Super Bowl XXV matched the New York Giants against football’s most explosive offensive machine, Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills. The Bills were fearsome on offense and as talented scoring touchdowns as Whitney Houston was singing the Star Spangled Banner during that game’s pre-game ceremonies. Buffalo’s no huddle offense rolled over almost every defense it faced and shredded the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3, in the AFC Championship Game. Bill Parcells’s plodding New York Giants were less than inspiring during their playoff matchups, limping into the Super Bowl despite failing to score a touchdown in their own NFC championship game.
But in Super Bowl showdowns, fundamentals trump flash. The Bills may have scored 95 points in their previous two playoff games, but the Giants’ defensive coordinator was a guy named Bill Belichick whose game plan smothered the Bills. And what grand offensive scheme did head coach Bill Parcells unleash to beat the heavily favored Bills? “Three tight ends and fat slobs picking you up and moving you around.”
Or put another way, fundamental blocking and tackling.
The political ascent of Donald Trump has given rise to the mistaken belief in some quarters that the fundamentals that have won political campaigns for years no longer apply in 2016. Perhaps 30 second ads will never be the powerful medium they once were, but the basics of political blocking and tackling will always matter in general elections. That means the candidate who identifies, targets, and drags out the most supporters to the polls on election day will win the White House.
Donald Trump’s victory over 16 Republican rivals was surprising. But what was more stunning was the fact that no Republican candidate (other than Ted Cruz) bothered building a viable ground operation. And anyone on Team Trump who believes their candidate can tweet his way to victory in November is greatly mistaken.
Just like the seeds to Super Bowl wins are planted in preseason practices, Barack Obama’s White House win in 2008 was assured by the investing millions of dollars and ceaseless work on his campaign’s ground game a year earlier. It was the same formula that propelled President Obama to reelection four years later.
Late in that campaign, Mika Brzezinski and I went to a Manchester, N.H., rally to interview the president. What we saw on the ground was a crowd more inspired by James Taylor’s songs than by President Obama’s speech. Walking away, we both noted just how flat the crowd’s response had been to the president.
Audience reactions to Mitt Romney late in that race seemed to be just the opposite. During the campaign’s final weekend, I received frenzied calls from Romney staffers telling me about massive crowds of 30,000 people cheering feverishly for the Republican nominee.
“It feels like 1980! We are going to win this thing!” they shouted rapturously into their cellphones.
I balanced these anecdotal reports against the steady insights of David Axelrod. The Obama guru would hear my reports and then calmly brush away any doubts about the election’s outcome. The data showed Axelrod that Obama would win reelection without breaking a sweat. But I kept pushing.
“Romney’s team is telling me the same thing as you.”
“Yeah. I’m sure they are. I’ll tell you what, Joe,” David said with a smile in his voice. “If Obama doesn’t win this thing going away, I’ll shave off the mustache I’ve had on my face for 20 years.”
In that moment, he sounded like a man holding 4 aces. And he was.
Barack Obama rolled to victory despite tepid crowds and fevered opposition. The Obama turnout machine proved to be remarkable yet again, while Mitt Romney’s get-out-the-vote app crashed repeatedly on Election Day. In the end, it wasn’t even close.
Just like the 1990 Buffalo Bills, winning a league championship doesn’t mean much if you don’t bring fundamentals to the biggest game of the year. If Donald Trump wants to stroll into the White House as commander-in-chief on January 20, 2017, he must empower those around him to begin the building of a state of the art ground game that identifies, targets, and turns out Trump voters.
Who knows? Maybe Trump and his supporters are right. Maybe there are enough persuadable Democrats and independents out there to push the Manhattan developer over-the-top against Hillary Clinton. But unless the Trump team figures out how to build a campaign operation that focuses more on fundamentals than flashy PR tricks, the next deal Donald Trump will be negotiating will be his return to The Apprentice.