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Trump's Secret Electoral Weapon: The Bond He Formed With TV Viewers

For many Americans, watching The Apprentice produced a faux feeling of closeness and trust with Donald Trump.
Donald Trump on the set of The Apprentice.

Donald Trump on the set of The Apprentice.

As the Trump administration lurches from one chaotic episode to the next, it is imperative we understand why voters chose an unqualified, inexperienced presidential candidate. Political polarization and racial resentment certainly played major roles, but new research points to an underappreciated advantage enjoyed by the real-estate mogul.

It argues that, over his 14 years on reality television, Donald Trump emotionally bonded with many Americans. Thanks to the heavily edited portrait of the business executive they were exposed to every week, they came to see him as someone they could trust—and, ultimately, a man they could see in the Oval Office.

"Donald Trump had 14 seasons of carefully edited prime-time exposure to imprint a presidential impression on American minds," writes a research team led by psychologist Shira Gabriel of the University at Buffalo. "Our data suggest he was successful in doing so, and that it played an important role in his election."

The study, in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, featured 521 Americans who took a series of surveys online after the November 2016 election, but before Trump's January 2017 inauguration. Ninety-one percent reported they had voted, and 48 percent of those voted for Trump.

First, they indicated how many seasons of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice they had watched, and how many episodes they typically saw each season. They then filled out a survey measuring how emotionally involved they get in favorite television shows.

In addition, they responded to a series of statements designed to determine the extent to which they had developed a "parasocial bond" with the host—a one-way relationship in which you feel close to a celebrity you have never met. These included "I sometimes really loved Donald Trump for what he did on the show" and "I would feel good if Trump felt good on the show."

They also noted their political party affiliation, their general feelings about Trump, and the extent to which they believed his campaign promises.

Crunching all that data, the researchers report "media exposure to Trump led participant to form a parasocial bond with Trump, which led them to believe his promises, disregard unpopular statements that he made, and have generally more positive evaluations of him."

What's more, feeling this sense of attachment was "a significant predictor of voting behavior—even when examined concurrently with other likely predictors." Basically, if you felt an emotional connection to the guy, you were more likely to vote for him.

Further analysis revealed that this effect was strongest for a key group of voters: Democrats and independents who voted for Trump (people without whom he would have lost the election). As expected, those who strongly identified as Republicans had very positive attitudes toward Trump, whether or not they had formed a parasocial bond with the candidate.

But non-Republicans "were much more likely to have positive attitudes towards Trump, believe Trump's promises, and disregard his controversial statements" if they had formed such a faux friendship. That suggests this dynamic is "particularly useful for explaining why unlikely voters voted for Trump," the researchers conclude.

So do the Democrats need to find their own reality star in 2020? Gabriel and her colleagues insist it isn't that easy. Trump's television persona, like that of Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was ultimately elected governor of California), was "likable and powerful," they note.

"He alone made the decision of who would stay or go ... and he was able to make the decision fairly and quickly"—qualities one would like to see in a president. Relatively few reality TV personalities can say the same.

So, even if his tax problems get cleared up, it's not likely we'll see The Situation in The Situation Room.