A scary thought for the GOP establishment

Story highlights

  • Alex Castellanos: The candidate who's having the most fun wins. Is that Donald Trump in 2016?
  • He says rule was vindicated when Panama elected its version of Silvio Berlusconi

Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, is the founder of Purple Strategies and NewRepublican.org. Follow him on Twitter @alexcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Fellow members of the reviled GOP Washington establishment: Want to hear something scary? Here is something I think I've learned over the years, validated by a boatload of political campaigns.

Nearly a decade ago, I was doing a presidential campaign in Panama. At the start, as Donald Trump might say, we were "losers." Our candidate had run before and barely registered. He had created a new political party to house his political ambitions, and it lacked depth and breadth.
Alex Castellanos
The candidate was a businessman, a millionaire, one of the most successful men in the country. Not needing politics as a career, he was fearless. He was politically incorrect on the good days, ragingly out of control on others. He was an ungraceful bull in every shop and would not be contained.
    Our strategy was to bring him down from the mountainous heights of the rich, where he was separated from the poverty of the people. We couldn't hide his affluence so we celebrated it. We used his wealth without apology, as inspiration for every Panamanian's success.
    Our slogan was "Caminando en los Zapatos del Pueblo," that is, "Walking in the Shoes of the People." With it, our candidate pledged to renew the people's prosperity and return the country's respect.
    Soon, we noticed a change. It began with small displays of enthusiasm. Music and parades. Hugs and autographs. We had a jingle, "Caminando!" Our candidate was having fun.
    It was a happy campaign and we began to inch ahead.
    As a lark, I put a question I had never asked before on a survey and we tracked it: "Which campaign is having the most fun?"
    It was ours. And we found that "Which campaign is having the most fun?" was a leading indicator, presaging ballot success. As it grew, so did our vote.
    The happy campaign was seen by voters as an expression of the candidate's confidence. They believed our candidate, Panama's version of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, was having fun because he was confident in his ability not just to win, but to govern.
    Voters understood he was enjoying his electoral adventure because he was not cowed by his opposition nor intimidated by the job beyond the campaign.
    Doubts about his lack of governing experience were overcome by his buoyant strength and self-assurance.
    We won. Ricardo Martinelli was elected Panama's president. Though he found troubles down the road, he served from 2009 to 2014.
    And that race, for me, gave birth to a new rule: The candidate having the most fun usually wins.
    Which returns us to a reflection that should scare all of us in Washington's GOP establishment, as noted in an interview conducted by Chuck Todd of "Meet the Press."
    Donald Trump is having a lot of fun, isn't he?
    More than anyone else.