There are two kinds of political art, qualitative and quantitative. That’s a fancy way of saying that you can sit around coming up with the best message to inspire the most raucous applause, or you can pound pavement to get actual voters to actually vote.
These two kinds of political art are not necessarily opposed; indeed, they work best when they work together. Yet the ultimate goal of political organizing is to win elections through sheer numbers, because without that victory, it will not matter that you expressed all the right opinions or promised the perfect agenda. Applause lines are not votes. Only ballots count, and at the end of Election Day, only the candidate with the most Electoral College votes wins the presidency.
Consider the Democratic contest now winding down amid hopeful signs of party unity. Sen. Bernie Sanders was far stronger than expected, opening a space into which the Democratic nomination fight became an important conversation on liberal and progressive values, greatly improving the quality of the overall race. Yet Sanders still lost, and even lost in California, because he simply didn’t have a large enough quantity of votes.
Hillary Clinton’s delegate lead ballooned early and often until she eventually won by every measure of the race. She ran a data-driven campaign of voter contact and engagement, while Sanders first disdained the value of data-driven politics and then vacillated on his ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) strategies, with results that speak for themselves.
Furthermore, reality show star and fraudulent billionaire Donald Trump shares some of these key characteristics with Sanders. If the Clinton campaign takes fullest possible advantage of the opportunities in front of them, it is possible for the Democratic Party to inflict a major defeat on the GOP — and earn an Electoral College victory that greatly enhances her presidency.
1. Election machines
No, this is not about those irresponsible clickbait headlines proclaiming election fraud in California — just as they have for every state where Sanders has ever lost. That stuff is just sour grapes from sore losers. And the biggest reason for their defeat is that the Sanders campaign did not operate as a voter engagement machine. Instead, operations were marked by disorganization and lack of information-sharing in ways mirrored by the Trump campaign.
Contrarily, the Clinton campaign was organized and effective. Consider this Reddit thread in which an ardent Sanders supporter gripes that their candidate’s campaign is losing out by not ‘banking’ absentee ballots in advance of the election, a key Clinton strategy.
First off, the Clinton campaign or there [sic] Super Pac is sending around paid postage ballots to voters with a letter from Bill Clinton encouraging them to fill it out and send it in. This is a no brainer for a voter. Just fill it out, put in paid envelope, and drop in mail.
Second, the Clinton camp has the best voter list for each state. Not only do they have their own list from 2008, but they probably have the list of voters from Obama in 08 and 12 since many on his campaign staff are working for the Clintons campaign. Thus, they have a highly detailed voter list of people who voted Clinton and Obama that they can send these absentee ballots out for an efficient cost. The Sanders camp can’t do this because their voter lists starting off were crap until we can call and narrow things down for them. Thus when we are phonebanking, we are not putting ourselves ahead, we are catching up. Plus, Sanders is bringing in many new voters. Thus, it would be terribly inefficient and costly to send out absentee ballots to voters early in time who might still be Clinton supporters, but that might switch if they had more time to learn about Bernie.
Thus, it’s a series of things working against us that causes our campaign most likely not to be able to use the pre-paid absentee ballots as effectively as the Clintons. They have superior voter lists and can target people more directly.
This only sounds simple: identify a winnable voter, make sure they receive a ballot, then contact them with encouragements to put their ballot in the mail. With good data and trained volunteers, it’s a difficult but damned effective way to boost a candidate’s performance.
Although Sanders had engaged many new voters by convincing them to register, those potential Sanders voters needed to identify as Democrats in order to receive a Democratic Party absentee ballot before the California election. The Sanders campaign failed to communicate this to people they registered and did not provide ballots or follow up with voters. Furthermore, Sanders lost time — and a state political director — while deciding how to campaign in the state, eventually throwing everything he had left into an ad blitz that still failed to motivate voters.
The Clinton strategy was so successful, and the Sanders GOTV effort so ineffective, that Clinton owes her dominating victory in the Golden State to the differential results, especially those ‘banked’ absentee ballots.
Drawing on their experience from 2008, when Clinton used a late run to beat Barack Obama in California’s presidential primary, Clinton’s supporters ran multilingual phone banks, cajoling likely voters to cast their ballots.
