The Trump Campaign: One Huge Political Science Experiment

If anything, the Trump campaign is going to provide some interesting data for future political scientists who study campaigns.

Donald Trump ShrugThe headline may sound snarky, but it isn’t, although I will somewhat flippantly (yet still accurately) say that an alternative title could be:  The Campaign that Launched a Thousand Dissertations.  Trump is currently running a campaign on low money and low physical presence (i.e., a campaign without what we traditionally think of as, well, a campaign).  He is instead focusing on free media (e.g., news coverage and interviews) and public appearances.  All of this runs counter to what we tend to think is necessary to win office. So, to the delight (well, at least at one level) or many political scientists (and wannabe political scientists) Trump is providing a natural experiment that will provide quite a bit of grist for the mill no matter how things turn out.

The latest on  this front via Politico:  Insiders: Clinton dominates Trump on the ground

“Having worked in GOP grassroots politics for more than 20 years I can honestly say I have never seen a Republican presidential campaign with this weak of a field presence,” said one Florida Republican — who, like all respondents, completed the survey anonymously. “Where are the local offices in the major cities?”

The responses from unnerved Republicans ranged from mockery to genuine panic.

“Donald Trump just hired a guy yesterday in Colorado,” said a GOP insider there. “One guy — does that count as an organization?”

Added another Colorado Republican: “Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush still have better organization here than Donald Trump.”

In Iowa, one insider called Trump’s organization “MIA.” Another said it was “as small as his hands.”

One New Hampshire Republican said the question was like “asking who would win a football game between Alabama and Plymouth State,” comparing Trump to the state’s Division-III team facing the school with the most national championships in the history of college football.

The piece is based on interviews with “a panel of activists, operatives and strategists in 10 [battleground] states” so is based on the views of those who are used to more standard ways of campaigning.  As such, it may simply be that those coming from an old school perspective can’t fathom a new approach.  We shall see.

However, it should be noted that running (and winning) a campaign for the nomination in very different from running a national campaign for office.  In the former one had to win a plurality in a crowded field with a limited slice of the electorate (and only in a relatively small number of contests).  In the latter, however, one has to win a majority of the votes of a far larger slice of the population across the entire country.  The mechanics of the two are quite different.

While one campaign/electoral cycle will not prove the need for money, organization, etc. it will provide some evidence, one way or another.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    Like the Chinese guy supposedly said as a curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

  2. CSK says:

    I’m one of those who believes that there’s a good chance that Trump will bail shortly after he’s crowned in Cleveland. If that is indeed his intent, then why should he bother with a ground game for a campaign he’s never going to wage?

  3. Pch101 says:

    Trump has demonstrated something that we already knew, namely that it makes sense to try to be the nominee of a major party, not a third party. You can create all of the buzz that you want, but the Ross Perots and George Wallaces and Ralph Naders of the world don’t have any chance of winning presidential elections by playing independent.

    It also demonstrates something else that we already knew, namely that a primary series with a broad field that lacks a definitive established front runner is more vulnerable to disruption than it would be if it was anchored by a one or perhaps two very strong contenders. The “broad bench” could have described Weimar, and we know how well that went.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t know if everyone knows what a ground operation is. Among other things they arrange rides to polling places, they organize groups of voters, say a church. They call people up and check in with them, by name: Can we still count on your vote, Mrs. Jones? Are you sure you’re registered? No, well, I can help with that.

    I don’t think that sort of operation changes minds much, but it ensures that the people who support you actually vote. Had the “Remain” voters had a good ground game amongst British youth, for example, Britain would be staying in the EU. In dead heat or near dead heat situations it helps.

    Or at least that’s been the experience to this point. God knows what’s coming next. This political season reminds me of the Harpo Marx silverware routine in Animal Crackers. It just keeps getting stranger.

  5. @michael reynolds: Indeed. No ground operation means no GOTV infrastructure. One suspects that that will end up being problematic for Trump on election day.

  6. Kylopod says:

    A bit of a clarification here: most political scientists have long held that ads and campaign organization have a relatively small impact on the outcome of presidential elections compared to factors such as the economy. So in a close race a strong campaign can make the difference between defeat and victory–but it will never make the difference between defeat and landslide.

    Therefore, it’s a bit misleading to imply that this is a case of Trump vs. political science. Without taking the candidates into account, most poli-sci models have suggested either that the 2016 election is a toss-up or that the Republicans are modest favorites. So in this case, unlike the primaries, a Trump victory would actually vindicate what the political scientists have traditionally said. As horrifying as that sounds.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    Josh Marshall had interesting speculation on Trump’s fund raising efforts. He observed that the June numbers would be announced right in the middle of the convention. If they were as bad as the May numbers, it would be a disaster. But big donors were refusing to step up because Trump had “self financed” with loans. If they pitched in Trump could simply use the money to pay himself back. So last week Trump’s people announced they were filing papers that day that would convert the loans to donations. It’s a reasonable assumption that was enough to knock some big donors off the fence.

