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Cheap, effective: Donald Trump’s marketing marvel

Donald Trump is a rare phenomenon, the richest candidate in the race who has run the cheapest campaign. He hasn’t had to pay much for advertising and may even end up with the smallest spend among major candidates when the quarterly counts are released

columns Updated: Mar 04, 2016 21:57 IST
Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally at Macomb Community College, March 4
Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally at Macomb Community College, March 4(AP)

After his thumping run through the Super Tuesday set of primaries for the Republican Party’s nomination for the US presidential elections in November, Donald Trump reinforced his message — offence is the best form of defiance — be it of the establishment, party, media, entire races and nations, good taste or tact.

Trump is a rare phenomenon, the richest candidate in the race who has run the cheapest campaign. If President Barack Obama spent a billion dollars getting re-elected, this billionaire candidate has only cashed in on his celebrity that has driven frenzied media coverage. He hasn’t had to pay much for advertising and may even end up with the smallest spend among major candidates when the quarterly counts are released. Courtesy that coverage, he may well have ended up footing the smallest bill of the major candidates, with minimal legwork.

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As I spent four days in Little Rock, Arkansas, once the domain of the Clintons, Trump was everywhere and, contrarily, nowhere. Local media was saturated with The Donald’s latest controversy to the point of nausea, he was discussed feverishly, but he had no presence on the ground. Trump has taken to flying visits, literally, holding rallies at airport hangars in several states.

Veteran Republican operative Bill Vickery told me that Trump has “completely transformed campaigning” in small states like Arkansas, “where they don’t have to employ anyone.” One of his colleagues worked on George W Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and recalled that 20 full-time staffers were employed in the state. When it comes to Trump, everything is centrally managed from New York, with remote phone calls, mailers and social media messaging. The State Republican National Committee had a single contact for the Trump machine, an email address of an individual no local had heard of. The phone number for Arkansas for Donald Trump was routed through an anonymising Google Voice conduit. His organisation has put a new spin to the phrase remote control when it comes to politics.

Read | Romney calls Trump ‘phony,’ urges Republicans to shun him

What’s missing is the door-to-door knocking by paid volunteers, but Trump is knocking down those doors anyway. Vickery believes he’s created a “new model” of campaigning for small to medium-sized states in these massive presidential cycles. If traditional campaigns, like that of Hillary Clinton still rely on peopling places, Trump’s Manhattan team goes with prefab structures.

None of that, of course, would work if this campaign weren’t a marketing marvel, getting millions of dollars of free air time on network television as Trump keeps hurling verbal bombs at anyone in his sights — Democrats, fellow Republicans, illegal immigrants, TV hosts, Muslim-Americans, among others. Establishment Republicans are like roadkill, run over by the Trump juggernaut. Punditry is flummoxed and poleaxed. At least in the primary season, Trump has demolished the orthodox tenets of retail politics.

Read | Super Tuesday: A step closer for Hillary, Trump to Oval Office

Luke Niles, chair of the Central Arkansas Young Republicans, marvelled as he told me: “He (Trump) generates so much publicity, the other candidates can’t get any attention.” In fact, the only save-face time they manage is when they attack him. Niles’ colleague Susanna Samson nodded. She was for Florida Senator Marco Rubio, but observed, “I know Trump’s slogan, I don’t know the other ones.” True, like Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’, that simple line resonates though critics can argue that since this is Trumpery, it ought to actually be Make America Grate Again.

A day before Super Tuesday, the main daily in Arkansas, the Democrat Gazette, led with the headline: ‘Rivals slam Trump over ex-Klan leader’. Clinton’s rally the previous evening at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was demoted. On the morning of the vote, he again dominated that page: ‘Trump’s rise cleaving GOP before big day’. News television coverage leads with Trump and deals him aces. This is the sort of publicity that Trump has thrived upon. If he does become the eventual Republican nominee, he ought to pay his dues and choose the American media as his running mate.

(Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs.The views expressed are personal.)