clock menu more-arrow no yes

Donald Trump’s campaign is an amazing gift to political science

Donald Trump Gives Speech On Presidential Election In New York Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One of the most fascinating things I learned as a young political journalist is that the stuff that gets written about during presidential campaigns — who’s gaffing when, what happened during a crucial debate, whose Iowa field director is really kicking ass, fundraising, TV ads, oppo research, etc. — doesn’t really seem to matter that much, according to political science.

The big debate in the academic literature is whether these campaign events don’t matter at all, or whether they just matter a teeny, tiny bit.

One reason it’s hard to really tell what difference campaign maneuverings make, though, is that candidates for office certainly act like they’re a big deal. They raise hundreds of millions of dollars. They hire vast teams of experienced professionals. They blast their opponents’ gaffes to hundreds of reporters and employ small armies of spokespeople to explain away their own.

The literature finds that campaign events and tactics tend not to explain very much, but that’s at least in part because campaigns aren’t very different from one another.

Everyone makes a good-faith effort to run a high-quality campaign, and as a result their efforts cancel each other out. Until Donald Trump.

Donald Trump barely has a presidential campaign

Donald Trump fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski this week, but he barely had a campaign to manage in the conventional sense. Thus far, Hillary Clinton has 40 times as much money as Trump and a much more expansive operation, to boot.

She has, like all recent presidential candidates have had, a vast operation featuring multiple levels of personnel across a variety of departments as well as state-specific staff on the ground in a range of swing states. Trump has 30 paid staffers. Rather than separate state directors for each swing state, he has people like Karen Giorno, who is "in charge of an 11-state Southeastern bloc including battlegrounds Florida, North Carolina and Virginia."

Clinton and her allied groups currently have $117 million worth of ad airtime booked, while Trump has just $700,000.

Trump will, presumably, get somewhat more of a conventional campaign infrastructure in place between now and November. But it takes time and money to build a full campaign, and he’s running out of both. This means, for essentially the first time ever, we could have two campaigns that aren’t at all comparable — allowing students of American politics to finally investigate outlandish hypothetical scenarios.

The Trump treatment effect

John Sides, a George Washington University political scientist whose 2012 book The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Campaign argues that most of the big "moments" in the Obama-Romney campaign are overhyped by journalists and operatives alike, is excited about the opportunity.

Normally, he explains, campaigns exist in a kind of "dynamic equilibrium" where "even if one candidate could air a devastating ad or commit a costly gaffe, chances are that the other candidate would respond in kind."

Trump’s ineptitude, so far, breaks the equilibrium.

"The battleground states are being ‘treated’ (in the clinical sense) with early Clinton ads but no Trump ads," Sides says. "This helps us isolate their impact."

Lynn Vavreck, Sides’s co-author on The Gamble, notes that the biggest problem with the Trump experiment is there probably isn’t enough polling being done yet to provide as rich a data set as researchers would ideally like to see. One would want, for example, to compare movement in polls in the purple states where Clinton is advertising to dynamics in the deeper blue or red states where neither candidate is running spots. But so far, there hasn’t been much state polling, especially outside the major battlegrounds.

The biggest finding is Trump is doing okay

As a journalist who talks regularly to both political scientists and professional political operatives, what’s fascinating to me is how operatives have changed their tune on campaign effects when confronted head on with a living, breathing political science experiment.

Back in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 cycles, whenever I would raise the idea that blind partisanship and underlying fundamentals explained almost everything about election outcomes, practitioners would complain to me that this was too breezy. All this stuff matters a lot, they would say; it’s just hard to see statistically because everyone does it.

But now that Trump is around doing basically none of it, Democratic operatives in particular are eager to make the point that nobody should count him out. Yes, he’s unpopular. Yes, he’s behind in the polls. Yes, he’ll probably lose. But they now see very clearly that no matter what kind of campaign he runs it’s probably impossible to achieve a landslide on the scale we saw in some 20th-century elections, simply because partisan polarization ensures that all races will be relatively close.

And in a world where all races are relatively close, the X factor of events — a terrorist attack, or a poorly timed slowdown in economic growth — could easily prove decisive, notwithstanding what is likely to be an enormous Clinton edge in staff and professionalism. Almost everyone believes that running a conventional, fully funded campaign gives Clinton an advantage. But now that the extreme scenario is upon us, nobody seems to think it’s all that big an advantage.


The political science that predicted Trump's rise

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.