    But it turns out Trump didn’t file the paperwork. When asked about it they responded that they were going to file it with the June numbers in the beginning of July. Which of course leads one to wonder if he ever intended to file at all – or if he just said that to break the money free from the big donors.

    He still may do it, especially now that he has been caught out, but it just reinforces that image of a candidate that has only one toe in the water.

  8. Jen says:

    I’m really not sure how much can be learned from this, regardless of outcome. Trump is not an easily replicable candidate. He started out with a national presence and name recognition through his television show, and the fact that he’s been in the public eye for decades. Part of that time was as a businessman, so people who are frequent consumers of news knew of him. The other part of that time was as a reality television host, so people who consume entertainment knew of him.

    I think either party would be very hard-pressed to find a candidate who checks off all of these boxes on such a national scale again–the only ones I can think of are sports stars and actors who have gone on to have business or other philanthropic careers. Angelina Jolie might be one (if she ever had any interest in running). Even sports stars are sometimes more regional than national celebrities.

    That said, from a PR perspective, this has been an interesting campaign. The reliance on earned media at the expense of pretty much any other standard campaign practice appears to reinforce the power of traditional media to disseminate a message. Even a bonkers one.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Kylopod:

    A bit of a clarification here: most political scientists have long held that ads and campaign organization have a relatively small impact on the outcome of presidential elections compared to factors such as the economy.

    I suspect this is going to get a real test this election. I don’t think there has ever been such a mismatch in fundraising.

    And I have to call myself out for a Mea Culpa. I said many times that the Republican Supreme Court Justices’ allowing big money into political campaigns would tilt the system to the rich and therefore, the Republicans. I have to admit that so far, at least at the presidential level, it has had the opposite effect. The ability of egotistical billionaires to each have their own pet candidate until late in the primaries has done a lot of harm to the party.

  10. @Kylopod:

    Therefore, it’s a bit misleading to imply that this is a case of Trump vs. political science.

    In fairness, that isn’t what I said. I am essentially stating that by running his campaign very differently than is the norm, it will be provide a great deal of information that would otherwise not exist.

  11. @Kylopod:

    a Trump victory would actually vindicate what the political scientists have traditionally said. As horrifying as that sounds.

    Which, btw, would fit what I am saying. Data to help validate, or invalidate, a given approach of study.

  12. @Jen: Deviation from a known pattern is useful.

    Trump is not an easily replicable candidate.

    But this is a general problem for social science in general.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    Possible coordination between a Trump PAC and Trump?

    I really really wish that someone would start implementing what political election laws we do have. Trump just seems to do whatever he wants and gets away with it. For a group supposedly devoted to LawNOrder, Republicans seem to be perfectly happy with their candidates blowing right through all the barriers.

    But anything Hillary does has to be yelled about to the max, right? Sheesh. C’mon guys–what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

  14. Mister Bluster says:

    “To whom it may concern: i hereby resign my appointment as Director of Surrogates for Mr. Trump,” he wrote in a note sent to staff and acquired by POLITICO. “While brief*, it has been an interesting experience, and am proud of the contributions made through our early-phase project endeavors…” Kevin Kellems
    http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/donald-trump-aide-quits-225032

    *brief: or as Dean Wormer would say: “…outta here like shit through a goose.”

  15. Scott says:

    Campaigns in recent years have had the semblance of a boom industry, a self licking ice cream cone, and untested mythology all rolled into one. Money attracts all kinds of people, all of whom will claim that ever more money is needed to do the job. It will be interesting to see the effectiveness of these claims if indeed the effects of the campaign variables can be teased out of the mountain of data generated.

  16. Jen says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Excellent point. I was viewing this through the lens of what can be learned to be applied elsewhere, but studying and understanding the dynamics at work in this campaign independent of that is useful from a social science perspective.

    @grumpy realist: I just saw that as well. Didn’t the first Trump super PAC get caught/disbanded for improper coordination?

  17. Moosebreath says:

    “One Huge Political Science Experiment”

    So who gets to be Igor?

  18. @Moosebreath: Walk this way…

  19. Moosebreath says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.

    (changing classic comedy routines)

  20. Kylopod says:

    @MarkedMan: Some years ago Matt Glassman wrote what I consider an instructive–and in hindsight, prescient–post in which he suggested that when political scientists say that campaigns don’t matter that much in presidential elections, this belief is predicated on the assumption that virtually all major-party nominees are professionals who possess at least some minimal level of competence so that any effects of one candidate’s well-run campaign will be largely canceled out by the other candidate’s efforts. In fact, Glassman argues, candidates have great potential to make mistakes that do lasting damage to themselves–it’s just that in practice they rarely do, because the candidates who win nominations usually know to avoid those kinds of blunders.

