One of the difficulties of being a political scientist is that, for many excellent ethical reasons, it’s very difficult to run experiments in the real world. True, an increasing fraction of political scientists is finding new and interesting ways of running experiments. For Really Big Questions, though, like presidential elections or the causes of war, it can’t really be done well.
But sometimes the politics gods smile on our profession and offer up what we like to call a “natural experiment.” This is an instance in which an event transpires that looks like other events in its category, but has some extreme vales on certain variables. This allows researchers to see just how important those particular variables are on the outcome of something we care about.
I bring this up because the 2016 general election is shaping up to be the Mother of All Natural Experiments on at least a one key dimensions: How much do field offices and get-out-the-vote operations matter?
It’s not that political scientists think these things don’t matter at all; it’s that we tend to assume that major-party efforts on this dimension cancel each other out. It’s like the “best shape of my life” stories you hear at the start of every athletic season. Physical fitness is important to sports, but if everyone is in really good shape, then an individual athlete’s conditioning doesn’t matter all that much.
Political scientists will not say that these things don’t matter at all. The 2004 Republicans and the 2008 Democrats had a slight edge on these matters, which probably helped them a bit on Election Day. This year, however, the gap is huge. Hillary Clinton is running a competent, well-staffed general-election campaign on this dimension. Donald Trump is … well … I’ll just outsource to BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray:
With fewer than three months before Election Day, in the states that matter most, Donald Trump’s campaign is still barely operating field offices and running no television ads in key states.
On the ground, some are confused as to who is calling the shots — his campaign or Republican state and national organizations that have picked up the slack. In North Carolina, it’s not entirely clear where the campaign is headquartered. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, volunteers have opened makeshift field offices.
Some are advising that the Republican National Committee, which is running its planned robust field operation, cut off money to the Trump campaign and focus on other races — something that an RNC staffer acknowledged to BuzzFeed News could be a possibility.
Even if the Trump campaign staffs up at this point, it’s woefully behind the curve — and if the Republican National Committee abandons him, Trump’s lack of infrastructure will hurt him even more.
There’s also the question of staff quality. Politico’s Katie Glueck reports on a gap in key battleground states:
Veteran Republican operatives and key leaders from several critical battleground states say that at best, they’ve never heard of Trump’s state directors or have only limited familiarity with them — and at worst, they know them, and question their ability to do the job. …
One Nevada Republican said of Trump’s state director there, Charles Munoz: “I’m actually surprised, being one of the few battleground states out there, that they don’t have a more seasoned professional running their operation, because Hillary Clinton has a remarkable team on the ground in Nevada, demonstrating how seriously she’s taking the state.”
Trump’s list of state directors is peppered with a mix of young people who have no presidential campaign experience, as well as Republican operatives who have been out of the spotlight for years. In contrast, Clinton is boosted by Democratic operatives who led marquee races and helped shepherd Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. …
Things like the absence of TV ads in battleground states should be reflected in the battleground polls. And it seems like that’s the case. The lack of a field presence should be observable in a different way, however:
If there was ever a time when the effect of field operations should be observable, it’s this election. Clinton should outperform her polling aggregates in states where she has a significant get-out-the-vote operation while Trump does not. To be sure, there are always possible confounding explanations for the absence of such a gap. This case is such an extreme one, however, that if we don’t see evidence here, it’s telling.
There will be plenty of other natural experiments to observe. Will Trump’s forays into blue states really affect the election outcomes in those states? Will the value of Trump’s brand and businesses do as well after the election as he claims?
I’ve been tweeting all year that this election cycle has been awful for American politics but awesome for American political scientists. As it increasingly looks like Trump will be crushed, the awesomeness for political science just continues to rise. I’m putting the over/under for 2017 American Political Science Association papers analyzing Trump in some way or another at 10 percent.