Clinton’s Campaign Is State-of-the-Art and Trump’s Is Chaotic. But Does That Actually Matter?

Clinton’s campaign is high-tech and carefully engineered in every respect. Trump’s is more like a raging army of Visigoths. Photo: CSA Images/Printstock Collection/Prisma/UIG/Getty Images

Now that it is reasonably clear the presidential contest will be competitive and not a laugher for Hillary Clinton, it makes sense to look at the financial and human resources the two campaigns can muster for the final race to the finish. By most conventional measures, the comparison makes you figure Clinton will get the blow-out win after all.

She’s got a lot more money for ads, even as Trump is beginning to play catch-up with some of his own. She has a large field operation, while Trump is having to borrow one from the RNC and state parties.

And, as Shane Goldmacher explains at Politico, Hillary Clinton has a state-of-the-art data-analytics effort guiding her every strategic and tactical decision. Team Trump appears to be throwing darts at a map.

The “analytics advantage” does indeed appear to be vast, with Clinton’s campaign building on and borrowing from Obama’s legendary data operation in 2012, even as her opponent publicly expresses disdain for such highfalutin stuff. The Clinton staff was careful not to give Goldmacher too many peeks under the hood in terms of its general-election decision-making process, but it did share the “cost-per-flippable delegate” formula that analytics director Elan Kriegel developed to guide resource allocations during the primaries.

Given the multiple strategic options Clinton has for reaching 270 electoral votes, a data-driven process for deciding where to spend ad and field money, and where to send the candidate and her surrogates, would seem to be a wise investment. And you could make the argument that Trump, who pretty much has just one path to victory — winning Florida and North Carolina and an array of Rust Belt states with relatively low minority populations and lots of non-college-educated white voters — does not have enough options to justify a boatload of algorithms.

But the broader question this contest may help resolve is whether presidential campaigns really matter a whole lot, as opposed to “fundamentals” like the economy and presidential-approval ratings — the meat and potatoes of many predictive models — and long-term trends like partisan affiliation and polarization. Political scientists have argued over this question for many years. And it is easy to understand that winning campaigns create their own legends and take credit for good things that might have happened even without that boiler room full of geeks or that crucial decision to send 2,000 volunteers into a battleground state to mobilize early voters. The “game change” school of political journalism, with its emphasis on the role of shrewd insiders and dramatic turning-point decisions, has also encouraged a heroic treatment of campaigns at the expense of external factors beyond their control (who, after all, wants to read a book about the decisive appearance of second-quarter GDP numbers?).

There are, of course, some campaign developments that even political-science “fundamentalists” would agree can make a difference: events like candidate debates that draw enormous attention and have been shown in the past to shift public opinion, if only at the margins. Even there, the contrast between the highly calculative, meta-prepared Clinton campaign and the seat-of-the-pants, bludgeon-the-opponent approach Trump favors, is pretty dramatic.

And so: You can add to the high stakes of this presidential election the perceived value of expensive, high-quality campaign investments. Clinton has the best of everything. Trump has a rag-tag groups of misfits led by a misfit candidate who likes to break all the rules. If he wins, it won’t be because Stephen Bannon is shrewdly exploiting the talents of the best strategic genius and campaign infrastructure money can buy. It will be a triumph of the Visigoths — perhaps ignorantly benefiting from fundamentals.

Do Presidential Campaigns Matter?