What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Trump Doral golf course in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Donald Trump's nomination success will almost certainly make life harder for future campaign managers and consultants. Deep inside nearly every politician is a sense that people inherently like them and that, if enough people simply heard their message, they'd win.

But that's not how you win campaigns, for a number of reasons. The main reason, of course, is that it's very hard for an average candidate to get in front of a big enough audience that they'll hit enough actual voters to win the most votes. In an ideal world, it's useful to tell everyone in the district who you are; in a practical world, you at least need to make sure you're covering the subset of that group who will actually cast a ballot.

During the primary, Trump had little interest in targeted voter contact for the simple reason that he could actually contact voters at scale. He held giant rallies, sure, but his main method of voter contact was forcing himself into America's consciousness by dominating the media. He got beaten in Iowa because Ted Cruz out-organized him. His field operation in New Hampshire was sparse, to put it generally. He consistently did far better in primaries among those who made their minds up early; people who were organized to vote at the last minute often went for one of his opponents. In Louisiana, the gap between those who voted early and those who came out on primary day almost cost him a win — though that was again because of Cruz's strong performance.

The most important question over the next six months for Republicans who want to see Trump win is: Was his unusual, media-first strategy a smart strategy — or was it a fluke?

For most political campaigns, running a successful campaign goes like this:

  1. Figure out how many votes you need to win.
  2. Poll and ID voters to figure out how best to add up to that number.
  3. Advertise to and contact voters who either a) are certain to vote but need to be convinced of the candidate or b) are certain to support the candidate but may not actually go vote.

Trump's primary campaign looked like this:

  1. Go on TV.
  2. Run ads when you heard a state might be close (like Florida).
  3. Go on TV.

Over the course of the primary, Trump's campaign spent far more on collateral — hats, signs, etc. — than it did on voter data. Last month alone, line items in the campaign's FEC filing for things emblazoned with Trump's name added up to three times what the campaign spent on data. And bear in mind: Last month, the race was still contested.

In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Trump dismissed the value of data in his campaign. "Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me," Trump said. A John McCain staffer said that this wasn't exactly true: "We lost in large part because Obama's ability to use data was so much better than ours," Buzz Jacobs told the AP's Bill Barrow.

Here's what a Washington Post/ABC News poll said about the race between Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and GOP candidate Donald Trump. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Trump's general election campaign is also far behind Hillary Clinton's in other important metrics — even while she is still battling to lock up her party's nomination. Politico looked at FEC filings for the two campaigns, finding that Clinton's got far more office space than Trump and more than 10 times as much staff. The Clinton campaign has more than 730 staff members; Trump has 70. Trump has raised about $60 million, mostly in the form of loans from himself. Clinton has raised more than $210 million.

In 2012, Barack Obama raised $722.4 million to Mitt Romney's $449.9 million. Total spending, including that from outside groups, topped $2 billion. Trump has said that he won't fund his general election campaign out of his own pocket — meaning that he'll need to raise a substantial amount. But he's behind the curve on that, too, as the New York Times reported this weekend. A group of a dozen major donors to the Republican Party — a group that has given $90 million over the past three cycles — indicated to the Times that they didn't plan to donate to or raise money for Trump.

The Republican National Committee clearly disagrees with Trump's apathy toward using data to contact voters. Last week, it pledged to build "the largest and most sophisticated data-driven turnout operation in history." This hasn't been a strong suit of the party or its candidates in the past; in 2012, Romney's vaunted digital get-out-the-vote tool collapsed on Election Day.

As with anything Trump says, it's hard to know how indifferent he actually is to this kind of traditional campaigning. After his team's weak field efforts were blamed for his loss in Iowa, Trump lavished praise on his team in his New Hampshire victory speech, insisting they'd learned how to run a GOTV effort in a week. (Which is incorrect both because GOTV efforts demand more than a week of effort — and because in a win the size of Trump's in that state, field didn't make any difference.) There's little question, though, that Trump thinks his airwave dominance is still integral to his efforts.

There's a problem with that, though. In a general election — one-on-one, with a much larger group of voters paying attention — Trump's dominance won't be so complete. In the first four months of this year (and the last four months of 2015), Trump was competing for attention against a dozen much more boring candidates. From here on out, he's competing against Hillary Clinton, who may not match him in grabbing attention but who provides a much clearer counterpoint.

The other problem for an all-earned-media strategy is that it's impossible to tailor a message. When Trump was running to win the Republican nomination, his arguments about immigration and tacit appeals to the concerns of white men were ones that were broadly popular with the electorate. Making a similarly broad pitch for the next six months risks alienating groups to whom he needs to make a more nuanced — or contrary — argument.

It's hard to imagine any other candidate using Trump's playbook and seeing success. It's hard to imagine him replicating that strategy to win in November. Trump's move to wave voter targeting away is mostly bravado, of course, as are most things he does. But his primary success may prove to be the exception that proves why data rules.