Why Trump Needs a Real Campaign Apparatus
Donald Trump is a terrible campaigner. He is still struggling to assemble the basics of a campaign operation. Gaffes drop from his lips with the regularity of a waterfall rushing over a cliff. Now he seems to be backtracking on his signature issue, a hard-line stance on immigration. Or maybe he isn’t. Well, strategy and messaging aren’t his strong suits either.
How, then, is this guy still averaging above 40 percent in the polls? And what should we learn from that?
The answer to the first question is that in our partisan age, you can run a gouty orangutan on a major party ticket, and a significant percentage of the electorate will dutifully line up to pull the lever.
The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. The lesson Trump supporters I’ve spoken with seem to be taking is that they’re within striking distance of Hillary Clinton. They’re four-fifths of the way to electoral victory; now all that remains is to get that last 20 percent. The fact that their guy has been able to get so close is evidence that he can win without all that icky fundraising and “insider” campaign infrastructure.
However, as our gouty orangutan suggests, that’s not the right way to look at it. You do not amass voters in an electoral coalition the same way you amass cans of soup in your larder, with the last can costing the same amount of money and effort as the first. A better metaphor is “the last mile,” a term used by people like Amazon or the telephone company who are in the business of delivering stuff to your house. The last mile is often the shortest portion of the journey, but it is more expensive and harder to manage than all the miles that were traveled before. You can’t simply chop off that annoying last mile, because a network without it is just a collection of dead wire, or packages filling a warehouse.
National electoral coalitions are similar. It’s easy to get a large number of people to vote for your party. It's very, very difficult to get the last few percent you need to win. People who say things like, “Romney would have won if he’d just shifted a few hundred thousand voters in key districts” are right, but they’re missing the point; shifting those voters is really, really, really difficult without alienating some other portion of your electoral constituency. That’s why people spend so much money on stuff that seems pretty tangential to the party platform, like attack ads and finding painfully earnest people to wander around neighborhoods knocking on doors.
Because all the stuff that his supporters think Trump doesn’t need — campaign consultants, get-out-the-vote operations, blitzkrieg ad campaigns paid for by well-wooed donors — is used to shift the opinions of a tiny portion of the electorate, it’s easy to think that it must be a giant waste. Yet Trump himself shows that this isn’t the case. Trump hasn’t yet figured out how to cover the last mile — he didn’t even get a majority in his own primaries — and now that he’s in a head-to-head race, this weakness is showing.
There’s a certain irony in Trump crowing that he’s kryptonite to all those insiders who make their livings as merchants of politics. At the moment, he may be the best thing that ever happened to the Republican campaign apparatus because he’s providing a Technicolor illustration of what happens when you try to operate without it.
But let’s say he manages to turn it around. I don’t think this is likely, but I can see some combination of events, like a terror attack on U.S. soil, that might (or might not) push him over the top. Should we then conclude, as the historian-blogger Timothy Burke does, that Trump will have disrupted that merchant caste by showing that they’re snake-oil salesmen, charging politicians to deliver voters they would have gotten anyway?
I think Burke is right that in this era, most politicians can count on something close to 40 percent of the vote simply for representing a major political party. But there’s no prize for second place in an American election, and it may cost a billion dollars to get the extra 3 percent that you need to get behind that desk in the Oval Office. And I’m not sure that changes even if Trump somehow manages to win the election.
A better way to look at it is probably that the last mile is difficult and expensive to cover, but that there may be more than one way to make up that ground. You can run a traditional campaign — or you can be wealthy enough to fund a shoestring primary campaign, have huge name recognition from your reality show and get a last-minute boost from a completely unpredictable event that mortally wounds your opponent.
Trump’s most plausible path to victory, in other words, will probably not be available to other politicians. You can see someone, somewhere trying it again; probably another rich and famous person who can afford not to care too much if they lose. But just as most people prefer not to invest their whole retirement in a fledgling tech stock that might make them billionaires but is more likely to leave them with nothing, most politicians will probably prefer to try to cover that last mile on the well-trodden road they’re using now, rather than striking off into the wilderness and hoping to stumble over a gold mine.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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