The story we've all heard a thousand times about Donald Trump is that he's broken the rules, upended the conventional wisdom, and proven all the critics wrong. He doesn't have to do things the way they've been done before, and his success in this campaign is proof. Which is all true. But is it also true that he doesn't have to do anything the way it's been done before, and that none of the rules apply to him?
He's going to be testing that proposition in any number of ways, including in how he structures his campaign. Instead of having a large staff spread across the country performing all the challenging tasks associated with a presidential campaign, Trump for President is employing about the same number of people as your local Safeway. Consequently, there will be entire elements of campaigning that Trump probably won't even bother with.
The modern presidential campaign is an extraordinarily complex enterprise that has to be assembled in an incredibly short time (and then all but disappears once the election is over). What typically starts with a candidate and a few aides plotting things around a kitchen table can, in the course of just a few months, balloon to hundreds of staffers bringing in and sending out millions of dollars, opening offices in towns and cities around the country, and being put through a rolling series of tests where the risk of failure is high. Yet Trump managed to win his party's nomination with a small staff, without bothering to air many TV ads — which he didn't need because he was getting so much media coverage — and primarily through the use of large rallies rather than traditional voter contact.
He and his team seem to think they can carry that through to the general election, and things will work exactly the same way. They're barely bothering to do any work on voter targeting, the increasingly sophisticated science of demographic analysis that allows today's campaigns to know at a granular level who voters are and how to shape their appeals to target them. As The Associated Press recently reported, "Trump spent more than $1 million in April on campaign paraphernalia like caps, T-shirts, and signs. Even as he was effectively seizing the nomination, he spent less than a third of that amount on data and related functions such as telemarketing." That's a fraction of what Hillary Clinton's campaign is spending on building a comprehensive database it can use to target, persuade, and turn out voters.
The Trump campaign says they don't need it partly because they'll outsource much of that work to the Republican National Committee, but mostly because it's just superfluous. When asked on Fox News Sunday about the fact that they lag far behind the Clinton campaign in establishing an infrastructure, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski replied, "She's got 800 people on staff. We got 70 people on staff, right? They think that bigger is better. That's the mindset that a Clinton administration will take to the federal government. You know, you juxtapose that with the Trump mindset, which is smaller, leaner, more efficient, and better results, that's the mindset you need for the federal government."
I don't know if the Trump campaign actually employs only 70 people (in the same interview, Lewandowski also said Trump is leading in the polls among women and Hispanics, which suggests he was visiting from Bizarro World), but if that's true, it's nothing short of stunning. With that tiny number, there are many things you just couldn't do; for instance, there would be no way to run a field operation mobilizing volunteers to make phone calls, knock on doors, and identify your voters so you can be sure they show up to the polls on election day. It's just too labor-intensive. Trump has only one communications staffer, which would be a small number for a congressional campaign, let alone a presidential nominee. It's one thing to be "lean" and not waste money, but Trump's campaign sounds positively skeletal.
Trump may be half-right in his apparent disdain for traditional campaign organization, in the sense that many of the things campaigns do require a lot of effort but produce effects only at the margins. The problem is that in a close race — and we're in an era where every presidential race is going to be close — the margins matter a great deal. If your field operation can produce an extra point or two on election day, even if it required the tireless labor of hundreds of staffers and thousands of volunteers, that might be the difference between defeat and victory.
To be clear, there are plenty of norms of campaigning that can and should be challenged. And sometimes the right candidates can try. Bernie Sanders challenged the idea that a candidate needs to rely on big donors to be competitive; he's raised over $200 million, mostly with small donations. Eight years ago Barack Obama challenged the way media consultants were traditionally paid in campaigns. They always charged a percentage of the money spent on airing their ads; the Obama campaign told consultant suitors that they'd get paid a flat fee, and if they didn't like it, they'd miss out on the chance to have one the most remarkable campaigns in history on their resumes.
From where Trump sits, having his presidential campaign consist of little more than mounting rallies, phoning in to Fox & Friends and Morning Joe, and thinking up Twitter burns to fire at any and all who displease him might seem like a winning strategy. After all, that's all that it took to win the nomination. But a general election, which plays out all at once and not one state at a time, and which requires an exponentially more complex organization to execute, is a whole other matter.
Perhaps Trump thinks it's just too much bother, and he can keep winging it. But he may be in for an unpleasant surprise.