“We told people to take that ballot off the kitchen cabinet, fill it out and put it in the mail,” Wicks said.
The result was seen on election night. Clinton broke on top when the first mail ballots were reported soon after 8 p.m. and never gave up the lead.
“Clinton jumped to a huge lead, larger than expected, in the first mail results,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, which last week showed the former New York senator with a 45 percent to 43 percent lead over Sanders.
The mail ballot margin was about 400,000 votes, which held through much of the night.
“Clinton and Sanders virtually split the votes at the polls on election day,” DiCamillo said. But the Clinton team “is very good at corralling votes, at getting their votes in the bank early.”
The tide began to turn last weekend, Wicks said.
“We felt a huge surge in momentum,” she said. “We had 22 percent more volunteers than we scheduled show up for our phone push. We had 5,500 volunteers make 2.2 million calls in the last few days.”
Note that the quantity of Clinton’s votes in California has had a positive effect on the perceived quality of her candidacy. A week ago, with various polls showing a tight race, media narratives stressed uncertainty; now that she is the nominee, ending on a dominating win in the District of Columbia, the general election is already changing character very fast. In Donald Trump’s parlance, she’s a ‘winner,’ no longer dogged by questions about her ability to close the deal.
Trump, by the way, rejects data-driven politicking even more firmly than Sanders, who did eventually hire a data team. While he does spend some money on surveys, Trump is openly contemptuous of pollsters and political science. Democratic strategist James Carville also said last week that “there is no Trump campaign,” by which he meant that the Republican nominee is quite tardy in filling out key campaign staff positions of all kinds, including political directors who should already be organizing GOTV campaigns on the ground in swing states. Trump has even indicated that he would rather leave GOTV to the Republican Party altogether, as he prefers to focus on holding big rallies instead of database-centered voter engagement.
In short, Trump has not built an election machine to compete with Clinton’s juggernaut, and shows no sign of ever building one that could keep up with her.
2. Rallies are not voting booths
Sanders lost by double digits even though he held thirty different events in California, all of which drew tremendous, enthusiastic crowds of cheering, mostly-younger and therefore more fickle, voters. His rallies were far bigger than those of his opponent, who usually prefers to speak in more intimate circumstances. This is one of the biggest reasons that so many die-hard Sanders supporters still cannot accept the outcome: if there were so many people cheering him on, then how could they possibly not be numerous enough to win?
There are a few different answers to this question. One is the ‘Grateful Dead’ effect: just as the famous band had a relatively small, yet enthusiastic fandom that followed them to every show, but never boosted any of their albums to the top of the charts, Bernie Sanders inspired many Californians to attend multiple rallies across the state, creating an appearance of popularity with none of the substance.
Of course, holding these events was not free, but required the diversion of human and financial resources away from other forms of engagement that might have been more effective at turning out voters. Even the largest, most enthusiastic rally crowd is obviously not a phone bank, a union hall, a neighborhood canvass, a volunteer training, or any other variety of activity which could bring in new voters. Contrary to what attendees often say about coming to hear a candidate and make up their minds, such events are essentially about preaching to the converted.
This ‘rally gap’ has also appeared in other big states, such as New York, where Sanders lost badly despite speaking to tremendous audiences. Put simply, the size of a candidate’s rally crowds has no relationship whatsoever to electoral outcomes, and for Clinton, this reality will prove even more important while taking on Trump.
“My best investment is my rallies,” Trump told the AP a month ago. “The people go home, they tell their friends they loved it. It’s been good.” That is the sound of a reality show star confusing the ego boost he gets from the cheers of his adoring fans with effective campaigning.
Meanwhile, enthusiasm for Trump’s rallies has visibly dipped. Consider his event in Virginia on Friday, when he returned to calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts “Pocahontas” so we won’t forget how racist he is.
Trump’s mostly white, largely older audience numbered maybe 4,000. It started thinning out even before Trump, who won the Virginia presidential primary in March but was outmaneuvered for delegates by Ted Cruz at regional and state conventions this spring, completed an hourlong, teleprompter-free discourse on his favorite subject — himself — that included a perceived racial flourish that may offend a wide swath of Virginians, from Native Americans to well-born whites.
