Thursday, February 4, 2016

Is Trump Serious about Winning?

As Byron York noted yesterday, one of the major themes of Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal is the importance of flexibility--especially in the face of adversity.  Adapting to changing conditions is key for success in both business and politics.  Successful presidential campaigns take challenges in stride and modify their strategies in response to failure.  Unsuccessful ones degenerate into a circular firing squad and remain stubbornly committed to tactics that have led to failure.

So it will be interesting to see whether Trump's campaign learns from the Iowa debacle.  Iowa was a blow to Trump not just because he came in second, but because he expected to come in first.  Clearly, there was a gap between model and reality, and, if Trump can't update that model, he will likely face more defeats in the weeks ahead.

A subtheme of Trump's campaign has been the notion that he can win by growing the electorate.  Iowa suggests that there may be some merit to this strategy.  According to exit polls, he won 30% of those who had never caucused before (to 23% and 22% for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, respectively).  However, he was blown out among those who had participated in caucuses before, getting only 19% of the vote compared to 32% for Cruz and 24% for Rubio.  Trump's appeal to voters at the margins of the Republican coalition might be an advantage in both the primary and general election, but this strategy will not work if he also radically alienates the core of the GOP.  As the field narrows, Trump will have to build his coalition if he wants to remain a viable contender.

In terms of messaging, Trump's campaign has so far relied on dominance in the news media, mega rallies, and a skillful use of social networking sites.  This three-pronged strategy has helped give Trump a substantial lead in the polls, but it might not be enough to win as the primary campaign expands.  Cruz and Rubio were able to tap on vast networks of activists in order to deliver stronger-than-expected performances in Iowa.  The ground game will continue to be important, and a sign of Trump's commitment to winning will be increased investment by his campaign in analytics, turn-out, and so forth..  The presidency is in part about management, and managing a turn-out operation is relatively simple compared to the vast machinery of the federal government.

It also remains to be seen whether Trump will buttress his polling- and personality-driven campaign with a more rigorous discussion of the issues.  It seems that many Iowa voters were not entirely comfortable with the idea of Trump as commander-in-chief, and a more in-depth discussion of the issues could help quell worries about his lack of experience in government.  Moreover, if Trump hopes to increase his appeal to the GOP electoral core, he will need to do more to convince them that he could responsibly implement conservative-leaning solutions to various national problems.  (Conversely, getting into petty spats with Republican candidates beloved by the grassroots is only likely to make the task of reaching out to the conservative base even more difficult.  If he hopes to get to a majority of delegates, Trump will need at least some of the supporters of Ted Cruz and others.)

In short, time will tell whether Trump can turn his celebrity brand into a presidential one.

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