Covering a presidential campaign some 18 months prior to Election Day is all kinds of fun, but also a tad meaningless. The polls, the hourly news-cycles, the gaffes, the “big moments,” and all those important speeches will all be forgotten by, oh, around this time tomorrow.
You see, President Trump securing a second term depends on only two things: the state of the economy next year and whatever secret plan he, Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Brad Parscale have cooking.
The polls say Trump will lose in 2020, but the polls also told us Trump would lose in 2016. And as a Trump supporter who lived in the swingiest of swing states in 2016 (North Carolina), and who lied like a rug to the two-dozen or so pollsters who contacted me, I have stopped caring about polls. They are too wrong too often, and too many have been weaponized to shape opinion rather than measure it.
The polls are fun to watch and cover, and the trends can be illuminating, but polling is pretty useless these days, and I’m suspicious of an overall industry that only makes mistakes one way — in favor of Democrats. Have you noticed how we are almost never surprised when a Democrat wins by a wider margin than the polls led us to believe? That’s because almost every media pollster seems to almost always underestimate Republican support, not the other way around.
On the flip-side, all the indicators that are not polls say Trump will win re-election in a landslide. I’m talking about those predictive models that look at GDP, Wall Street, the unemployment rate, etc. They say Trump’s got it in the bag.
The truth, though, is that no one knows if Trump will win re-election because no one know what the economy is going to look like a year from now, and that’s the only thing that matters. Until we see the GDP numbers for the second and third quarters of 2020, everything else is political theater.
And then there is the X-Factor, the big secret, the thing we probably won’t know about until after the election, and that’s whatever Trump’s re-election campaign has cooking behind the scenes.
My favorite story of the 2016 campaign did not come out until after Election Day…
Remember all those columns, those legions of cable news talking heads, and the deluge of expert think-pieces crowing about how Trump was certain to lose in a landslide to Hillary Clinton because he had no campaign infrastructure, had no get out the vote (GOTV) machine, had no way to target voters when the Democrats had this science nailed down?
Again and again America’s “experts” chortled at that rube Trump and his hick campaign — how unsophisticated it all was.
And then Trump won…
And then we were told all about this…
By June the GOP nomination secured, Kushner took over all data-driven efforts. Within three weeks, in a nondescript building outside San Antonio, he had built what would become a 100-person data hub designed to unify fundraising, messaging and targeting. Run by Brad Parscale, who had previously built small websites for the Trump Organization, this secret back office would drive every strategic decision during the final months of the campaign. “Our best people were mostly the ones who volunteered for me pro bono,” Kushner says. “People from the business world, people from nontraditional backgrounds.”
Kushner structured the operation with a focus on maximizing the return for every dollar spent. “We played Moneyball, asking ourselves which states will get the best ROI for the electoral vote,” Kushner says. “I asked, How can we get Trump’s message to that consumer for the least amount of cost?” FEC filings through mid-October indicate the Trump campaign spent roughly half as much as the Clinton campaign did.
Television and online advertising? Small and smaller. Twitter and Facebook would fuel the campaign, as key tools for not only spreading Trump’s message but also targeting potential supporters, scraping massive amounts of constituent data and sensing shifts in sentiment in real time.
“We weren’t afraid to make changes. We weren’t afraid to fail. We tried to do things very cheaply, very quickly. And if it wasn’t working, we would kill it quickly,” Kushner says. “It meant making quick decisions, fixing things that were broken and scaling things that worked.”
While the establishment media were pointing and laughing at Trump’s lack of a GOTV machine, Trump knew what his team was building and still stayed mum, said nothing in his defense, took the hits, and then took home the brass ring.
It’s the same thing with ISIS.
Obama was never more feckless than in his response to ISIS, a threat Trump wiped off the face of the earth in about two years. Trump still hasn’t revealed the strategy that accomplished this, and the media are not interested in finding out because that would mean reporting on one of Trump’s biggest triumphs, a historical success in the annals of war. But that’s fine with Trump because, as he said frequently during the 2016 campaign, it is beyond stupid for American presidents to publicly reveal their war strategies — and what is politics if not war?
You see, Trump is a lot more disciplined than he lets on. He’s a strategic thinker, and one of these strategies is to be under-estimated, to make us believe he has no discipline, that he’s a loose cannon with a loose mouth, when in reality he is anything but.
With a whole lot more money and time this go-around, and by sticking with outside-the-box thinkers like Parscale, we can only dream about what we don’t know, what the re-election team has brewing, about the track being laid to shock the world once again.
That track might not mean much if the economy goes sour, but the X-Factor is part of what made a jackass out of the “experts” and pollsters last time, and could easily do so again.