- - Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Publicity, Donald Trump’s stellar marketing device, has always been an important tactic in winning a party’s presidential nomination. But while it’s an important single component, it’s not the only one to win an Iowa caucus or statewide primary. True, a high media profile makes it easier to enlist volunteers, get them to make calls, and contact their list of prime voters so that they will show up on caucus or primary day.

The reason for this is simple: Voters have their personal side and are more concerned about their individual lives than voting for any candidate. For that reason, even primary voters often don’t show up at the polls unless someone gets them there.

Using this model, to win you need these folks (those who have voted in the last state caucus or primary) to show up. It’s not an easy task unless you have helpers to either get them to the polls or make sure that they did vote for your candidate. Referred to as the “ground game,” this method was perfected by Democrats, who wrote the book on this tried and proven process for winning a caucus, primaries and elections. All of this may have changed, thanks to Donald Trump.

With Mr. Trump dominating in the polls, even seasoned political operatives are asking whether this ground game tactic will be effective. They believe that Mr. Trump’s strength in the polls and his large crowds wherever he appears will translate into votes. And when all is said and done, these overwhelming poll numbers will magically translate into votes without prodding voters to show up.

The problem with this thinking is that stating your views in a poll and attending a celebrity candidate’s event to see him or her “up close” are ego-driven behaviors. They are significantly different from leaving your home, going to the polls, and then waiting in-line to vote for a candidate in a primary — or, even more, challenging, going to an hours-long caucus.

Not all behaviors are weighted equally in one’s to-do list. Entertainment is different from exercising your civic duty and the behavioral-minded political scientist who understands this, and responds with strategies that address this, will win. Said another way, voting is a “locus of control” activity where potential voters need to be reinforced by candidate assistants so that they will indeed vote. Self- interest motivates us, and the campaign that comprehends this need by tracking primary-day behavior will be the victor.

In recent weeks, we have seen a change in Mr. Trump’s numbers that leads one to question the efficacy of this media-oriented model. Some polls indicate that Mr. Trump does well with new primary voters and is 10 points behind with traditional primary voters. This leads many to think the polls alone don’t a winner make, especially when you consider the two basics of polling: reliability and validity. Poll reliability means that you get the same results within your margin of error consistently over time.

Surely, the polls are reliable, or are they?

When analyzing a poll’s validity, the question becomes: What’s the poll measuring? Are we assessing voter behavior — how they will vote on caucus or primary day — or merely attitudes toward a candidate? Also, in the poll evaluation mix is sampling error and whether we are tapping actual caucus primary voters, individuals willing to respond to the polls, or highly motivated Trump enthusiasts who may never show up to vote when it counts.

Considering the relatively new poll numbers in Iowa, we see a trend in which Sen. Ted Cruz’s ground game strategy appears to be working and is affecting the numbers. This reinforces the questionable validity of earlier polls that had Mr. Trump well ahead even in Iowa.

And the tightening of the race in New Hampshire, with the very-organized Chris Christie ground game should also be of concern for Mr. Trump. What’s being tested in New Hampshire and Iowa are whether only a celebrity-based campaign without a ground game will win a caucus or primary.

Outcomes have consequences. What happens if Mr. Trump loses Iowa and New Hampshire? Could this significantly change the dynamics of the campaign? Would this alter the Trump perception of being a winner? Moreover, would this then propel another candidate to center stage? These questions will be addressed empirically over time.

Candidate Barack Obama won the nomination because of the mainstream media, sophisticated social media tactics, and an organized ground game. Yes, an organized ground game. It was an intelligent mix of all three, not just one, that got him to the White House. The real question is whether Mr. Trump has pre-empted the ground game and replaced it with something new, fresh and exciting, and thus has changed the way we nominate candidates. This watershed strategy will be confirmed or debunked soon. In less than 30 days, we’ll begin to find the answer.

John Tantillo is the branding editor for Fridge Magazine and author of “People buy brands, not companies” (Five Titles Press, 2010).

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