Can Donald Trump win a general election by using the same strategy he employed in the primaries? Instead of shifting from an earned-media, national-messaging model to a battleground model, Trump told the Associated Press that he will mainly use big rallies and media coverage in his fight against Hillary Clinton. “My best investment is my rallies,” Trump declared:
But in a break from recent major party nominees, Trump does not plan to invest heavily in a data-driven effort to target voters in the fall campaign. Despite pressure, the billionaire businessman also does not expect to release his tax returns before the November election.
“There’s nothing to learn from them,” Trump told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. He’s cited an ongoing audit of his finances as the main reason for withholding the information, and also has said he doesn’t believe voters are interested. …
“My best investment is my rallies,” Trump said. “The people go home, they tell their friends they loved it. It’s been good.”
The businessman said he’ll spend “limited” money on data operations to identify and track potential voters and to model various turnout scenarios that could give him the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. He’s moving away from the model Obama used successfully in his 2008 and 2012 wins, and which Clinton is trying to replicate, including hiring many of the staff that worked for Obama.
Not only does this look like a risky choice, it also looks like an unnecessary one. Why not do both? Trump could structure his campaign to work on the ground-up, peer-to-peer model while still holding his big rallies and getting free media coverage. In fact, given Trump’s propensity to say provocative and perhaps damaging things, it would take that kind of peer-to-peer relationship between the campaign and the voters to contain any detrimental effects.
Those being approached for big-money donations might wonder the same thing. If that’s the kind of campaign Trump wants to run, then why does he need to fundraise at all? Why not just continue to rely mainly on self-funding and individual small donations? Trump will need more than just that to run national advertising, but he might be better off taking the federal election fund money (with its spending limitations meaningless in that kind of campaign) and poking Hillary Clinton for selling out to the rich and powerful.
Trump does have a couple of backstops, however. For one thing, the Great America PAC that has backed Trump and now has his explicit blessing has already announced that they will take on the oppo research and data operations in which Trump’s campaign hasn’t invested at all. Plus, the RNC has its own data operations, which the AP mentions and I describe in detail in my book Going Red:
Still, the Republican National Committee has invested heavily in data operations, eager to avoid another defeat to a more technologically savvy Democrat. Trump could make use of that RNC data if he wished.
He could, but unless his campaign is oriented to making proper use of the network, it won’t do much to help in swing states. The Republican Leadership Initiative (RLI) network is designed to provide connections to battleground communities, right down to the neighborhood level, and opportunities to make emotional connections to voters by contextualizing the Republican candidate’s agenda in relation to each community, each neighborhood. It’s not just a data or technological effort, but a kind of campaign that requires a nominee to adopt, at least in part. The RNC can’t do it on its own, and neither can a super-PAC.
Could Trump win without it? Hillary Clinton is a remarkably bad candidate, so anything’s possible, but it’s difficult to understand why Trump would leave that opening for Hillary to fill. It will also mean another four lost years for the GOP in their hopes of expanding their electoral footprint. After two straight presidential campaign failures that relied on national messaging, the prospects look dim for Trump to suddenly prove that a 30,000-foot approach in a general election can work.
As for the tax returns, that’s probably a nothingburger … but expect Team Hillary to hammer on that point nonetheless. I argued four years ago that the only payoff from the release of tax returns is class-warfare voyeurism, and that hasn’t changed one iota. Public-service disclosures should be enough, but probably will never be for the media.