Can Rhetoric Trump Good Organizing?

In a lot of this country, even in booming economies, there isn’t a whole lot to do on a Saturday night. Not every community has an arena where famous people come to entertain them. If they want to see their favorite musical band or some pro wrestling or maybe a popular comedian, they’re going to have to do a road trip. Or, maybe they do have a little arena or a minor league baseball field or a little airport with a big hangar. And if someone as famous as Donald Trump announces that he’s coming to town, that’s some free entertainment and nearly everyone goes out just to see the spectacle. To some degree, this is true for all the other politicians, too, but for people more inclined to watch reality network television than the nightly network news, Trump is a much bigger draw.

What I’m saying is that just because Trump can fill a small hall somewhere in rural America doesn’t mean that everyone in the audience is a supporter. A lot of them are there because they know who he is and have been entertained by him in the past. Others have seen the outrageous things that happen at his rallies and want to experience it firsthand.

But big rallies are deceptive, as Bernie Sanders can tell you. You don’t win elections by having big rallies alone.

Well, you say, Trump just did exactly that, by winning the Republican nomination, right?

My answer to that is “sort of.” Yes, he won with a very unorthodox strategy that spent a lot less on advertising and relied heavily on the free media he could generate with rallies, with asinine Tweets, with off-the-wall statements to the press, etc.

Well, the general election is different because there’s no story in the world that gets more free media than an American presidential election. Trump’s antics won’t give him a comparative advantage anymore because the media will cover absolutely everything both candidates do for every waking hour between now and November.

The lesson Trump has learned is that his opponents are all paper tigers and that he doesn’t have to run an actual campaign. He can just wing it, and rely on the media to carry him over the top.

Trump stunned the political world at every turn during the Republican primary season, prioritizing large rallies over intimate voter interactions in early voting states and operating with a slim campaign operation. Even as he brings in new staff for the general election campaign, he says his emphasis will continue to be on raucous rallies to put him in front of thousands of voters and generate free media coverage.

“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.

Trump says that these data operations didn’t do much for Obama and that Obama was the one responsible for getting his votes. This is the triumph of rhetoric over organizing, of bluster over science.

Taken alone, Obama’s data operations would have been worthless. What he needed first was a well-trained army of organizers who could use that data to make their operations as efficient as possible. Instead of a walk list that includes every registered voter in a neighborhood, you have a walk list that only includes the people likely to support your candidate who don’t vote in every election and who haven’t already been contacted at their front door. Your organizers don’t waste time reaching the already converted, don’t irritate their own supporters, and infrequently have the demoralizing experience of running into hostile supporters of the other candidate. Happy, productive door-knockers will work for hours and come back for shift after shift. The same is true for the people manning phone banks.

A good data system that is constantly updated can also help you save a ton of money by giving you the ability to microtarget your advertising.

Then, once you’ve done all the groundwork, you can see whether you’re hitting your targets in any given area. If you’re not, you can devote more resources there.

After the 2008 election, the Republican Party realized how badly they’d been mauled by Obama’s organizing and they set out to narrow the difference. They made some progress but also had some spectacular failures, like their Orca app that didn’t work on election day.

Called “Orca,” the effort was supposed to give the Romney campaign its own analytics on what was happening at polling places and to help the campaign direct get-out-the-vote efforts in the key battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Colorado.

Instead, volunteers couldn’t get the system to work from the field in many states—in some cases because they had been given the wrong login information. The system crashed repeatedly. At one point, the network connection to the Romney campaign’s headquarters went down because Internet provider Comcast reportedly thought the traffic was caused by a denial of service attack.

As one Orca user described it to Ars, the entire episode was a “huge clusterfuck.”

The RNC didn’t conclude that these tools weren’t needed. They concluded that they needed to work correctly, and they invested a lot of money to get their data operations ready for the 2016 campaign.

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.

I’m trying to imagine the exasperation that is being felt at the RNC among the crew that’s spent four years trying to get their operations “just right” for their next nominee.

Hillary Clinton hired as many Obama data folks and organizers as she could. She intends to have an efficient and happy grassroots army.

Trump won’t even try to respond in kind. His grassroots army will be flying blind, trampling all over each other, while gathering no useful information.

And we’ll find out if rhetoric and outrageousness can trump good organizing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.