Can Trump Win Without a Ground Game?

Victory Lab author Sasha Issenberg is skeptical.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump greets voters during a campaign rally at Fredericksburg Expo Center August 20, 2016 in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Will this be enough? Donald Trump greets supporters during a campaign rally on Aug. 20 in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

In his 2012 book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, and in a Slate column by the same name, Sasha Issenberg set out to explain how advances in the collection and utilization of data were revolutionizing American elections. Several months after the book was published, the data-driven campaign of Barack Obama went on to defeat Mitt Romney, seeming to confirm that Democrats had become more adept at the art of winning votes than their Republican rivals.

This election, however, is not a contest between two Moneyball-style approaches to politics. While the Clinton campaign has adopted much of the Obama turnout machine, Donald Trump has shunned a data-driven approach, instead talking up the value of free media, refusing to hire staffers to organize key states and counties, and relying on the Republican National Committee to bolster his meager ground game. Not surprisingly, this has led to anxiety among already nervous Republicans.

I called Issenberg to discuss how advances in electioneering are, and aren’t, playing out in this campaign. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talked about why Republicans have trouble recruiting stat heads, the problem with media-driven campaigns, and whether Donald Trump can revolutionize politics.

Isaac Chotiner: The Republican Party wasn’t always so far behind in terms of political organization and turnout operations, right?

Sasha Issenberg: I think it had been built into the mythology around both parties, and ratified by Bush’s victory in ’04, that Republicans were operationally better than Democrats. The story was generally that Republicans were just more disciplined and more corporate. There was some truth to the idea that starting in the 1970s and 1980s, innovation that had come out of consumer marketing had flowed more directly into Republican campaigns.

After Obama’s victory in 2008, was it clear Democrats had caught up?

It was easy to ascribe McCain’s loss to a wide variety of factors: Obama’s unique candidacy, Bush’s historical unpopularity, the financial crisis. It was easy for people who didn’t want to take stock of the mechanical gap to ignore it. By contrast, every Republican thought of 2012 as a race that they should have won, and so people were drawn more quickly to exploring the mechanical gap. For people who wanted to avoid dealing with the party being out of sync ideologically and demographically, looking at the mechanics offered some sort of refuge from a more difficult reckoning.

What allowed the Democrats to make up ground between ’04 and ’08?

The big innovations in the period that followed 2004 were being derived mostly from advances in the social sciences. You ended up getting this culture gap between the parties that manifests itself in technical capacity. These big innovations include randomized field experiments used as advanced statistical modeling. In the 1980s, if you wanted to do advanced opinion research, you might look at the way that Madison Avenue did focus groups; in the mid-2000s, if you wanted to look at isolating the impact of messaging interventions on public opinion you’re going to look to the social sciences. Republicans had a problem and still have a problem getting the types of people who have those skills and expertise to come and work on their campaigns. It’s not just Republican candidate campaigns and parties. There are lots of grad students who are very happy to go help SEIU or the League of Conservation Voters or EMILY’s List design a randomized control trial. There are very few graduate students who are, whether in political science or in economics or something more quantitative, dying to go work for the NRA.

So what is your sense of how much progress the Republicans have made in the years since 2012?

I think that there was a strong recognition at the top of the party that they needed to invest in certain types of research that are counter-cyclical spending. Most campaigns are structured to only devote time and resources to things that’ll net them an additional vote on Election Day. Within the context of the campaign or a party organization that’s in an election year, it’s generally thought of as wasteful or distracting to serve any other master besides Election Day results.

To modernize your campaign year after year you need to have the type of R&D agenda that a Fortune 500 company might have, which is saying, “This might actually be bad for our bottom line or certainly not return gains to our bottom line in the second quarter of the next fiscal year, but it’s making us better at stuff in the long run.” The RNC, at least, has acknowledged that they needed to do things that were at odds with the short-term interest. I’ve written a little bit about a group called the Center for Strategic Initiatives. It’s the Republican effort to make their own version of what the left has had since 2007, which is basically a resource consortium that would do mostly experimentally driven research into campaign methods designed to improve campaigns year to year but not necessarily aid them in the moment.

I think that recognition is really important and the RNC did commission studies. Now, a lot of stuff they were studying was stuff that the Democrats had basically figured out seven or eight years ago.

In a presidential election, how much of these targeting and turnout operations are done by the candidate’s operation and how much by the party?

There’s a philosophical debate that has gone on within both parties for many decades now about what exactly the role of the RNC or the DNC is. There’s one school of thought that it is to support the entire party ticket and party apparatus and state party infrastructure, and there’s another, which is basically that the core function of the DNC and RNC is to build a vehicle that the nominee can drive, whoever he or she is, at whatever point he or she locks up the nomination, because at whatever point in the spring or summer that person is chosen, it’s too late for them to start from scratch building the general election operation nationwide.

The DNC made a big shift from 1988 to 1992 in terms of thinking of itself not as a service organization for all Democrats but as a campaign in waiting for the nominee. Bill Clinton’s campaign benefited from that. There was targeting and research ready to go at the moment he won the nomination in the spring of ’92 without a lot of money in hand. I’m not sure that the RNC has fully committed itself to one model or the other.

So then how problematic is it that Trump is basically saying that he doesn’t have field offices in all these counties or paid staff on the ground.

