How Donald Trump Will Shape Future Presidential Primaries

How Donald Trump Will Shape Future Presidential Primaries

Why you should care

Because Donald Trump’s rise will have a ripple effect for years to come.

Presidential campaigns in recent cycles have become an arms race in “big data” — using ever more precise technological tools to find and turn out voters. But Donald Trump’s improbable rise to the Republican presidential nomination showed the possibilities of rejecting inside-the-Beltway consensus not only about decorum and policy but also of what a successful campaign looks like. He topped the technical prowess of the brainy Ted Cruz campaign, and now he’s saying he doesn’t need data to win the general election. Was he a black swan, or will the Trump phenomenon change the way campaigns are run in the future?

Trump’s ways — spending far less money than his rivals, relying mostly on his own funds and eschewing fancy micro-targeting — expose both threats and opportunities to the consultant class, the political insiders who have grown considerably wealthier since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 helped unleash an avalanche of cash into the system. So far this presidential race, political consultants have billed campaigns and outside groups $765 million, up from just $360 million at this point in 2012, according to calculations by Adam Sheingate, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor and author of Building a Business on Politics.

That mountain of money certainly won’t crumble overnight, but some consultants will have to work harder to justify their advice. Indeed, while candidates like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker hired the most experienced and priciest hands to run their campaigns and super PACs, Trump scrimped on staff and didn’t even hire a pollster. Going forward, says Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, there will be “a newfound skepticism for the kind of political-industrial complex as a whole.” Here are some ways Trump’s wild primary run will resonate in 2020 and beyond.

Outsider Power

Outsiders (see: Jackson, Andrew) and self-funders (remember Ross Perot?) are nothing new — but Trump took it to a new level. As Dan McLaughlin wrote on the conservative blog RedState, Trump’s example will inspire “the next rich guy, and the next” to run for high office. With limited knowledge of the game, or limited ideological convictions, such candidates are often a consultant’s dream — malleable and willing to spend the money to keep the system churning.

Here is where the Trump Effect will be most keenly felt, with more businesspeople and celebrities likely to run, and that’s good news for consultants. Billionaire Mark Cuban, rapper Kanye West and actors Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Angelina Jolie Pitt have all at least half-seriously discussed running for office in recent years and could benefit from taking a similar page out of Trump’s playbook.

Message Discipline

To many voters, Trump was refreshing because he didn’t sound like a robotic modern candidate. (Remember Marco Rubio’s New Hampshire debate talking point meltdown?) In the age of hypercautious politicians, Trump said nasty things and dished out lies with gusto.

Yet wannabe Trumps should proceed with caution. “He could say things that none of the other candidates could, and the reason he could is he was simply living out his brand,” says Rick Tyler, former communications director for Ted Cruz’s campaign. “When Rubio tried to match Trump outrage for outrage, it really hurt him. ‘Why would Rubio say such a thing?’ ”

Democrats are confident the reckless messaging won’t stand a chance with the broader electorate. “There’s no clear strategy beyond Trump, and he’s offended every major demographic group out there,” says Caitlin Legacki, a Democratic strategist and communications director at Precision Strategies. Her prediction: There will be future candidates who may try to model the billionaire’s loose tongue — whether an outsider like Cuban or a politician like Cruz — though, Legacki says, “their success will be limited to safe Republican races.”

The Value of Media

Trump was lavished with an estimated $1.9 billion worth of free media through February, dwarfing his rivals. It dovetailed with his considerable head start: near-universal name identification — something politicians spend millions to buy with ads — and 3 million Twitter followers, whom he leveraged to drive media coverage in a way no politician ever has. He now has more than 8.5 million Twitter followers.

West has also scaled his social media presence in recent years, dwarfing Trump with 23 million Twitter followers, though he does not talk much politics — yet. Jolie Pitt has eschewed social media but has effectively drawn attention to the plight of refugees via traditional media. And, already, there’s some evidence that Trump’s tactics are shifting the strategy of political consultants. A trio of former Rubio aides recently launched a new firm saying they would encourage clients to flood the communications zone in a Trumpian manner to catch the attention of the fast-twitch cable news and Internet world. As Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan told The New York Times, “The solution is always more content, not less.”

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