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From cash woes to digital #fails, Trump’s campaign is ‘worst of all possible worlds’

The Guardian

Judging by the headlines, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is in meltdown. He sacked his campaign manager, raised a historically low amount of cash, and is tanking in opinion polls in key swing states.

That’s just the start of it.

Behind the scenes, in the largely invisible world of digital organizing on which modern presidential campaigns increasingly depend, Trump is not merely lagging behind – he’s not on the map.

Technology is a key battleground in any election, and increasingly so. Trump may rule Twitter, yet there is no evidence that the real estate billionaire is doing anything to build the more prosaic but essential digital fundraising and volunteering network that in no small part propelled Barack Obama to victory in both of his runs for the White House.

On the national stage, Trump is vastly out-organized by Hillary Clinton with just 70 campaign staff to her 732. On Tuesday night, Trump announced he had hired “several staff members to expand his campaign operations” including a new digital director, but that still leaves him lagging far behind.

Zoom in to essential swing states such as Ohio – a state that should be promising territory for Trump given its old manufacturing base and preponderance of angry white male voters – and Democrats outgun the Republicans by three to one: 150 full-time employees on the ground, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to Republicans’ 50.

That disparity is reflected in – and compounded by – Trump’s diabolical financial figures. New campaign filings released on Monday night showed he has just $1.3m cash available, 1/30 of the war chest at Clinton’s disposal.

The filings for May also revealed a bizarre set of spending priorities. Instead of using his paltry income to bolster a modern campaigning machine ahead of November, Trump spent large amounts on his own properties, including $423,372 to rent his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, and a further $207,869 on Make America Great Again hats.

That’s before you get to the $35,000 paid to a New Hampshire advertising firmnamed after characters from Mad Men.

So far, Trump has defined his digital prowess almost exclusively through his strident personal use of social media, specifically Twitter. The strategy proved to be a winning one in the primary stage of the election, with the candidate’s Twitter feed acting as a megaphone that amplified his contentious views on immigration and national security through cable television in a constantly revolving feedback loop.

But that was then. The general election in November is an entirely different ball game in which the participants proliferate dramatically from the small number of devoted primary voters to a giant sea of largely disengaged Americans.

Trump’s team of core advisers appears to believe that the same social media sleight of hand can be pulled off in the general election and that a lean, mean campaign can work for the candidate again. As Corey Lewandowski, the billionaire’s dumped but loyal-to-the-end campaign manager, told CNN: “It’s been proven time and time again that the amount of money you spend on paid advertising doesn’t equate to votes – it’s not like that.”

But experts in mass communication and modern elections warn that the presumptive Republican nominee is making an epic mistake in thinking that his attention-grabbing tweets will suffice to sway the entire nation. “Trump sending out a tweet in response to events is hardly comparable to the millions of contacts produced by the ‘ground game’,” said Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford professor of political science and communication.

Studies have found that state-of-the-art voter mobilization technology, which uses digital tools to harness the enthusiasm and energy of volunteers, can boost voter turnout on election day by about 7% in battleground states. Obama deployed the methodology to devastating effect in 2012, helping him rout his Republican rival Mitt Romney and acting as a game-changer in today’s electioneering.

For Iyengar, that means Trump ignores the new technologies at his peril: “If the Trump campaign does not invest heavily in developing a sophisticated voter mobilization campaign, I don’t see how they can be competitive in battleground states. At the moment, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Clinton campaign is miles ahead in being able to target and mobilize their voters.”

Even Trump’s advantage on social media appears to be slipping. Clinton began shakily as she sought to respond to his constant barrage of attack tweets. Her answer to his piercing moniker for her – “Crooked Hillary” – was the wooden “Dangerous Donald”, which lacked similar impact.

Recently, though, observers have noted that Clinton’s use of social media has shown a new wry edge.

Her three-word slap in Trump’s face will go down in Twitter history.

Besides, it remains a truism of modern presidential elections that no amount of clever tweeting will drive voters to the polls in large enough numbers to take key swing states such as Ohio. “Trump has made Twitter relevant again, but he’s done nothing to capture the enthusiasm that he’s generated in the process,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican digital strategist who advised George W Bush in 2004 and primary candidates in both the 2008 and 2012 elections.

Ruffini said that Trump was beginning to bump up against the limits of celebrity in contemporary politics. His digital weakness – Clinton’s campaign website is recording five times more traffic than his – is hurting him by restricting the cash he can raise through small online donations, which in turn gives him less to spend on ground organizing, setting up a vicious circle of decline.

“This is the worst of all possible worlds,” Ruffini said. “At least in 2012 we had a professional campaign that tried to make use of digital tools. But Trump is just phoning it in, not just digitally but in everything – fundraising, ground organizing, every aspect of a modern presidential campaign.”

The fall-guy in all this is the Republican National Committee, to which Trump has indicated he plans to devolve all responsibility for a ground game and digital strategy. The good news for conservatives is that the RNC is much better placed than it was even four years ago to launch a robust effort on the billionaire’s behalf, having invested more than $100m in building up an email list of potential supporters that can be used to fundraise and get out the vote.

The bad news is that unless the candidate steps up and engages with the RNC, its potential for making real headway in key states will be limited. Four years ago, Romney worked with the RNC to maximize his fundraising and organizing potential, and vice versa; this year the connection between presumptive nominee and party is minimal.

The results are already palpable. As theNew York Times pointed out, new figures released on Monday showed that the RNC raised three times as much in May 2012 with Romney at the helm than the $13m it reported for the same month this year with Trump as its figurehead.

That bodes badly for Trump’s presidential ambitions. It will mean less money to pay the salaries of ground staff; less online advertising targeting women, young people, independents; fewer volunteers to send out emails and knock on doors; and ultimately what this is all about – fewer voters bothering to get out of their armchairs and to the polling stations to elect Donald Trump as the next president of the United States.

Source: The Guardian

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