On the very next day, the Orlando Sentinel reported, Trump’s rally in Tampa, Florida also “was not as well-attended as the typical Trump rally,” either. While this may be a natural phase of public disengagement with the presidential race, a mere lull in attention as we wait for the party conventions this summer, it may also be a sign that after nearly a year of holding his infamous pep rallies, Donald Trump has exhausted their potential for building and sustaining his candidacy through ‘earned media.’
By comparison, Clinton’s GOTV is nowhere close to her ceiling yet, especially among voters of color. While Trump holds ever-diminished gatherings to bloviate and offend, she can build a strong campaign to win the swing states — and perhaps create new ones.
3. What’s the matter with Kansas now?
A recent poll by Sanders ally John Zogby has unexpectedly found that Clinton actually leads Trump among likely voters in Kansas.
(P)ollster John Zogby said the results were surprising for such a solidly Republican state as Kansas.
“The Republicans have some work to do to earn the red state status this time,” he said. “You’ve got the presumptive nominee, Trump, polling only 36 percent. That’s some making up to do.”
But Kansas University political science professor Patrick Miller said the numbers weren’t completely surprising, especially on the Democratic side where Clinton’s 43 percent is about on par with how Democratic presidential candidates tend to do in Kansas.
Of course, some of this reflects the fact that neither nominee has solidified their support within their own party yet. But there is still room for Clinton to gain ground on Trump, the more so the longer his GOTV efforts remain woefully inadequate. And Kansas is not the only state where Clinton is suddenly much closer to Trump than she is supposed to be.
According to Larry Sabato, a recognized dean of Electoral College prognostication, formerly-safe Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, and Georgia are all in danger of becoming battlegrounds where the Republican Party must fight to hang on. The most recent poll in the Peach State shows Clinton within one point of turning it blue — a nightmare scenario for the GOP, which relies on the deeply-red south to provide their safe congressional and legislative power bases. Even Utah is in danger of turning purple this year thanks to Trump’s low popularity among Mormons.
Kansas is therefore a harbinger of something long unseen in American politics — a blue trend that, if it pans out in unexpected Electoral College wins, plainly contradicts the central premise of the Sanders campaign.
Call it the “What’s the matter with Kansas?” theory of politics. In his 2004 bestseller of that name, liberal writer and political analyst Thomas Frank argued Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism and disastrous trade deals and their coziness with Wall Street left a huge opening for the right. Conservatives had swooped in with a bait-and-switch: They promised to clean up our “depraved” culture and lead the fight on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but as soon as they were in office, they turned around and gave those Americans cheap public services and a bunch of tax cuts they were too poor to use.
The answer seemed simple: Give low- and middle-income folks — i.e., the majority of the country — an opportunity to vote in a way that would better serve their economic interests. This would bring “Reagan Democrats” and socially conservative blue-collar types back into the fold, giving them reason to stop bitterly clinging to their God and their guns.
[…] But we just had a natural experiment with this theory in America: Bernie Sanders ran the campaign left-leaning Democrats have been dreaming of for years.
[…] Sanders did better than anyone expected. He’s poised to end his campaign with the highest favorability ratings of any candidate this cycle. According to a recent survey, he’s the most popular senator on Capitol Hill. His policy provisions poll well. But Sanders lost. He ran the campaign we dreamed about but couldn’t make it through the Democratic primaries.
Joshua Holland is being gentle here. If Clinton can win Kansas with her imperfect liberalism, then the Frank ‘theory of change’ deserves severe skepticism. I can already hear the wailing of the Matt Taibbis of the world on this point. But in my view, it’s about damn time we paid attention: voters aren’t really motivated by the issue concerns that drive so much progressive angst, after all. Instead, studies show that most people tend to commit to a candidate early, then build up their ideological justifications for their choice after the fact — while the rest of the campaign season consists of finding, and winning over, the least-ideological voters in order to form a majority.