It becomes a big issue once their interests diverge, and they could diverge in two different ways. One, there could be entire states where Trump has an interest in being competitive, but the party either doesn’t have a strong local infrastructure or doesn’t have other people on the ballot who are a priority. Or there could be states where the interests of Trump and individual candidates down ballot diverge. Trump has given away his leverage by saying, “I’m entirely dependent on you.” The telling thing about this is every other Democrat or Republican, as far back as I can think, has put one of their people in a senior job basically babysitting the party committee. McCain did this. Romney did this. Kerry did this. Trump never put anybody in that position. He named people who were kind of the liaisons to the RNC, but he actually never put a loyalist in there. That was just a sign to me that he isn’t just ceding responsibility for all the operational stuff at the RNC, but he actually has no desire to direct it.

OK, but in a year like 2016 where there are competitive Senate races in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Nevada—i.e. most of the swing states in the presidential election—aren’t interests going to almost entirely converge?

No, because even within states you make resource allocation decisions and that will be very different if you are mobilizing voters for Pat Toomey or Kelly Ayotte or Ron Johnson rather than Donald Trump. Or for county executive candidates or dog catcher or sheriff or whatever, right? Those decisions are often made ultimately by state party people. The question is: What is the priority of state party people going to be in those states? Are they going to develop a party organization that is designed around a Trump strategy or designed around an Ayotte or Toomey strategy? If they had all the money in the world, then there might not obviously be a zero-sum game. The fact is that it seems very likely that Clinton’s campaign and her allies could outspend Trump and his allies 2 or 3 to 1 and the Republican Party committees are not raising enough money to make up for that. Does Trump have a seat at the table to make those state-level strategies? Does he have enough research of his own to go to the table and know where his targets are? It’s not clear. If he’s not building an analytics operation that’s comparable to what the RNC is building, then he’s going to be taking their intelligence and relying on their policy. That’s not a great way to look out for your own interests.

David Axelrod said to me in an interview that he thought Hillary’s ground game and advantage in turnout over Trump would mean 1 to 3 percent in swing states. Does that number seem reasonable?

Yeah, that’s generally thought of as the rule of thumb. Usually, though, both sides are using comparable field tactics, at similar levels, in effect canceling out whatever advantage one campaign can gain over the other. We know very well in a granular way what a get-out-the-vote program can do. A certain type of direct mail when targeted at a certain type of audience can increase turnout among voters within that by a couple percentage points. All of the sort of sexy data and analytics stuff that I’ve written about is most valuable ultimately for finding efficiencies in money that you will already spend. Micro-targeting isn’t going out and finding magical voters that nobody else knew about and magical issues to talk about with them, often ever, but it is quite good at making your direct mail budget 20 percent more effective by cutting out people who are highly likely to vote for you or never vote for you so that you’re not wasting money trying to persuade them. If you are going to be running a billion dollar campaign with a $75 million direct mail budget and you can make it 20 percent more effective, you’re saving $15 million and now you can reallocate to other mail or put it on TV or whatever.

Trump has obviously staked his strategy, to the degree it is a conscious strategy, on this new idea that with mass media he can turn out his voters. He’s got Roger Ailes and the other media people advising him. Do you think that maybe we are in a new media environment where a less data-driven, turnout-driven operation can succeed?

I’m a skeptic.

Somehow I figured.

Yeah, so there are two things. One is we understand a whole lot about voter behavior that we did not 20 years ago as a result of these randomized experiments.

If you’re trying to mobilize nonvoters, giving them more information about the candidates or the parties or the issues or the consequences of the election doesn’t dramatically affect their likelihood of voting. Voting is a habit. Nonvoting is also a habit. The things that turn nonvoters into voters tend to be things that change the social dynamic around voting. They’re often in their way rather intimate. Somebody from your neighborhood coming up and having a real conversation with you.

We know from experiments that volunteers are more effective than paid canvassers or callers even if they don’t introduce themselves that way. [They can] tell people who are habitual nonvoters that whether or not they vote is not just a solitary act or solitary decision but exists in a social context where their friends and neighbors and politicians can be observing and surveying and possibly judging them.

I am skeptical that that type of psychological dynamic translates over television airwaves. They rile somebody up in terms of hating Hillary more or caring more about immigration as an issue but is it going to actually change their well-formed behaviors? Is it going to rouse them out of their habit of nonvoting? The other part of it is that get-out-the-vote tactics are usually highly targeted because the cost of reminding one of your opponent’s supporters to vote is very high. The problem with broadcasts is that it gets in front of everybody. It’s why people don’t buy get-out-the-vote billboards. That’s why you run sound trucks only through neighborhoods where you’re going to get an overwhelming percentage of the vote. You don’t want to be reminding your opponent’s supporters that Election Day is coming up.

For Roger Ailes, there was no cost to reminding someone who prefers MSNBC or CNN that Fox existed. There’s a huge cost for Donald Trump to remind Hillary Clinton’s supports that Election Day exists. I think that everything that he does is so ridiculously untargeted that even if it were to have a mobilizing effect, even if it were to be so emotionally resonant that it shocked or nudged nonvoters out of their complacency, it is likely to do so in such a broad-based way that I’m not sure Trump would benefit from it.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.