Politics & Policy

Revenge of the Rulebook

Trump speaks at a rally in West Bend, Wisc., August 16, 2016. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
It turns out that some of the conventional wisdom about American presidential politics still applies

As the primary season went on, Donald Trump’s remarkable success led Republican politicians and media alike to conclude that the old political “rulebook” had been rewritten. Experience, television ads, and retail campaigning were no longer necessary. Outlandish boasts and off-color language led to Trump’s rallies being broadcast live on cable news, and that was the only campaign tool he needed.

Since the convention, however, Trump has struggled mightily, suggesting that some of the old rules of American politics still very much apply. Namely:

1. Maybe television advertising is overrated, but it’s not something a campaign can give up entirely. For the past two months, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and allied groups have aired $104 million worth of television ads, Trump-aligned outside groups have spent $12.4 million on ads, and the Trump campaign has spent . . . absolutely nothing.

One can argue over how valuable it is to spend money in July and August. But in the weeks since the Democratic convention, Clinton’s lead has boomed, both nationally and in key swing states — and the relentless pro-Clinton and anti-Trump messages on American TV screens are surely a factor. Trump’s first general-election television ads will hit the air on Friday.

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2. It helps to have a lot of campaign offices in states you need to win. How much of Trump’s slump in the swing states reflects weak organization in those states? If you live in a swing state, has a friend, neighbor, or local resident knocked on your door, making the pitch for the Republican nominee? Are Trump staffers gathering volunteers and staying in touch, building up supporter lists, preparing for absentee-ballot requests, prepping for the early voting that begins in October for most states? Given the news reports, it seems highly doubtful that you could answer either of those questions in the affirmative.

This is where things stand in Ohio:

The Clinton campaign has about 200 paid staff, a Columbus headquarters and 19 local offices that it began opening July 6. The Trump campaign will not say how many paid staff it has, other than to announce the names of five senior staff, and it had just one office — its Columbus headquarters — until Friday when the campaign announced it had opened 15 organizing offices across the state.

In Florida, Clinton has 15 offices open already; the Miami Herald reported that “Trump so far only has a headquarters in Sarasota, though the campaign plans to open two dozen more offices in the next two or three weeks. Mail voting for the general election starts in early October.”

In Pennsylvania, as of late July, the Clinton campaign had 300 staffers on the ground; the Trump campaign and RNC combined had about 100.

It seems safe to assume that Trump’s organizational deficiencies have contributed to his slide in swing-state polls. Speaking of which . . .

#share#

3. Talking about the polls is a double-edged sword. Remember when a large chunk of every Trump speech included him reciting the numbers from every poll he was leading? He doesn’t do that anymore. The “Jump on my bandwagon, I’m a winner” message runs aground when the candidate is no longer actually winning.

To most campaigns, polling is a tool for winning the election, not incontrovertible evidence of vindication or an inherent argument in favor of the candidate. Trump’s, of course, is not like most campaigns, and he chose to hype his poll numbers ad nauseam during the primaries.

At the time, this may have worked to his advantage, since he was the unquestioned front-runner and stood to benefit from encouraging a bandwagon effect. But now that he’s reached the general election and begun to falter, Trump may be learning that bandwagon effects can cut both ways: The public, by now accustomed to his poll-recitation routine, has come to expect it, which makes its sudden absence all the more conspicuous.

RELATED: Inside Trump’s Conquest of America’s Most Conservative Districts

4. Message testing: Campaigns deserve the mockery they get when they poll-test and focus-group every last press release, ad, utterance, and line in a candidate’s stump speech lest they offend someone. But Trump is demonstrating the limits of trusting his gut and winging it every time he’s in front of a microphone.

Candidates almost always think that their message is working and that stump speeches are indicators of broad appeal; they see people smiling, nodding, and applauding all day long. Of course the audiences applaud; they came to see the candidate. But a self-selected sample of the candidate’s most motivated supporters can’t provide anyone an accurate idea of his message’s effectiveness with the public at large.

#related#Perhaps pollster Kellyanne Conway’s new role in the campaign will help. But on the other hand, candidate Trump wasn’t all that different under Paul Manafort’s management from what he was under Corey Lewandowski’s. And all reports indicate that he engineered this morning’s campaign shakeup with an eye toward getting back to what seemed so successful in the first place. Letting Trump be Trump, in other words.

If he won’t change what he’s been doing, then, the question remains: How likely is it that the coming months will show dramatically different results?

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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