The problem for Republicans is that the lessons Trump appears to have learned from his march to the GOP nod are all the wrong ones. His interview with the Associated Press, which the wire service published on Tuesday night, is filled with cringe-worthy pronouncements that should send chills up the spines of Republican elected officials and party activists hoping to preserve their congressional majorities this fall.
The worst of Trump’s assertions is that data — and the science that analyzes it to produce targeted messaging and get-out-the-vote operations — isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “I’ve always felt it was overrated,” Trump told the AP. “Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine. And I think the same is true with me.”
Hmmm. First of all, I am pretty sure the Obama team didn’ use a “data processing machine.” And the fact that Trump calls it that suggests he has no earthly idea what data mining, microtargeting and the thousands of other ways that data can inform campaign decisions actually are or do. (Sidebar: This is a good time to recommend you read Sasha Issenberg’s brilliant “The Victory Lab” on how big data is changing politics.)
There have also been scores of postmortems written of Obama’s 2012 campaign that suggest one of the critical pieces to his victory amid a still-sputtering economy was his senior staff’s embrace of data and analytics. This paragraph comes from a terrific 2013 piece by WaPo’s Dan Balz about how data — gathering it and analyzing it — was at the center of the Obama effort.
The Obama campaign had the usual contingent of pollsters and ad makers and opposition researchers and, like all campaigns today, a digital director. But it also had a chief technology officer (who had never done politics before), a chief innovation officer and a director of analytics, which would become one of the most important additions and a likely fixture in campaigns of the future. The team hired software engineers and data experts and number-crunchers and digital designers and video producers by the score. They filled the back of a vast room resembling a brokerage house trading floor or tech start-up that occupied the sixth floor of One Prudential Plaza overlooking Millennium Park in Chicago.
Trump’s comments about the relative lack of importance of data in winning campaigns reminds me of the default negative stance taken by many old-time baseball players — Joe Morgan jumps to mind — toward the rising premium teams put on sabermetrics and analytics. There is a tendency among former athletes who came of age before analytics were a thing to dismiss them. “I don’t need numbers, I know what I see,” they say. Of course, analytics is as much about looking at the right things as it is about simply “numbers.” Insisting that the way things were done until 10 or five years ago makes them the “right” way is as short-sighted as numbers nerds who insist everything you ever need to know about a sport can be gained by data analysis — and that watching the actual games is a waste of time. To win in baseball, you need to use the eye test and the analytics; when those two are in opposition, you dig into both to question the assumptions that underlie each.
Trump’s blanket insistence that data is “overrated” is a classic case of whistling past the graveyard. And, if that is concerning, his prescription for what he needs to do more of in the fall campaign should be downright scary for Republicans.
“My best investment is my rallies,” Trump told the AP. “The people go home, they tell their friends they loved it. It’s been good.”
Er. Um. Okay.
Big rallies are a nice thing if you can make them happen. They make for great images on cable TV. But big rallies are not only of relatively limited value as a turnout mechanism but also lose even more of their value in a general election as the electorate expands drastically.
To the first point: If giant rallies were conclusive determinants of outcomes, Bernie Sanders would have locked up the Democratic primary nomination months ago. There is, without question, value in getting people to turn out to an event. But big rallies are simply not directly correlated to winning primaries or caucuses. And, to the extent big rallies do matter, it is as a data collection opportunity. Trump isn’t terribly interested in that piece of the campaign, as we’ve already established.
To the second point: Trump has now won just south of 11 million votes across the 43 states that have voted. In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney won 60.9 million votes. Barack Obama won almost 66 million.
While Trump allies can make the point that California, the most populous state in the country has yet to vote, it’s hard to see him getting to 15 million total votes by the time the seven remaining contests close on June 7. Which means that Trump will have won less than one-quarter the number of votes that Romney got in a convincing loss to Obama in 2012.
Assuming that because large campaign rallies fueled your primary wins they can do the same in a general election is a major mistake. Think of it this way. A kid from a town of 3,000 is the best basketball player in that town. When he moves to a city of 300,000, it is unlikely that, without major upgrades in his game, he will again be the best. What worked for him in the town of 3,000 won’t work in the city 100 times that size. Unless, of course, the kid is LeBron James or some similar once-in-a-generation talent who is not only the best in a town of 3,000 or a city of 300,000 but in a nation of 300 million.
Trump’s bet on crowds as his key to victory is, essentially, a bet that he is the political LeBron James. That he alone among politicians can scale from 13 million votes to 65 million votes using the exact same tactics and strategy. There is, of course, the possibility that he’s right. But he’s probably wrong.
If I were a Republican elected official in a swing state up for reelection this November or a party strategist charged with keeping control of the House or the Senate, Trump’s AP interview would scare the heck out of me. Dismissing data, elevating and over-inflating the importance of big campaign rallies and, more broadly, expressing supreme confidence that the way he won the GOP primary can win him the general election as well are all decidedly dicey propositions.