Trump is a perfect example of how this works: he definitely hasn’t won evangelical voters with his ‘values,’ his theological acumen, or his biblical knowledge. They just enjoy his plainspoken rejection of political correctness (read: racist bigotry) and the way he promises them the moon, so they overlook his heresies from conservative orthodoxy and even restate their conservatism in a way that accommodates him. Just look at the way everyone in the Republican Party fell into line for Trump once he had secured the nomination, however uneasy he makes them.
To be sure, Clinton is still seen as unlikely to win in Kansas, Utah, or Missouri. But as I will explain below, an advantage in resources will allow the Clinton campaign to at least threaten in some of these states and put the Trump campaign on the defensive in what ought to be safe territory. Obama eked out a win in deeply-red Indiana in 2008, so this would be no idle threat. .
Marking the daydream that is his candidacy, Trump has expressed a desire to compete with ads in states like New York and California — deeply-blue places where he will absolutely not be winning any Electoral College votes in November. By contrast, a few well-placed millions and volunteers can pin his campaign down fighting in states where he ought to be winning without any effort at all.
In fact, this November is the Democratic Party’s best opportunity to break the GOP’s stranglehold on legislative power in Washington since the Tea Party wave of 2010.
4. The downballot spiral
With Trump at the top of the ticket, some GOP Senators are suddenly in the fight of their political lives.
For weeks now, polls have shown that rising voter anger with Trump has created an enormous reelection challenge for Sen. John McCain — one that he has quietly acknowledged, for his campaign is clearly caught on the horns of a dilemma.
“The race comes down to whether Arizonans take a step back and judge John McCain for being John McCain and his remarkable life of public service,” said Grant Woods, a former state attorney general and the senator’s friend for decades. “And not as being a long-term incumbent, and not as a Republican in a year when the party has a controversial nominee. If they do that, he will win walking away. If they don’t, then it could be tight. Could he lose? Yeah.”
Despite the personal attacks by Mr. Trump on the senator’s integrity and war record, Mr. McCain cannot afford to reject Mr. Trump and alienate his many supporters in Arizona if he hopes to hold his seat, an agonizing trade-off. Mr. McCain is the embodiment of much that voters in both parties, but especially fans of Mr. Trump, have said they would like to jettison this year. He is the ultimate establishment player, having served in Congress for nearly four decades — five terms in the Senate alone.
[…] To succeed in what most people believe will be his last political campaign, Mr. McCain must canter around the state assuring Mr. Trump’s detractors that he does not share the businessman’s visions for mass deportation and the dissolution of NATO, while continuing to woo an angry Republican base that overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Trump in the state’s March primary.
Forced to defend himself on all sides, McCain announced several weeks ago that he will not be attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland — and he’s hardly the only Republican senator whose absence will be noted.
GOP Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire are also planning to skip the convention. Both face tough reelection races.
Kirk’s campaign manager, Kevin Artl, told the Chicago Tribune that his boss “has his own re-election to win, so he will be working hard toward that goal, not going to the Republican convention in Ohio.”
A spokeswoman for Ayotte said she won’t be there either.
Rob Portman of Ohio has hemmed and hawed for weeks over whether to attend the RNC being held in his own home state, and it’s still not clear that he will speak or even appear on stage. Those are just the senators: Mitt Romney and the Bush family have all indicated they will not attend the convention.
For a variety of structural reasons, Democrats have a clear head start in their bid to take back the US Senate, and strong Democratic candidates like Tammy Duckworth are now positioned to win or at least compete hard. Sure, there are caveats and conditions on all of this, and plenty of moving parts: things can go wrong, scandals can emerge, and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is not in quite as much danger thanks to all their gerrymandered safe districts.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is appealing to voters as an expert on national security issues and a protector of military facilities — but is plainly struggling with how to talk about her intention to vote for Trump.
Her opponent, Democrat Maggie Hassan, is an accomplished governor with an inspiring story of discovering public service after her son was born with cerebral palsy. She’s worked out deals to keep Medicaid expansion on track and attack the state’s drug problem.
But she’s an extremely cautious campaigner. In a lengthy interview earlier this year, Hassan avoided any question with even a whiff of controversy. And when she officially filed to run last week, Hassan said Ayotte “has aligned herself with Donald Trump.”
