It’s a question haunting Republican consultants this cycle: Can other candidates replicate Donald Trump’s so-called campaign?
At first it was academic, just happy hour fodder. But as the presidential primaries came and went, the question turned serious, and potentially endangering for the political consulting class.
Is there really a future for self-funding candidates who base their campaigns more on hubris and free media than on solid fundamentals and a consultant-supported campaign infrastructure? Can Trump actually reinvent campaigns, or will the New York businessman’s success be impossible to replicate?
The answer, of course, is still a work in progress. Trump is only the presumptive nominee and his candidacy hasn’t yet cost the GOP a House or Senate seat. But if he fails to reach the White House and costs Republicans some of their congressional majority, the party’s consultant class will need to reflect on how Trump foiled what was such a golden opportunity. Moreover, they’ll need to determine whether it’s possible it could happen again.
“Donald Trump may be the first, but he won’t be the last,” Republican strategist Mark McKinnon told C&E before a recent TV industry breakfast in Beverly Hills. The lead media consultant on three presidential campaigns and co-creator of the Showtime series “The Circus,” McKinnon said that while Trump’s story (and approach) may be unique, he does share attributes with other wealthy business leaders who likely see Trump’s rise as a sign they can blaze their own trail in future cycles.
Take Mark Cuban, another brash, media-savvy billionaire, who is toying with the idea of entering national politics. And McKinnon is convinced the Texan is serious about his political ambitions.
“That Donald is doing this is a surprise,” said McKinnon. “It should not be a surprise that an outsider business person walked into this vacuum that’s been created by Congress and Washington. People just hate politics, so the notion of somebody coming from outside of politics was pretty obvious to people who look at the game.”
Compared to Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign, the high-water mark in modern presidential politics for a third-party hopeful, McKinnon notes the polling fundamentals are “ten times better for somebody like that now.” Trump may be the candidate who used voter sentiment to his advantage in 2016, but McKinnon argues there is plenty of room for others.
“It could be Mark Cuban,” he said. “It could be [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz. Voters are obviously hungry for somebody who doesn’t fit the usual profile.”
Trump’s consultant-free campaign is a major part of his appeal, said McKinnon. “He’s running against that insider cash machine and the consultant industrial complex.”
His heir may very well take a similarly dim view of the consulting industry — particularly if Trump’s successful. “I think the logical thing is that people will try to replicate this and the question will be whether it’s a one-time phenomenon."
Most strategists have scoffed at the notion that someone other than Trump can have success with a similar playbook. Trump is one of a kind, they argue. He’s been famous since the 1980s, when he was a staple in New York’s tabloid dailies. To wit, he has 17 acting and 19 producing credits on IMDb, in addition to the 213 film credits for playing himself. And he’s rich. Just how rich is a matter of robust debate, but Trump is indeed rich by any standard. The Trump profile has undoubtedly propelled him this cycle, generating an estimated $2 billion in free media coverage from the launch of his campaign through early Spring.
One area of near universal agreement across the consulting industry: Campaigns still matter, and they are betting the Trump campaign will serve as proof of that come November. By just about any measure, Trump isn’t running a national campaign. There are less than 70 staffers on payroll, according to the campaign’s most recent finance disclosure—that’s a mere fraction of Hillary Clinton’s national staff. He’s eschewed traditional advertising, his digital advertising efforts have been sneered at across the industry, and his most recent FEC filing also showed just $1.3 million cash on hand.
Mark Putnam, a Democratic media consultant who has worked for President Obama, agrees with McKinnon. “Somebody will pop up and do this [again],” he said. “But it’s hard to imagine somebody else being as successful at it in the future.”
Whether or not there’s an opening for the country’s billionaires to run largely consultant-less campaigns in future cycles is one thing. Another question that’s just as critical in the minds of many strategists is whether Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric will have a lasting impact on the campaign landscape.
Casey Phillips, a GOP media strategist, isn’t as worried about the Trump effect on national dialogue. He thinks the rhetoric only works because Trump is the one delivering it. Your average congressional candidate, he argued “isn’t going to be running around saying wild things and getting an hour of nightly news share.”
But that’s not to say they aren’t going to try, according to Will Ritter, a GOP consultant who worked for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign this cycle.
“Congressional candidates could think, maybe this is a way to inflate some grassroots support,” he said of Trump’s rhetoric. Ritter believes it’s in part up to the consulting industry to stamp out the idea that deliberately inflaming segments of the electorate is an acceptable tactic.
“We have a problem industry-wide,” Ritter argued last week at C&E’s Campaign Expo conference in Washington DC. “If we, as an industry, allow this to happen and we break those rules, this becomes a food fight that none of us are going to want to work in.”
Of course consultants want to win; it’s what keeps their businesses alive. But a campaign landscape where the Trump playbook somehow becomes the norm? “[W]hy would anyone hire us?” asked Ritter. “We’re just going to tell them rules to abide by when they can just light their hair on fire.”
The industry is at a breaking point.
“Next cycle, after the smoke clears, we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror,” said Ritter. “There’s a decency that has to happen professionally in our industry; an agreement that’s there’s a certain playing field that we’re going to play on. And even though we all desperately want to win, there’s a line that we won’t cross. It’s the only thing that’s going to keep our industry relevant.”
McKinnon, who co-founded the group No Labels as a way to improve the national dialogue, said it’s likely Trump has made it easier for candidates who come after him to bend the truth or even lie outright.
“When he says something that’s outrageous, people say, ‘That’s great. That means he’s not a politician,’” said McKinnon. “In an odd way, it kind of amplifies that he’s an outsider when he says things that aren’t PC. That’s part of Trump’s appeal and his message.”
Ashley O’Connor, a Republican media consultant who worked George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign as well as Mitt Romney’s 2012 effort, struck a more hopeful note. She expects the lessons of the ’16 cycle to shape the next.
“Candidates, hopefully, will be able to learn from the mistakes of this cycle and rein themselves in and understand that you can’t just inflame one part of the electorate or you can’t be so guarded to the point you’re not really saying anything authentic,” she said. “By next cycle, lessons will have been learned, industry professionals will have a voice again, and we’ll get back to running elections that are within professional lines and about the voters.”