Columns » Jay Barth

The Trump campaign is winging it

A talented politician with the confidence to be unpredictable can produce authentic moments that connect with voters and move them, but at the end of the day an entire campaign that is built upon improvisation is bound for trouble.



A talented politician with the confidence to be unpredictable can produce authentic moments that connect with voters and move them, but at the end of the day an entire campaign that is built upon improvisation is bound for trouble. On matters ranging from the high profile to the least visible components of campaigning, Donald Trump's 2016 campaign has become a case study in winging it. And, while the atmospherics in which this "slightly unusual election year" (in the understated words of Bill Clinton at the Democratic Party of Arkansas's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner last week) is taking place favor a Trump-like candidate who personifies fundamental change, his conscious unpredictability is likely to ultimately undermine his candidacy in 2016 and to do real harm for cycles to come to the national party of which he officially takes control this week.

On the first night of the Cleveland Republican National Convention that marked Trump's takeover of the GOP, a lack of attention to details showed itself across the evening. The ordering of speeches created a tonal herky-jerkiness to the evening. It also left delegates without any reason to stay in the hall for the closing 45 minutes of the session, creating an empty room for cameras during prime time, subliminally suggesting a lack of enthusiasm during a period of peak viewership. Most discussed in the aftermath, of course, was the fact that sections of Melania Trump's speech were plagiarized (ironically, from Michelle Obama). Sloppiness by speechwriters and an absence of care for producers of the convention tasked with being sure such mistakes are avoided turned an otherwise well-delivered but forgettable speech into mini-scandal readymade for Twitter. While any plagiarism is troubling, the takeaway here is not so much the offense itself but what it tells us about the Trump campaign.

Even more important than such visible unforced errors created by inattention to detail is what is not going on behind the scenes. Increasingly, the coin of the realm in American politics is voters' data. What issues motivate them? Where do they get their political information? What compels them to contribute money?

We know well the role of data (which is all about the details) in driving President Obama's political success, particularly in the challenging electoral climate of 2012. In that election, his team of five dozen data analysts operating out of "The Cave" in the Chicago headquarters were crucial to creating an electorate — particularly in the swing states — that was favorable to the president's reelection. Veterans of the Obama campaigns, working with younger staffers who have come of age in data-driven elections, are now in charge of the Democratic National Committee operation and also of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

In contrast, from the start, Trump has run a "data-light" campaign with the candidate, arguing that his personality is more important in shaping election outcomes than any benefits that can be derived from the smart use of data. While Trump makes a point that a candidate's being in sync with his times is the more potent force in politics, data can be the deciding force in close elections.

Other GOP candidates (especially Ted Cruz, who over-performed in several nomination contests because of his campaign's investment in data) were ready to go all-in on data operations to their own benefit and that of the GOP of the future. No matter how distinctive a candidate Trump is, this key structural advantage for the Democrats promises to grow, with ramifications across election cycles to come.

This is particularly important because most signs point to a close election once again in 2016 with the states that have been determinative in recent cycles. Despite the antipathy toward Trump and the demographic and Electoral College advantages any Democrat has, Hillary Clinton's own flaws and "legitimate resentment" on the part of many traditional Democratic constituencies have created an unpredictable "road rage election" (as Bill Clinton phrased it last week). Clinton, who played more the role of societal analyst than advocate for his wife in his winding remarks, hinted at a close outcome, with a major burden on his wife to make the case to enough voters "that we're in it for them and that anybody that spends all their time trying to keep you mad at somebody else is not really your friend." Aiding the Democratic nominee in this challenging work is an opponent whose winging it enhances his authenticity but also his campaign's basic incompetence.

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