All that money, all those ads, all those videos and phone calls and emails could add up to a gigantic mountain of nothing.
Here’s the heart of Parscale’s argument:
The president’s reelection war chest, including a record-setting $131 million raised in June from thousands of donors at all levels, reflects the continued support, enthusiasm and confidence so many Americans have in President Trump and his agenda. The massive amount raised in June eclipses the total raised in any single month of 2016.In terms of turnout, the president’s reelection effort has built the largest field program and data operation in Republican Party history, including 1.3 million volunteers trained and activated. The campaign has already made north of 45 million voter contacts, and efforts are growing stronger by the day.And when it comes to the most important factor, enthusiasm, President Trump is dominating. The unprecedented enthusiasm behind the president’s reelection efforts stands in stark contrast to the flat, almost nonexistent enthusiasm for Biden.
This is all basically true. But what has it gotten them?
Consider the money. Parscale said on Twitter (combining the campaign and the Republican National Committee’s fundraising) that the Trump reelection effort has raised $947 million so far and has $295 million in the bank. Which sounds impressive until you realize it means they’ve already spent more than $650 million.
On what? Some of it was on making those 45 million voter contacts. A lot was on ads, both on TV and social media. A lot went to consultants, many of whom will be buying vacation homes come November. But the inescapable fact is that they’ve spent more than Hillary Clinton did in all of 2016, only to put themselves behind by 10 points.
Imagine if Trump had no reelection campaign at all. No Facebook ads, no 45 million voter contacts, no 1.3 million volunteers “trained and activated.” Would he be doing any worse?
And as triumphal as the campaign is about its fundraising, it won’t have much of a financial advantage, because Joe Biden is raising an enormous amount of money, too. Trump raised $131 million in June, but Biden raised $141 million. While it would give you a huge advantage to outspend your opponent by five or six times (as congressional candidates sometimes do), the marginal value of an extra million dollars when you and your opponent are both spending a billion is practically nothing.
To be clear, this isn’t because Trump’s campaign has been dumb and Biden’s campaign has been smart. Yes, you can say that the Biden campaign has avoided missteps, put out some good videos and done a good job of framing the contest in a way favorable to its candidate. You can say that the Trump campaign has made some mistakes, like its disastrous rally in Tulsa. But there’s almost no evidence that any of those day-to-day decisions — from either side — are what has put the race where it is now.
Instead, what matters is more fundamental things that have accumulated over the past four years. There is deep displeasure with Trump — his repellent personal conduct, his corruption, and most of all the inexcusable denial and incompetence that have led to 125,000 Americans dead from covid-19, a number that could well exceed 200,000 by Election Day.
That doesn’t depend on the tweet Trump sends tomorrow or the clever Facebook ad his campaign puts up next week. And the fact that Biden is particularly well positioned to contrast with Trump at this moment — being perceived as familiar, stable and moderate — likewise isn’t affected much by what his campaign does or doesn’t do on a daily basis.
When Parscale argues that enthusiasm is “the most important factor,” he isn’t completely wrong — but it’s not operating in the way the Trump campaign hopes. Even if there are more Republicans who absolutely love Trump than there are Democrats who absolutely love Biden, both groups are dwarfed by those who loathe Trump.
Consider this recent USA Today/Suffolk poll, which finds that “Half of Trump backers say they are ‘very excited’ about their candidate, almost double the 27% of Biden backers who say that.” That sounds great for Trump.
But at the same time, while only 22 percent of respondents say they “strongly approve” of the job Trump is doing, a full 46 percent say they “strongly disapprove.” That’s almost enough to win the election right there.
Nothing the Biden campaign does will make Democrats swoon for him the way they did for Barack Obama. But it doesn’t matter. Their hatred for Trump is what motivates them.
Likewise, the Trump campaign can say all the nasty things it wants about Biden and have them echoed by its amen chorus on Fox News and OAN, but they’ve been doing that for months, and it hasn’t made a difference. All it does is reinforce the opinions of people who were already going to vote for Trump.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that campaigns never matter, or that there’s absolutely nothing that could change the shape of this race. Political scientists have debated this question for years, sometimes writing books with titles like “Do Campaigns Matter?”
But the consensus there is that once you account for national conditions (is there a recession or a war) and the partisan makeup of the electorate, there’s a small region within which undecided voters and those who might or might not turn out to vote reside, and the campaign can affect what happens in that region. In a close race, even a small movement there can make a big difference.
But that may never have been less true than it is right now. We have a president who arouses incredibly strong feelings in much of the electorate, and turnout is guaranteed to be high. We’re in the midst of a pandemic and an economic catastrophe, both of which that president has disastrously mismanaged. That’s what matters.
Trump can still win, but it will have to be because of real-world events we can’t yet foresee. It certainly won’t be because of anything either campaign does.
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