Trump's unorthodox campaign should not be imitated
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Trump’s unconventional victory placed an uncomfortable challenge before the political campaign establishment.

He advertised less, eschewed a large campaign organization, and caused deliberate offense to nearly every voter demographic. Has Trump disproved conventional wisdom about campaigns and voter contact? Have we been doing it wrong?  

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Not at all. It’s unlikely anyone could replicate Trump’s virtuoso exploitation of free media attention. And given its vile content, we shouldn’t aspire to. The first premise for wrestling with the origins of Trump’s success is that he damaged democracy. The second is that he's historically unpopular for a President-elect.

The lessons we do draw, however, can point the way forward for campaigns. Leaving campaigns in traditional form, employing new tactics, or letting loose dark impulses could determine if our democracy recovers or slips past the Trumpian event horizon.

The good news is that the techniques that turned campaigns into data-driven labs of democracy were designed well by smart people. Thanks to a generation of political and data scientists, we know more than ever about targeting and turning out voters. 

Done right, the approach has dramatically reshaped and expanded the electorate. Logic dictates that campaigns refine these techniques to adapt to evolving voter habits rather than pursue unproven alternatives.

But if Trump’s win doesn’t spell doom for the science of campaigning, it reminds us that data isn’t everything. As its exponents will tell you, data wizardry is no lock against the effects of candidate quality, economic conditions, or blanket negative coverage.

Correspondingly, data triumphalism must not be allowed to crowd out political intuitions like those that propelled Trump’s primary win. In the last several cycles, campaign technicians have been too quick to dismiss the subjective instincts and anecdotal personal experience that once guided operatives’ decisions.

Mid-way through Obama’s 2012 campaign, journalist Sasha Issenberg even declared the death of the hidebound consultant’s “hunch.”

Trump’s success should rouse us in defense of the hunch. Presidential campaign organizations need to consciously clear space for the yin of political instincts balanced against the yang of data-based insights.

As with data, a disciplined campaign with minimal bureaucracy is the best way to implement operatives’ measurement-defying hunches. At their best, campaigns offer an environment where creative operatives have latitude to solve problems cooperatively and defend the campaign’s values.

Indeed, some hunches aren't just about helping a candidate win, but about what kind of society a presidential campaign yields when it's over. A good campaign attends to the quality and ethics of its propaganda. (“Propaganda” here refers to all methods a campaign uses to appeal to voters.)

It’s been my experience that the full weight of a campaign’s propaganda derives from innumerable small choices made by operatives in the bellies of campaigns.

For example, working in 2007 to design the appearance of the President’s events, my colleagues and I faced the question of what colors to use for our rally signs.

Despite the visual potency of red, one of us observed that red was the preferred color of history's most illiberal regimes--from Hitler to Pol Pot. We recoiled instinctively, believing that an excess of red at rallies could activate voters’ latent associations with totalitarianism, a poor fit for a Democrat's campaign. So we went with a deep blue.

We'll never know if that choice won or kept voters. But we should prefer a campaign in which conscientious operatives can check one another to avoid associations with Hitlerism over one that exploits those associations to induce fear.

Another reason campaigns should continue in something like their traditional form is that imaginable alternatives--scaling down or shifting focus to free media--defy logic. Campaigns are like military rivals in an arms race. 

Neither side will disarm lest they risk handing an advantage to a better-armed opponent. Deploying proven tactics is the best shot you have at winning. Trump’s early rejection of a professionalized campaign was a departure from this logic, but the logic remains compelling.

Trump didn’t change anything about the need for candidates to make fine-grained decisions to allocate scarce resources. Candidates need to know if they should spend time raising funds, talking with caucus-goers, or holding a rally. They’ll need to know if the marginal dollar is better spent on TV ads in Green Bay, to expand field staff in Charlotte, or to double down on web ads.

Declining to ask those questions and deliberately answer them is not sensible. Robust campaign organizations remain the best vehicles for exploring options, distilling key considerations, and moving forward with confidence. 

Without certainty that you could replicate Trump’s success — and do so while respecting democratic norms — the most reasonable path is to heed what behavioral and political science suggest will maximize your chances.

Beating Trump in 2020 is doable. To win, Democrats should not take Trump’s electoral college victory as a license to forget what we’ve learned. They should, however, apply that technical knowledge to a campaign built to give savvy operatives space to indulge instincts and protect small-d democratic norms.

We must not swap our values and technical knowledge for a scattered demagogy. Our democracy may depend on it.  

Marc Levitt worked on the Democratic presidential campaigns of John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates Divided country, divided church TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month MORE, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMichelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez exchange Ginsburg memories Pence defends Trump's 'obligation' to nominate new Supreme Court justice The militia menace MORE in 2008 and 2012. Most recently he served as a senior aide to Bernie SandersBernie SandersButtigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice Bernie Sanders warns of 'nightmare scenario' if Trump refuses election results Harris joins women's voter mobilization event also featuring Pelosi, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda MORE’ campaign. 


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