Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president despite his inability to run an effective political campaign, not because of it. Any lingering question that Trump's emergence as the party's leader was a function of his celebrity has been settled by the stumbling first few weeks of his general-election campaign. And I'm not even talking about the judge stuff, which is obvious. I'm talking about his plans to win in November.
Trump has repeatedly said that he plans to win his home state of New York in November. Candidates say such things, pledging to win things they know they won't win, particularly when campaigning there. But Trump ... seems to think he actually can?
The New York Times reported Wednesday evening that Trump had hired a pollster to specifically survey the Empire State and, one might assume, help figure out a path to victory. That pollster, John McLaughlin, was the subject of a 2014 Washington Post profile, the title of which asked the probing question: "How wrong must you be to never work again?"
Then CNN talked to a number of people to evaluate Trump's "ground game," his plan to identify and turn out supporters in November. A state representative from New Hampshire assured CNN's Sara Murray and Ashley Killough that the campaign knew what it was doing; after all, it "got the job done in New Hampshire and took 36% in the first-in-the-nation primary with everyone on the planet saying we didn't have a ground game."
What's the plan for New York? Campaign co-chairman (and unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial candidate) Carl Paladino offered a sneak peek: The campaign would "rely on conventional get-out-the-vote efforts and blanketing the upstate region with signs and bumper stickers."
Before we dive into those two decisions, let's be clear about something: Trump will not win New York state. Sure, he's a local boy, but so is his opponent. Sure, he won his party's New York primary by a wide margin, but so did his opponent. (Trump lost one county in the state — his home county of New York County, better known as Manhattan.)
The last time a Republican won the state of New York was in 1984. That was Ronald Reagan, who also won the state in 1980. Trump's "Make America Great Again"-1980s-throwback campaign regularly argues that he'll capture the nation's attention as did Reagan. But this is not the same country that Reagan won — and New York is not the same state.
The New York that Reagan won in 1980 was a New York that was basically a swing state. Carter won it narrowly in 1976; Reagan's victory four years later was mostly a function of pulling the city of New York to the right. By 1984, the city moved a bit back to the left but the rest of the state moved to the Republicans sharply. Still, Reagan won by only eight points.
In recent elections, the counties in New York City have voted twice as strongly Democratic as they did back then, helping to pull the state's margins on behalf of the Democrats well into the 20-point range. Moving the five counties of New York City to the Republicans by the same distance as they moved from 1976 to 1980 would flip precisely one borough, Staten Island, to the Republicans. The rest of the boroughs would all vote Democratic by at least 40 points.
Again, let's set that aside. Let's also quickly set aside the idea that planting bumper stickers and yard signs upstate will help carry New York for Trump. It's not clear whether this is Paladino's bad strategy or Trump's, but it's a bad strategy. Normal candidates adore lawn signs because it's a security blanket, a visible reminder that you're going to get someone's vote. (Although savvier candidates understand that lots of non-voters and non-supporters may display a campaign's lawn sign out of indifference. All it really takes is asking.) For a guy who likes to see his name on everything he wears and on every building he enters, it's safe to assume that the effect is heightened. But that sort of visibility has only a tiny effect on actual voting — and costs a ton of money. It's what campaign managers do to make candidates happy — which is probably exactly why Trump's campaign will end up doing it. Upstate, where most of the state's voters aren't.
The real problem for Trump here is that hiring a pollster and putting up lawn signs in Schenectady is a waste of money.
We noted on Wednesday that Trump was behind the curve on fundraising, and that prominent fundraisers expected he'd fall far short of Hillary Clinton in that regard. Outside groups will help fill the gap, but the campaign itself appears likely to be outspent by the opposition by a healthy margin. If that happens, every dollar becomes critical. As Republican strategist Kevin Madden put it to CNN, "Every dollar that you're spending somewhere else that you're not spending in a battleground state is potentially a wasted resource."
If Clinton has tens of millions more dollars, she can start spending money in states that are leaning toward Trump, forcing him and his allies to defend that ground. Simply by having more money to play with, they can force Trump to spend more of his own money in places that he wouldn't otherwise target. And if Trump is spending money on polls and lawn signs in New York, where he's almost certain to lose, that's money he can't spend making sure that the vote isn't too lopsided in Atlanta.
Again, these are non-Trump actors saying what Trump plans to do. But the idea that Trump would sort of just assume that his #brand could carry the day in New York against the odds is ... believable.
One last thing to toss in the dumpster: Trump's ground game didn't win New Hampshire, contra that state House member. Ground games don't give you 20-point victories; they give you one- or two-point victories. Trump praised his ground game the night he won in New Hampshire, proving that he had no idea what ground games actually do. If he plans to invest in "ground games" in states he's going to win by 20 points or lose by 40, he's doomed.