[…] Republican incumbents have more difficulty controlling their message, particularly in Washington, where they can be buttonholed by reporters on a daily basis and asked to weigh in on Trump’s latest controversy. Democratic challengers don’t have to deal with that distraction — they can run their campaigns in their home state, where there are far fewer political reporters.
If there is going to be a Democratic wave this year, we will probably see it reflected in state and national polling data by September. In the meantime, Democrats will be standing together, but who will stand with Trump?
5. Teamwork versus ‘Team Trump’
It’s safe to say that Donald Trump is the lowest-quality major party presidential nominee in modern American history. Set aside his unrepentant bigotry, ludicrous wall-building plans, thousands of lawsuits, documented frauds, self-aggrandizement, record unfavorables, and consistent business failures: Trump is a poor speaker, and he’s somehow even worse with a teleprompter.
But the weight of the campaign shouldn’t all be on his shoulders, anyway. Trump’s hiring woes have left him with a skeletal communications team, making it impossible for his campaign to respond to the news cycle. According to MSNBC, the Trump campaign is a “bare-bones effort debilitated by infighting, a lack of staff to carry out basic functions, minimal coordination with allies and a message that’s prisoner to Trump’s momentary whims.”
“They don’t or can’t cover it all, and there are things that happen that need to be addressed immediately and don’t get addressed at all, and that hurts the candidate,” a source within the campaign groused last month.
Perhaps a bit overwhelmed, the Trump campaign would rather blacklist an increasing number of news outlets than respond to their queries on an ever-enlarging number of stories that call his fitness for office into question.
We have seen the results of this crushing trend several times in recent days. Clinton gave a foreign policy speech, attacking Trump with his own words; in reply, Trump managed only a tweet, while a deafening silence descended on the right. No one distributed talking points. Republicans did not leap to defend Trump or spin his views. A professional campaign operation would have gone into overdrive, but Clinton’s shock-and-awe oratory was allowed to linger without answer.
The Trump University story is another example of how this ‘maverick’ behavior works out as paralysis in the new general election atmosphere — and tellingly, that news cycle last week found Trump’s spokespeople nervously waiting for their Dear Leader’s permission to talk.
“It’s not a real surrogate operation,” the campaign source said. “They’re supporters. They’re not on there for their value or merit.”
The campaign source described the overall situation as “dysfunctional” and warned that if Trump failed to hire a full communications team by the convention, they would likely lose the election.
During a now-infamous conference call, last Monday Trump insisted that his media surrogates continue to echo his racist attacks against the federal judge in the Trump University case, contradicting the earnest damage control efforts of his own staff. We are seeing this phenomenon again this week as Trump reacts to the mass shooting in Orlando by taking stands that no public relations professional would want to defend.
Despite his pretensions, Trump headquarters remains an amateur operation; the campaign has made no ‘pivot’ to the general election. Instead, manager Corey Lewandowski spends more time wrestling with rivals than running the show, having so far outmaneuvered an experienced electoral architect in Paul Manafort. Lewandowski’s jealousy also led to the departure of National Political Director Rick Wiley, who was seen as the best data-campaigner on the whole team, after just six weeks on the job. By contrast, the grabby Lewandowski had no experience running a large political campaign when Trump hired him.
It is quite possible that Donald Trump will be standing all alone before November, and not just against Hillary Clinton. On any given day this October, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, and perhaps even Bernie Sanders will be attacking from the flanks, all while Trump’s surrogates — chosen for loyalty and instructed according to his whimsy — embarrass themselves by carrying out his petty personal grudges and spinning his deranged rants.
Meanwhile, capable Republicans are already standing aloof of the fray, ‘supporting but not endorsing‘ as they struggle to win their own races and avoid being dragged under by Trump’s sinking ship.
And the convention is still weeks away.
It’s important to note that none of this analysis delves into the petty details of the daily political battles to come or the quality of the discussion that will result. Rather, without a dramatic change in course, we will see Clinton’s superior campaign operation produce a cumulative effect on the media narrative of Donald Trump’s candidacy. No longer an outsider, he will now be framed as a pretender — and he will have few defenders in the Republican Party. Finally, all of this is going to impact his money game in a big way.
