November 4, 2016
If Donald Trump wins Tuesday’s election, it would not only mark a sea change in the next four years of American politics, it could signal the implosion of standard election campaigning practices that have become the norm over several decades.
Even if Trump loses by a respectable margin to Hillary Clinton, his unorthodox ways may cause countless political consultants and party strategists to second-guess their future means of presenting a formidable candidate.
Trump has scorned the conventional wisdom for 17 months by engaging in a bombastic, personality-based approach, which has propelled him to the precipice of the presidency.
The New York billionaire has engaged in modest fundraising, spent far less campaign cash than anticipated, run far fewer TV ads than a model campaign calls for, and has largely shunned the generic ground game that is the meat of major campaigns in the final month before the vote.
Surely, no potential contender at the presidential, congressional or gubernatorial level can match Trump’s showmanship or rogue rhetoric while campaigning on the stump.
But I wonder if the real estate mogul’s guerrilla warfare methods may catch the eye of numerous political pros and future candidates at various levels of the election process.
Post-2016, campaigns may head in two very different directions — those that that rely on bluster and theatrics to grab voters’ attention, and others that delve deeply into technologies that give new meaning to targeting voters, especially on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.
Either way, traditional TV ads and billboards may go the way of the bullhorn blaring a sales pitch from atop a slow-moving campaign truck.
Locals catching up, big time candidates moving on
One unmistakable irony is that the shifting sands of presidential campaign strategy comes as candidates at the local level have just caught up with the expensive logistics of blasting out their name, above all else.
In the Detroit area, candidates for the lowly office of township trustee have financed expensive billboards on heavily traveled I-94, including one massive electric sign that resembles the glitter of Las Vegas. That approach would have been unthinkable just a couple of decades ago. These outsized signs offer nothing more than the candidate’s name, photo and the office which they’re pursuing.
Far beyond that brand of stagecraft lies the efforts of Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Tony Marrocco who, in his high-testosterone bid to defeat his Republican opponent, Congresswoman Candice Miller, has spent $1.8 million on traditional campaign tactics – signs, literature — to win re-election. That tally includes an astounding $1.1 million of the 24-year incumbent’s own money. Yet, the job is a relatively obscure political post that pays $111,000 a year.
This broad election technique of hunting for voters, the political equivalent of a shotgun blast, may soon be extinct.
Beyond that, future contenders seeking federal or state office – president, senator, governor – may be drawn to the flame of Trump-like fireworks.
Political pundits remain aghast at Trump’s fairly crude attempt to blow apart the campaign system. He is an unscripted, undisciplined candidate who relies on instincts and histrionics. And it is working.
Losing ways of the past now a winner
The Republican nominee offers relatively few campaign field offices, leaving the grassroots tasks to the GOP at the state and national level. He is not a big believer in extensive polling. The incomprehensible Trump candidacy has reportedly spent more on hats (featuring his populist message, “Make America Great Again”) than on traditional pollsters. Trump the businessman argues that campaigns need not overspend and overstaff to be successful.
The GOP standardbearer relies upon free media – extensive live cable TV coverage of his campaign appearances that resemble a concert tour – rather than spending large sums on generic television ads. As a result, the skyrocketing costs of running for the White House may take a turn this year, as one forecast sees spending falling from $4.4 billion in 2012 to $3.6 billion, the first such decline in decades.
At the same time, news media interviews by Trump the outsider slowed to a trickle since his nomination at the July Republican National Convention. In addition, within the realm of one of the least-costly ways of mobilizing voters and volunteers – the Internet and email – Trump is far outdone by Clinton.
Twitter, which emerged in a big way in 2012 as a campaign tool, is used by the 2016 GOP candidate as a hammer not a wrench. Trump has shown that a roughneck approach to tweeting has a greater effect, in terms of online buzz generated among the party faithful, than any sophisticated messaging in the Twittersphere.
What’s more, Trump embraces dirty politics without fear of a blowback, labeling election foes as “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco” and “Crooked Hillary.” Someone once said that, in the TV era, promoting a presidential candidate to the public has become no different than selling soap. Instead of selling soap, Trump is selling dirt.
Of course, this could prove disastrous for the nation if melodrama becomes the norm, with 2016 serving as the ultimate example of style over substance.
Campaign precision methods keep close tabs on voters
Meanwhile, a divergent sector of election professionals also have moved away from traditional TV and billboards to fine-tune an approach that can best be described as high-tech campaign precision.
In this atmosphere, the high-priced cadre of pollsters, consultants and ad gurus is not necessarily needed.
In some cases, campaigns are hiring computer geeks, mathematicians and physicists who grasp the complex patterns of algorithms as a means to persuade voters online, rather than traditional politicos. Cracking the code to reach young Millennials, the children of the digital revolution who shun TV network programming, is well underway.
The Clinton camp has built on the sophisticated analytics and databases developed by Obama’s campaign four years ago to identify groups of voters in dozens of ways – based on issues, reactions to candidate comments, and microscopic demographic categories.
The means of using intricate Facebook technology continues to expand. And a fascinating new method, known as “addressable” TV, is appearing over the horizon.
Addressable TV allows a particular campaign ad to be shown during a commercial break to a Republican-leaning voter while his neighbor, a mostly-Democratic voter watching the same program, will see a different ad with a different theme.
Or the electioneers can stick to the visceral ammunition of blunt force. To be sure, Donald Trump of 2016 may be an anomaly – the outlier of all outliers. But a tweaked version, with far less daunting unfavorable ratings, could prove irresistible for future candidate recruiters.
If Trump’s unorthodox ways seem to work, many others may follow. Never mind if it’s too much, or too far out of the mainstream.
In 2020, watch for the emergence of a new kind of candidate, the Trump 2.0.
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at email@example.com.