How Trump divides and conquers

It's easy to dismiss Donald Trump's ultimate chance at the Republican nomination because of his wretched "favorability" ratings—he's usually last among the Republican candidates. But seeking to understand his popularity through the lens of low ratings is to misunderstand what being popular really requires. I was a founder of OkCupid, and I have spent 12 years managing, analyzing and brokering popularity, for millions of people, millions of times a day. This is the core of what a dating site's algorithms do, and I can tell you popularity is never as simple as one number.

Like many dating sites, the company I founded, OkCupid, encourages its users to rate one another. And a quick tour of the site's highest-rated users will show you just who you'd expect: men and women with clear skin, great bodies, gleaming teeth—beautiful people, perfect 10s. Browse our most popular users, however, and you'll see something less expected. Crooked smiles. Unusual noses. Off-color hair. In short, imperfection. Many of our most popular users are several notches less good-looking than our most beautiful; and yet these 6s and 7s beat out the 10s at the dating game.

Donald Trump
Lucas Jackson | Reuters
Donald Trump
"Trump understands this better than any politician in my memory; he seems to have organized his campaign around creating division" -Christian Rudder

The key is divisiveness. Users whose ratings reflect a deep difference in opinion about them ultimately prove to be more successful. The canonical example of a trait that creates such a situation is tattoos. Some people really like them. Some people find them repellent. Thus, a user with prominent tattoos will often end up with many people who like her a lot and also many people who dislike her a lot. Her overall rating—the average of these likes and dislikes—will seem fairly mediocre. But the variance in her scores will be high, and our research has shown that variance is a powerful driver of popularity, above and beyond the general rating of the user.

The effect isn't small—being highly divisive will in fact get a person about 70 percent more messages. That means variance allows a user to effectively jump several "leagues" up in the dating pecking order—for example, a very low-rated person (20th percentile) with high variance in her votes gets as much attention as a typical woman in the 70th percentile. In online dating, as in politics, more attention translates directly to more success.

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Now, a dater who generates disagreement in the beholder, you might call "quirky." A politician who does the same, you might call "polarizing."

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Trump understands this better than any politician in my memory; he seems to have organized his campaign around creating division. And I worry that his many naysayers, by playing the foil, help him in his game.

Running for president is very different from trying to get a date. But a few nights ago, on my laptop, I saw too many needy men clamoring for attention. Looks—or what a campaign manager might call "optics"—held sway above substance. No one had much time to make an impression, and yet impression was everything. Yes, I was watching the Republican debate, but I could've been on OkCupid. I keep hearing Trump will never win, and yet his poll numbers continue to surge. Most likely, as Nate Silver has suggested, his support exists only as an artifact of the polls themselves.

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But Donald's unelectability is starting to remind me of Hillary's inevitability, circa 2007. It's important we acknowledge Trump is a more able politician than he seems and he could plausibly win, lest "unelectable" become another self-defeating prophesy. When we dismiss Trump's chances at the White House out of hand, it's just this disdain that might help put him there.

Commentary by Christian Rudder, co-founder and former president of the dating site OkCupid, where he authored the popular OkTrends blog. His latest book, "Dataclysm," is on sale in paperback starting Sept. 8. Follow him on Twitter @christianrudder.