The obscure art that rules the world

Sure, you’ve heard of opinion polls. Yet that’s not what really determines things as little as who you’ll hire next in the office or what movie you’ll see on Friday night—and as big as who runs the corporate giants and entire countries.

There’s a common factor that matters more than talent, and it determines which actors, authors and rock stars get famous and which ones work their craft without ever breaking through.

Do you know their name?

Seriously. It all starts with which names you know.

Because if you never know a person exists, there’s no way you’ll hire them, buy their book/album/movie ticket or check a box next to their name on a ballot.

And yes, it’s an art, though there’s a bit of science to it.

The best time to watch the power of being known in action is during a wide-open presidential race with a lot of candidates running.

Not three or four, because everybody would know the names pretty quickly.

If you wanted to really dig into this topic, about two dozen would be perfect.

You know, enough so you need to have two separate nights of debates during the primary.

Fame versus infamy

Fame means well known, and it has a positive meaning. Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, Rihanna, George Clooney, Lebron James.

Becoming famous means your name ID goes up from zero along with your positives, meaning more people feel favorable about you than unfavorable.

Infamous means sure, people know your name, but for only because you did something so stupidly horrific or horrifically stupid that it went viral. Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, the Cash Me Outside Girl–you get the idea.

Becoming infamous for terrible crimes or feats of viral stupidity is far, far easier than becoming famous, which usually requires doing something (a) quite impressive, using (b) loads of hard work and talent while (c) somehow making sure bazillions of people know about it.

Infamy is easier in large part because our caveman/woman brains are hard-wired to latch onto negative information, especially about people who seem powerful or important to our human tribe. You might find it amusing to hear stories about your neighbor drinking fermented wildberry juice all day and falling down when he’s supposed to be helping hunt those wooly mammoths, but it won’t keep you up at night.

If your best friend says the leader of your clan is drunk all day and falling down, that’ll stick to your brain and make you stare at the cave ceiling, because that leader is the one who’s supposed to keep everybody alive through the winter when the wooly mammoths head south or whatever.

Trump and the dangers of infamy

If you’re a struggling rock star, actor, author or artist, you can boost your name recognition on the low road, by becoming infamous, rather than climbing the hard-to-impossible mountain to fame.

This works for entertainers because if 90 percent of the population knows your name while 89 percent of them have an unfavorable impression, even 1 percent of hundreds of millions of people is enough people to buy concert tickets or books.

This school of thought says no press is bad press. As long as they spell your name right, who cares if the story is negative? Your name recognition is going up.

Some pundits think Donald Trump believes in this theory. I disagree.

Trump benefitted from infamy when he was a young real estate developer trying to come out from his wealthy father’s shadow.

Yet as president of the United States of America, the most powerful nation on earth right now, no person on the planet gets more press coverage. 

Automatically. Relentlessly. There are stacks and stacks of clippings every day.

If he were actually playing 3D chess, and being smart, Trump wouldn’t pull stunts designed to boost his name recognition via becoming more infamous with reality TV chaos, fights, name-calling and vulgar behavior. Because yes, your name ID goes up with infamy, but so do your negatives.

For the leader of any country, constant national press coverage is guaranteed. This is why most rational leaders try incredibly hard not to do embarrassing, meanspirited or vulgar things that will make people lose respect for them.

I believe Trump has a bottomless appetite for attention. It doesn’t matter that he’s getting more press than any other human alive.

Too much is never enough. No matter how hard the firehose of media sprays, he craves more, and seeks to create more attention by tweeting all day, rage-calling into live FOX News shows or via risky PR stunts.

No matter what nation you lead, driving up negatives by seeking infamy at all costs isn’t smart. To get big things done, you need build bridges with world leaders and lawmakers while creating public support for what you’re proposing.

The razor’s edge

This ties directly back to the twenty-something people running in the 2020 primary.

Except for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who are quite well-known, the other candidates are all trying to break out from the pack and raise their name recognition. Except they need to do that without raising their negatives and going underwater, which just means their unfavorable are higher than their favorables.

This is why candidates in crowded fields like this have such trouble moving up. You want to boost your name recognition by good things: bold plans, speeches that make people cry, acts of kindness or amazing performances at one of the debates.

The candidates polling around 1 percent know they can break through the noise by punching upwards, by fighting above their weight. Though this is tough to do without driving up your own negatives. It’s walking a razor’s edge.

Punching down, on the other hand, is a guaranteed way to look like a bully and drive up your negatives. It’s why world leaders have traditionally never attacked individuals people or companies by name. And this is why frontrunners rarely mention, much less attack, candidates far below them in the polls.

Tracking the same people, before and after

There’s a great experiment going on at fivethirtyeight.com with the 2020 primary. Check it out.

They’re working with a polling firm, Morning Consult, that interviewed the same people three times: before the debates, after the first debate and after the third debate.

This is tremendously interesting and useful, because you can track all sorts of interesting things, including:

  • name recognition
  • favorables and unfavorables (along with no opinion)
  • exactly where support moved and from who

What’s truly fascinating isn’t whether somebody is above water or underwater. Check out the ratio of favorable to unfavorable, then the proportion of “no opinion” they have left. That’s their room to grow.

The absolute best thing about the polling and work here is the chart that shows exactly how support changed and which candidates people switched to and from over the course of the week.

Elizabeth Warren crushed the first of the two nights of debate, but did so against lesser-known candidates. You can track her support getting a big boost after the first debate (growing from 12.6 percent to 18 percent), yet after the second night of debate, she dropped to 14.4 percent, with a good share of those supporters switching to Harris.

And it’s quite remarkable what Kamala Harris did during the debates. She took on Biden, a front runner who’s well-known and liked, on a tough topic. And she did it without really driving up her own negatives. Her favorables jumped from 56.2 percent to 66.9 percent, while her negatives only went up a smidge to 12.8 percent. Harris also doubled her support in terms of who people would vote for today, going from 7.9 percent before the debates to 16.6 percent after.

Compare that to Cory Booker, who got a good boost in his favorables while keeping his unfavorables down, yet he actually lost first-choice support. Those who said they vote for him went from 3 percent before the debate to 2.8 percent after, despite a debate performance that got great reviews.

Same thing with Pete Buttigieg, who had a similar jump in favorables along with pundits saying he was one of the winners coming out of the debate. So why did he drop from 6.7 percent support down to 4.8 percent after the debates?

If you’re really want to see how name recognition, fame and infamy works, skip over the news about front-runners and focus on the candidates at the bottom. What are they trying to do to get attention from the press and public? When a candidate polling toward the bottom makes a big move up, can we pinpoint why?

I hope fivethirtyeight.com and Morning Consult keep tracking these same people over the next year. It would be amazing to see the numbers change over time, and to shine more of the light of science on what’s most often seen as an obscure and inscrutable art.

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