Digital Strategy in a Recount: The Secret Ingredient Your Campaign Needs
April 2021 | by Anthony Pileggi
By: Dan Balz and Philip Rucker
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Sunday enter the final 100 days of an extraordinary presidential campaign, with the former on a methodical march to energize the Obama coalition and appeal to the broad mainstream, and the latter charting an unconventional path driven by a message of wholesale change.
With their conventions behind them, the two nominees and their running mates will spend August in predictable ways: fleshing out their ideas for governing and mobilizing voters in such battlegrounds as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Clinton campaigned over the weekend and where Trump will be Monday.
But any suggestion that the two campaigns are similar in their strategies is belied by almost everything they are doing.
“The Clinton strategy is to run the traditional race,” Republican strategist Russ Schriefer said. “Develop a ground game. Do your data and analytics. Run television ads. Do policy speeches. Meet with different interest groups that add to your coalition.”
By contrast, he said, “the Trump campaign is going to continue holding big rallies and tweeting.”
Clinton and running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) drove through pockets of heavy rain Saturday on the second day of a bus tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio that is focused on Clinton’s plan to add jobs and encourage U.S. manufacturing. They are visiting advanced manufacturing facilities — bright spots in states that have seen an exodus of blue-collar jobs — as they take on Trump where he expects to be strongest.
Democrats left Philadelphia thinking they had the more effective convention. But Trump’s advisers were far less impressed. They pointed to liberal protests as evidence of Democratic disunity, and they said Clinton did not do enough to make herself likable and trustworthy to skeptical voters.
The Trump team also argued that Clinton sent a mixed message by trying to project continuity with Obama’s policies while also portraying herself as, in the words of former president Bill Clinton, “the best darn change maker I’ve ever seen.”
“Democrats went into their convention and completely bought in whole hog on Obama’s third term and keeping the status quo,” Trump adviser Jason Miller said. “That’s a dangerous place to be when 70 percent of Americans think we’re on the wrong track.”
Trump, to rebut criticism from Clinton that he has no detailed agenda to govern the country, intends to deliver policy speeches in August. The speeches will be aimed at impressing ordinary voters more than think-tank experts, with Trump using basic, consumer language to explain how his presidency would improve people’s lives, aides said.
“I think Trump is clearly going to be able to show that he’s up to the job, and when he does that, I think we’ll have control of the election,” Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort said.
Clinton’s strategists acknowledge the challenges their candidate faces. But they said they can convince voters that Trump’s change is so radical that a vote for him amounts to a Faustian bargain that could compromise American values.
“People are certainly not satisfied with the status quo, and that makes electing someone from the other party an attractive option,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said. “However, there’s a distinction between voters wanting change and voters wanting the kind of change Donald Trump would present.”
With the Summer Olympics opening Friday in Rio de Janeiro and many Americans thinking more about vacation and going back to school than politics, the dynamics of the presidential race are likely to be stable until the first presidential debate in late September.
Whether Trump shows up for the debates became a subject of discussion late Friday night, after he tweeted that Clinton and the Democrats were trying to “rig the debates” by scheduling two of them at the same time as professional football games. The dates of the debates were announced nearly a year ago — many months before the National Football League schedule was released — by the same nonpartisan, nonprofit commission that has organized them since 1988.
Trump repeatedly complained about the debates during his primary fight and skipped one in Des Moines just before the Iowa caucuses.
Democratic strategists are closely watching the candidates’ standing on core questions such as who is on the side of middle-class people.
“The two big moving parts are college-educated men who tend to vote Republican but are turned off by Trump, both stylistically and by his economic approach, and non-college-educated white women who have become more Republican in their voting habits but may well come to see Donald Trump as somebody who is not really on their side,” said pollster Geoff Garin, who advises the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action.
So far, Clinton enjoys a huge advantage in television advertising. Her campaign and its allies are outspending Trump and his backers on the airwaves $57 million to $4 million, or 15-1, according to an analysis by NBC News in mid-July, as the conventions were beginning.
“We’ve been using the Trump method of media and husbanding our resources,” Manafort said, adding that Trump will start advertising in coming weeks.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of his party’s top strategists, said: “So far, they’ve essentially left the airwaves to the Democrats. I’m not critical of that, because it’s worked. They’re in a competitive race. But I don’t think you can do that all fall. You have to be continuously on the air in some of these battleground states.”
The campaigns are strategizing their paths to 270 electoral votes. Both sides agree that the central battlegrounds include the industrial Midwest and a trio of vote-rich Southern states: Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
A handful of smaller states are in play as well, including New Hampshire, where Trump feels bullish because it was one of his biggest primary wins and one of Clinton’s worst losses. The two also are fighting over Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
The Clinton team is targeting North Carolina, which went for Obama in 2008 and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, as a way to significantly narrow Trump’s path.
Similarly, Trump sees Michigan and Wisconsin, states Obama carried twice, as possible pickups that would scramble Clinton’s calculus. As in Pennsylvania, these states are chock full of Trump’s base voters: working-class whites beset by changes in the global economy.
On Friday, the government reported that the economy grew just 1.2 percent in the second quarter, below forecasts. Trump’s team pointed to the tepid growth as evidence supporting Trump’s charge that things are not working.
“The real question is: Has Trump’s outreach to blue-collar workers, Democrat and alike, given us something we haven’t had before?” Cole said. “I think you’ve got to gamble that that’s true.”
But Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have bedeviled Republicans for decades, remaining in the Democrats’ presidential column despite heavy investment from both parties.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a Democratic leader regarded as one of his party’s sharpest political thinkers, predicted that the pattern will continue.
“For every blue-collar Democrat we will lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two or three moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia,” Schumer said. “The voters who are most out there figuring out what to do are not the blue-collar Democrats. They are the college-educated Republicans or independents who lean Republican in the suburbs.”
A Clinton adviser described Pennsylvania as “a reach for Trump right now” and called Michigan and Wisconsin “high reaches for him.”
“If his path to the White House runs through those three states, that’s a pretty dicey bet for them,” said this adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share the campaign’s assessment of the electoral map.
But Manafort argued that Pennsylvania is “wide open” and that if Trump wins its 20 electoral votes, his path to victory would become “a lot more varied and hers more limited.”
“We can carry Michigan. We can compete in Wisconsin and win,” he said. “Iowa is in play. If they think they’ve got Colorado, they’re smoking something.”
Manafort went on to describe Connecticut and Oregon — two reliably blue states — as within reach for Trump: “Those are not states that are on my front burner, but she’s going to have to put resources into those states in order to carry them.”Trump is deploying his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, to shore up support within the Republican coalition, including the establishment donors with whom Pence has deep relationships. For instance, Pence plans to campaign next week in Arizona, a reliably Republican state where polls show Trump’s support is dangerously soft.
Still, the roles of the vice-presidential candidates are typically unimportant — and especially so this year, said GOP strategist Phil Musser.
“This will be dominated by the two gigantic figures at the top of the ticket,” he said. “One riding a wave of economic angst and populist anger and the other trying to forge a coalition that will break that glass ceiling in a historic way.”
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