The Secret Weapon that Could Defeat Donald Trump


In almost every presidential campaign, the two candidates are roughly equally matched. Sometimes one side raises more money or has a slightly more technologically sophisticated campaign. But when it comes down to it, nominees of both parties will hire huge campaign staffs, mobilize thousands of volunteers and reach out to millions of potential voters.

The end result of all the time and money spent on campaigns roughly cancel each other out. When both sides are roughly equally matched there’s little opportunity to see the effect of these efforts.

In 2016, that might change.

Trump Doesn’t Have A Real Campaign-Clinton Does

In the beginning of September, Clinton had 51 field offices in Florida. Trump had just one. In Colorado, a 12 year old ran Trump’s campaign office for a time.

In terms of advertising, the Trump campaign and his allies have spent $83 million to Clinton’s $227 million, almost three times as much.

So what has the Trump campaign been spending money on? According to the Huffington Post, when Trump jacked up his campaign’s Trump Tower rent once the RNC started paying for it. He also flies back to Trump Tower almost every day, shunning the much cheaper option of sleeping on the road. In stark contrast, the Clinton campaign has gotten attention for its frugality, with many top advisors taking the bus between the campaign headquarters in Brooklyn and DC instead of the Acella.

The tough primary fight between Clinton and Sanders provoked fears that disappointed Sanders supporters would refuse to vote for Clinton in the general. After a few months of holdouts, those fears have dissipated and Sanders has campaigned aggressively for Clinton. The story on the other side has been different. After now infamous video of Trump surfaced recording him talking about sexual assault, a number of Republican elected officials un-endorsed him. The Republican National Committee has spent nothing on TV ads for Trump. In 2012, they spent $42 million supporting Mitt Romney.

Campaigns Matter

But will any of this matter on election day? Maybe Trump’s campaign disorganization is all insider baseball that won’t change any minds on election day. Since presidential campaigns of the past have been so evenly matched, it’s hard to prove that they do in fact make a difference. Responding to the Trump campaigns’ failure to open field offices, one Republican official speculated that, “Maybe the idea that you’re going to vote for Trump because someone knocked on your door is a little archaic.”

Lucky for the Clinton campaign, clever research has found that a campaigns on the ground organization does in fact matter–a lot.

Since opposing presidential campaigns largely cancel each other out, Political Scientists from Ryan D. Enos and Anthony Fowler instead compared the turnout of voters living in swing states to voters living in noncompetitive states. Voters in swing states receive a lot of effort from campaigns to get them to the polls. In uncompetitive states like New Jersey, there’s comparatively little activity.  

Comparing the difference in turnout of non-competitive states and competitive ones can demonstrate how much campaigns cause turnout to increase. They found that the effects are huge–about 4% for each campaign in 2012 for a total effect of 7-8 percentage points.

While a few percentage points doesn’t sound like much, it totals to millions of voters and is more than enough to make a difference. In 2012, Obama defeated Romney by quite a large margin–over 100 votes in the electoral college and 5 million individual votes. But if Obama didn’t run a much of a campaign and lost 4% of this votes while Romney retained his share it would’ve been more than enough to tip the election.

An astute reader might object that voters in swing states are more likely to turn out because their vote matters, not because a campaign knocked on their door. Luckily, the authors considered this possibility and found it doesn’t hold water. For one, a variety of polling an experimental evidence has found little to no effect of pivotality–how close the election is–on turnout. Secondly, the authors tested campaign effects using the same method before the advent of modern campaign targeting found and that they were basically nonexist. Therefore, they’re confident that campaigns are making the difference.

By November 9th, the Clinton campaign will have made millions of phone calls and door knocks. It seems certain that the Trump campaign will have put in far less effort. At this point, they might be be preparing to start riots and dispute the election results. In the end, campaign organization matters, and Clinton has a huge advantage that could make the difference.


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