6. The machine runs on fuel
If money alone determined the victors in this process, Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush would be trading barbs on Twitter right now as their respective parties’ presumptive nominees .Together, they spent more than $350 million on their differing paths to defeat. Nevertheless, money is a necessity for campaign operations, so it is an important measure of a candidate’s viability. Clinton has spent many years perfecting her election machinery, ensuring it is ready and fueled to carry her all the way through the primary race and on to November. She is already expected to outspend Trump, who has just months left in which to build and fund a comparable election machine.
Trump has given up his populist facade of self-funding, which was just a smokescreen for his very stingy spending anyway. So instead of waging war on the media, right now Trump should be asking billionaires to invest in his candidacy and fuel the machinery that can deliver his potential voters to the polls. But here again, the transition is just not happening yet.
Republican fund-raisers are beginning to fret that Donald Trump does not comprehend the magnitude of the challenge before him, warning that if he fails to execute the basic tasks of fund-raising during a critical six-week stretch, he will find himself badly outgunned this fall.
[…] Obvious bundlers haven’t even been contacted. A small-dollar operation is nonexistent. And the fund-raising agreement with the Republican National Committee continues to wobble.
“The fund-raising intensity is missing — totally,” said John Rakolta Jr., a former national finance chair for Romney who said he is flabbergasted to not have received a single phone call from Trump’s team. “Who is driving the bus?”
[…] Spencer Zwick, the much-praised Republican finance operative who led Romney’s efforts, said raising $500 million was doable. But Zwick, like several other Republican fund-raisers here, asserted that Trump needed to significantly quicken his fund-raising clip before the convention, after which he will have little time for fund-raising.
This low priority given to fundraising is having effects even outside the campaign. Because he opposed all such organizations as corrupting influences, during the primaries Trump disavowed some fifteen super PACs that were ostensibly created to support his candidacy. However, now that he’s the nominee and no longer pretending to be a unicorn of a political candidate, Trump is letting his campaign’s internal power struggles get in the way of his decisions on a super PAC strategy.
One of the few pro-Trump super PACs to gain any momentum, Great America PAC, was seen within GOP finance circles as having a tacit blessing from Lewandowski. While the group had struggled to raise cash and was $690,000 in the red at the end of March, it had begun establishing itself in recent weeks as the leading vehicle in a growing field of pro-Trump super PACs that features many entrants using the candidate’s name to raise money while spending little in support of his campaign.
[…] But as Great America PAC has gained credibility and started winning support from key donors, Manafort’s allies have stepped up their attacks on it as a scam, and some have expressed support for competing groups, including one launched last week called the Committee to Restore American Sovereignty.
This kind of disorganization and chaos is not an accident. It is the natural outcome for a candidate who has never run for office before, who refuses to heed good advice, who embarks on expensive distractions when he should pay attention to the basics of getting elected, who is unused to hearing anyone tell him ‘no.’ Trump setting his subordinates against each other is a perfect example of the normal, everyday management style that he has honed on reality television all these years. Why should we be the least bit surprised that it’s how he runs his campaign, too?
Clinton is already miles ahead of Trump in the super PAC game and the general election fundraising phase; she has been quite competitive at grassroots fundraising, too, while Trump provides new reason every day for big and small donors to be wary of investing in his candidacy.
If Clinton wins through the most hated political spending mechanisms of our time, however, her success will only deepen the dissatisfaction of purist progressives who hailed the Sanders campaign for adopting virtually the same position on super PACs that Trump did.
Trump can be soundly beaten by taking full advantage of his flaws and weaknesses, letting him play to his diminishing strengths all he wants, playing a much deeper bench, dominating the money race, and engineering enough turnout through superior resources and organization to win in places where a Democrat was not even supposed to be competitive this year.
If successful, the perceived quality of Clinton’s presidency — her ‘mandate’ to govern — will be enhanced by a better-than-expected quantity of ballots and Electoral College votes. It will also overturn some closely-held progressive myths. In the process, she stands to restore Democratic control of the Senate, making the enactment of a real progressive agenda more realistic than her detractors on the left probably imagined.
Heck, if her victory is big enough, we might even call it ‘revolutionary.’