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Donald Trump Is Wrong: Campaigns Matter

That’s one clear lesson from the 2012 presidential election.

By Tom Jacobs


Donald Trump arrives for the opening of The Trump International Golf Links Course on July 10, 2012, in Balmedie, Scotland. (Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

As his current trip to Scotland re-affirms, Donald Trump is not running a traditional presidential campaign. He has expressed little interest in creating a modern, high-tech organization designed to target supporters and get them to the polls.

Presuming Trump actually wants to win, that may turn out to be his worst mistake of all.

In a recently published paper, Ryan Enos of Harvard University and Anthony Fowler of the University of Chicago analyze the 2012 Barack Obama-Mitt Romney race to see if the sophisticated campaigning techniques employed by both sides really made a difference.

It turns out their impact was, to borrow a favorite Trumpian description, yuge.

“Contrary to some expectations, large-scale campaigns can significantly increase the size and composition of the voting population, rather than simply mobilizing a small fraction of voters on the margin,” the researchers write in the journal Political Science Research and Methods.

Rallies are great, but, in the end, politics is a retail business.

“We estimate that the 2012 campaign increased aggregate turnout by seven to eight percentage points in the most heavily targeted states,” they write. “This effect is greater than 10 percentage points for targeted subgroups.”

Enos and Fowler utilized “validated turnout data for virtually every eligible voter in the U.S., and perhaps most importantly, extensive information on campaign tactics, including data from the Romney campaign on the number and type of voter contacts attempted in each state.”

Using that information, plus an internal document from the Obama administration that categorized states into tiers, the researchers compared turnout in those states that received the most media attention, television advertising, and campaign field offices, as opposed to those the two campaigns basically ignored.

“Our results suggest that voter turnout would have been seven to eight percentage points lower in heavily targeted states like Nevada, New Hampshire, and Ohio had the presidential campaigns and interest groups not deployed their mobilizing activities,” Enos and Fowler write.

“Even though a single campaign contact typically has a negligible effect on overall rates of participation, the widespread deployment of many such interventions appears to add up to a significant change in participation.”

That explains why you lucky swing state voters are likely to get nudges not only from representatives of specific candidates, but also from interest groups who support them. The more calls or in-person visits you receive, the greater the likelihood you’ll actually make it to the polls.

“In total,” Enos and Fowler conclude, “our estimates imply that 2.6 million individuals voted who would have otherwise not participated in the absence of campaigning. Large-scale campaigns can significantly increase political participation.”

Rallies are great, but, in the end, politics is a retail business.