  21. Andrew says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    SETAGIVE!!!?!?!!!?

  22. Cugel says:

    Having a good ground game has been likened to having a kicker who can kick 50 yard FGs. That won’t matter if you’re losing by 14 points, but it’s critical in any really close game. Normally, both sides are fighting like fury, and cancel each other out, leaving a small residual in FL or OH that is the margin of victory. But, there’s never been a presidential campaign in recent memory that didn’t have any ground game at all. And that’s not something Trump can improvise suddenly. Hillary has been creating her infrastructure in these states for years, building her lists of donors and supporters, and lining up campaign staff and surrogates to campaign on her behalf. Trump is almost totally lacking all of that. The GOP establishment loathes him and he did everything in his power to ensure that they would. It just never occurred to him that John Kaisich for instance was never any threat to him in the nomination battle, and would be an incredibly useful ally in Ohio, so maybe don’t taunt him saying he’s “the most disgusting eater” you’ve ever seen, just because he attacked you politically. Kaisich took that personally, and now won’t endorse or help Trump in his state. Completely needless, but that’s Trump. Same thing in Florida, where “little Marco” is spending most of his time running away from Trump. Same again in the key state of AZ with John “I like people who weren’t captured” McCain.

    The worst thing for Trump is that if he’s down in the polls in early September like he is now, the GOP will absolutely throw him under the bus, and just campaign for down-ballot candidates, and ignore Trump. And he has no campaign structure in these states that is loyal to him so what can he do but complain about it?

  23. @Kylopod:

    in which he suggested that when political scientists say that campaigns don’t matter that much in presidential elections, this belief is predicated on the assumption that virtually all major-party nominees are professionals who possess at least some minimal level of competence so that any effects of one candidate’s well-run campaign will be largely canceled out by the other candidate’s efforts.

    Trumps will help provide some evidence to this argument, one way or another.

  24. Jen says:

    Speaking from experience, a good ground game can also be important in what look to be runaway elections. If the numbers are too good for a candidate, supporters start thinking it’s in the bag. You still have to get people out to vote. There is nothing worse than watching a “sure thing” candidate realize they’ve lost because they didn’t bother to make sure their voters got to the polls.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Jen: There’s also the fact that Trump thinks (having large crowds) == (large number of voters).

    The fact that a sizable percentage may be coming to gawk at the man who bites heads off chickens totally escapes him.

  26. @grumpy realist: Beyond even that, being able to attract large crowds at these types of events does not automatically translate in mass votes.

    Bernie had great turnout at rallies but still won almost 4 million less votes than did Clinton.

  27. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist: @<a href="#comment-2102212"

    Yes. How many people came to see the reality show star's freak show?

  28. rachel says:

    …will provide quite a bit of gist for the mill…

    It’s spelled “grist”. “Grist” is a batch of grain that has been cleaned for grinding in a flour mill.

  29. DrDaveT says:

    One Huge Political Science Experiment

    I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization. You wouldn’t call spilling a million gallons of phosgene in downtown LA “a chemistry experiment”; you’d call it a disaster — no matter how many PhD dissertations it generated.

  30. rachel says:

    @DrDaveT: C’mon, it’s only a disaster if Trump actually gets elected.

  31. @DrDaveT: @rachel: It can be a disastrous experiment, to be sure.

  32. MarkedMan says:

    @Jen:

    There is nothing worse than watching a “sure thing” candidate realize they’ve lost because they didn’t bother to make sure their voters got to the polls.

    There are many things that have me worried in this campaign. Clinton slacking off because she is overconfident is not one of them.

  33. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It can be a disastrous experiment, to be sure.

    But it’s only an experiment if (a) it’s deliberate, and (b) the point is to learn something. Neither of those applies to the GOP here.

  34. @DrDaveT: I feel as if you are being argumentative for no discernible reason.

    (And my point is that things will be learned regardless of intent–and yes, I understand it is not a deliberate experiment).

  35. @rachel: Thanks for noting the error. I did, in fact, intent to type “grist” but simply failed to include the requisite “r.”

  36. Richard C. Trochlil says:

    @CSK:

    Trump is working to lose the first ballot. He then will storm for home yelling that the entire nomination was rigged by a bunch of losers.

    When the GOP loses the election, he will state again that they were a bunch of losers that cheated him out of the nomination and election.

    And a lot of people will believe him.

    BTW, Stump is nothing more than a Joe Sixpack with money. That is why he has the following he has. They identify with him.

    Too bad, there was a chance.