Candidates, particularly in their first television commercials of a campaign, often appear with their families or talk about loved ones, as Hillary Clinton did with an ad months ago that featured the candidate raving about her late mother, Dorothy.
Other hopefuls focus on their personal backgrounds, emphasizing their rises to influence and the legislation they passed along the way, as Ohio Gov. John Kasich did with a recent ad that described his rags-to-riches story. And the ads are often positive and on non-controversial issues, like the candidate’s work helping military veterans.
Donald Trump’s first commercial, with its emphasis on his plans to ban Muslims from entering the United States and to build a border wall, is striking in how it breaks from these patterns. Trump is not trying to campaign as the famous billionaire from “The Apprentice” or the polite businessman who has a brief cameo in the film “Home Alone 2.” His commercial is not about his success career in real estate. His children and wife don’t appear alongside him.
The ad includes pictures of the villains Trump harps on while campaigning: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton Islamic terrorists and illegal immigrants. The text in the commercial lists Trump’s very controversial policy ideas.
The ad should remove any doubt about Trump’s intentions to win the GOP nomination by appealing to voters who are deeply concerned about terrorism and illegal immigration, and favor very aggressive ideas that are opposed by most Democrats and many Republicans.
And by airing this ad first, it suggests Trump believes his primary appeal to voters is through these controversial stances.
There is some debate among political observers about why Trump leads in many polls. Some, mostly notably the data expert Nate Silver, argue Trump is a famous person who is getting disproportionate coverage in the press and that, more than deep support for his policy positions, explains Trump’s lead in the polls. Others argue Trump is tapping into deep anxiety about economic conditions in the U.S., where millions of Americans have had stagnant wages for decades. A third theory is Trump appeals to white, non-college educated voters because of his policy ideas, blunt rhetoric and refusal to bow to political conventions.
Trump, through this ad, is betting on the third theory. The mogul could have taken a different course. He has stayed atop of polls while making controversial comments on Muslims and immigrants. But it is not entirely clear this is why he is winning.
Trump could have opted not to emphasize those positions even more, since it’s likely most Republican voters have already heard them. He could have used his first ad to emphasize his business successes, his family or his policy plans on cutting taxes and improving health care for veterans, less controversial issues.
Trump didn’t take the safe course. These television ads will reach voters who may not have attended Trump’s rallies. And it appears the first thing the mogul wants to tell voters about himself is that he wants to keep out Muslims and illegal immigrants.