Trump last night: In retrospect, we could have done much better with our ground game in Iowa

As I said in the last post, what makes this morning’s “fraud!” screeching especially bizarre is that Trump had been sober about why he really lost in the aftermath of Monday night’s upset. At his presser yesterday in New Hampshire, he conceded that skipping the debate might have backfired, a claim for which there’s some evidence in the most accurate pre-caucus poll of Iowa. Then he went on Fox News, where he was asked if his GOTV operation was as good as it needed to be to counter Cruz’s famously sophisticated data-analytics team. Nope, Trump admitted.

“We didn’t have much of a ground game because I didn’t think I was going to be winning,” Trump said on Fox News Tuesday. “That’s why I’m so honored to have come in second. Most people said I wouldn’t be in the top 10 originally when I started in Iowa.”

“And yeah, in retrospect, we could have done much better with the ground game, yes,” he added.

How much better could they have done? Your must-read of the day comes from Politico:

Trump’s staff “got outclassed and outmaneuvered ― the Iowa team simply didn’t have the tools they needed, which is why they overpromised and underperformed,” said a source close to the Trump campaign. “The Iowa team did an amazing job with the tools that they had, but that’s like saying that Al Qaeda did an amazing job in a battle with the U.S. Army because some Al Qaeda fighters didn’t get killed.”…

The campaign didn’t start seriously building a data operation to target voters until mid-October, sources said, and even then it did not act with urgency. It waited until November to begin paying a data vendor, the nonpartisan firm L2, and until late November or early December to sign an agreement allowing it to use the RNC’s massive voter file. The RNC had initially offered the arrangement back in June, and it’s unclear what caused the delay in executing the agreement, but most other GOP campaigns signed similar agreements months before Trump.

At one point early in the campaign, Trump representatives talked to Cambridge Analytica ― the firm now being credited with engineering Cruz’s cutting-edge targeting operation ― about retaining the company’s services, but they decided it was too expensive. And, in early October, Trump’s Virginia state director, Mike Rubino, reached out to the nonpartisan voter data firm rVotes, writing in an email “We want to utilize this ASAP.” Steve Adler, rVotes’ owner, said the Trump campaign never followed up…

The campaign’s lackadaisical data effort is seen in some quarters as coming down to Trump’s lack of willingness to use his own cash on something that’s seen as essential in modern-day presidential politics.

Here’s a line from David Brooks’s column on Trump that brought me up short: “Bernie Sanders is a good enough executive that he was able to lead a campaign that brought outsiders to the polls. Trump is not as effective a leader as Sanders.” Before Tuesday, people would have giggled at the idea that a socialist grandpa who’s spent decades as a backbencher could build a more effective organization than a billionaire businessman, but the results are what they are. More amazing is the fact that Trump implicitly validated that critique yesterday by admitting that his organization could have been “much better.” This morning on MSNBC, he conceded that he “went through the motions a little bit” in Iowa because he never thought he had a chance there, which sounds suspiciously … low-energy. Now here’s Politico claiming that the key factor in Trump’s GOTV failure was stinginess, something you’d never, ever expect from a guy whose celebrity is built on flaunting his fabulous wealth and power. The more you think about Trump’s ground-game failure, the more damage it does to his core message, that he’s such a managerial force of nature that all of Washington will roll over once he comes to town. In the end, he got “outclassed and outmaneuvered” — two things a Trump operation should never be — by a freshman senator who’s a first-time executive himself. And, just to round off the list of Trump flaws, he let it happen because he preferred an unproven, unpredictable higher-risk strategy of total media saturation to a lower-risk data-driven one favored by the professionals around him. The inference is inescapable: If candidate Trump can get out-hustled by Ted Cruz, who famously has failed to advance his own agenda in the Senate, who would President Trump get out-hustled by?

The more I think about it, the more I think this explains why he went full “fraud!” over the Iowa results today. He realized that the perception that he’d been out-organized by Cruz was spreading, thanks in part to his own admissions, and he needed to do something to head it off. It’s too damaging to his brand as America’s CEO. Better to cry foul and take the heat for being paranoid about dirty tricks than let people conclude that he has major flaws as an executive. That would also make some sense of the “Wizard of Oz” theory of Trump’s popularity that I dismissed yesterday, in which, supposedly, millions of Trump fans are now set to abandon him in New Hampshire and beyond because there’s suddenly hard proof that he’s not invincible. There are a million ways for a Trump supporter to explain away Iowa that preserves their faith in Trump — too many evangelicals, Cruz had been campaigning there for two years, the debate boycott was a minor misstep, and so on. Preserving your faith in him while admitting that Cruz is simply a better chess player than Trump is much harder. Enter “fraud!” as a silver-bullet excuse.

Via BuzzFeed, here he is on the radio earlier today speculating that he might sue over “voter fraud” in Iowa, which is one way to keep people talking about something other than him being out-organized, I guess. Exit question: Why didn’t he spend more on a ground game? I can’t understand that at all. He’s got the dough to build a gold-plated turnout operation if he wants to; his reluctance to do so may cost him a legit chance of becoming president of the United States. A source quoted by Politico explains it by noting that Trump is a businessman and businessmen never want to pay more than they have to. That’s super, but Trump will be 70 in June and he has, or had, a shot at becoming the nominee of one of the two major parties. If you believe him, he’s worth $10 billion. What’s he going to do for the remainder of his life with the extra $50 million he saved by not splurging on a GOTV operation that could have made him the most powerful man in the world?

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