Most of the time, the 2016 presidential campaign feels like a bad dream.
Instead of hearkening back to Ronald Reagan’s inspiring “Morning in America” theme, presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump darkly warns voters, “We are a divided nation,” while only promising more division with his Muslim ban and anti-immigrant policies.
For the first time in our nation’s 240-year history, a major party is on the cusp of nominating a woman for president. But Hillary Clinton’s clumsiness and arrogance in her email scandal has damaged her, and Bernie Sanders piled on by appealing to white male voters who not-so-secretly aren’t crazy about having a female leader of the free world. (Hey, they already showed they were progressive by voting for Barack Obama, and besides, Hillary sounds an awful lot like their nagging wives and mothers).
But this election also seems like a grand political science experiment.
In the GOP primary, Trump defied easily distracted pundits, but also “broke political science,” in the words of Washington sage Taegen Goddard. Candidates aren’t supposed to be able to win nominations by retweeting neo-Nazis, talking about their manhood (i.e. their “most beautiful hands”) and accusing Fox News goddess Megyn Kelly of having “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
And yet Trump did win, fairly decisively. But the brash billionaire wouldn’t have been able to gain traction if conservatives hadn’t embraced outré rhetoric and showmanship on talk radio and Fox News for decades. In the end, Trump’s savaging of liberals and supposed sacred cows like racial minorities proved more potent to voters than the other candidates’ fealty to conservative doctrine.
Naturally, Trump’s antics haven’t played nearly as well in the general election, as he must appeal to a far broader and more diverse electorate.
There’s a reason why smart Republicans continue to bemoan the fact that Marco Rubio or John Kasich aren’t at the top of the ticket. Internal polling showed that either of them would win this election in a walk, as voters are looking for change after a Democratic president for the last eight years. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, embodies change and is a soaring orator. Kasich has a moderate reputation and has successfully run Ohio, the ultimate bellwether state.
But both of them were ruthlessly outflanked by Trump in the primary, where he dominated nearly every news cycle. That hasn’t turned out as well for him since clinching the nomination, however. While a segment of the conservative base defended Trump’s recent crude tweet bashing Clinton as corrupt –– complete with a star of David and a pile of cash –– the overall backlash was swift and brutal.
Now I’m skeptical that this election –– or any nearly any election –– will turn on a gaffe. But what I am watching, as are political scientists, is if campaign infrastructure makes a difference.
Candidates spent millions on ads, consultants to help with messaging and field staff for get-out-the-vote efforts. But so far, only Clinton is using this playbook, whereas Trump continues to bank on earned (free) media to pull him through.
Clinton’s field operation in battleground states like Ohio has put Trump’s to shame. Even in traditionally blue Michigan, Clinton is planning to hire 200 field staff, which should mollify nervous Democrats who think Trump’s anti-trade and racial resentment rhetoric could help him win here. She’s bringing on some top talent, like Walt Herzig, U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin’s longtime district director, and Mitch Rivard, who’s helped U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee become a staple on the state and national media circuit.
Trump is instead relying on the Republican National Committee, which has 34 paid staffers in the Mitten State. The ground-game gulf could have big consequences for down-ballot races in Michigan –– most notably in the state House, where Democrats have to flip nine seats to take control.
Team Clinton is outspending Team Trump 15-to-1 in battleground state TV ads, $57 million to $4 million. It’s notable that Trump hasn’t spent a penny himself –– the ads are being run by outside groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA). And that only came after the Democrat had the airwaves to herself for weeks.
It’s the same story for fundraising. As of May 31, Clinton raised $229 million to Trump’s $63 million. But the eye-popping figure is cash on hand. Clinton had $42 million to Trump’s $1.3 million.
Trump, who (falsely) bragged he was self-funding his GOP primary campaign, has now been revving up a more traditional fundraising apparatus. This hasn’t gone smoothly, as one of his fundraising emails hit 60 percent of spam folders, Politico reports. Trump did amass $51 million in June, but that was still dwarfed by Clinton’s $69 million –– and Trump has yet to disclose how much is left in the bank.
Trump also can’t expect to rely on third-party groups as much as previous nominees, like Mitt Romney, when many donors remain skeptical and are investing heavily in keeping the GOP majority in the U.S. Senate.
There’s still roughly four months until Election Day. Perhaps Trump will close the gap on fundraising, field staff and advertising. And perhaps he can still win without doing so.
If so, Trump will usher in a sea change for how political campaigns are run in America.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.