey from Reason-Rupe, 55% of millennials say they’d like to start their own company, and 47% believe that the strength of our country is mostly based on the success of American business.

Enter the Donald, a billionaire investor who has “earned it”. From real estate to The Apprentice, millennials recognize Trump as an entrepreneurial success story. And he is playing up this angle by attaching himself to their shared values. Even though his success has been questioned, Trump’s positioning has remained solid: He is an incredibly successful businessman, not a politician. And frankly, that’s the story many in the millennial age group want to hear.

He goes his own way

The country, and millennials in particular, are disenchanted with our political parties. In fact, millennials are significantly more likely to consider themselves political independents3. And as a result, they’re not as committed as their parents may be to following the traditions of our political system. Millennials come from an age of disruption and they respond to organizations and leaders who do things their own way. In a political arena, they want to shake things up and support an anti-establishment candidate.

While that means some have swung left to support Bernie Sanders (see Lessons from Bernie), many are drawn to the leadership qualities they see in Trump. In him, they see someone who doesn’t conform to traditional political conventions or political correctness. They see an outsider who is forging his own path.

Millennials are looking for a leader who does more than follow, and they found that in Trump. He even skipped an RNC debate and arguably won it without even showing up! His social media traffic was higher than any participating candidate during that debate4 and poll results the following days showed him increasing his lead over the field. It’s moves like this that reinforce his positioning and demonstrate how effective it is.

Finding the win

Trump may not be your candidate. He’s been called racist, sexist, xenophobic, a megalomaniac, a bully, and he is often compared to Hitler. What gets lost in this substantive criticism is the reason why he’s now the presumptive Republican nominee.

While he may be running one of the most divisive campaigns we’ve ever seen, he’s also running one of the most powerful. He’s marketing himself better than any other candidate and he’s winning a large portion of the millennial vote as a result. When you strip away what he’s saying and look at the strategy behind how he’s communicating, you’ll find that this controversial leader is actually following some basic marketing principles.
Want to learn how the Democrats are succeeding with millennials, check out our Lessons from Bernie: How to talk to millennials.