Teflon, as we know, is a synthetic compound that’s useful for coating kitchen utensils like those non-stick pots and pans. For over 16 months since he announced his candidacy for president of the United States, Donald Trump, now the Republican Party’s nominee, showed a Teflon tenacity even as everyone threw the kitchen sink at him. None of the dirt stuck, at least never enough. But even Teflon has a melting point. Given the heat generated by Trump’s intemperate language caught on tape and broadcast repeatedly, it may finally be here. That eventuality always seemed inevitable. The real October surprise is that it took this long.
As a sleazequake rattles the foundations of his campaign (revelations delivered daily), the reality is it was always on very shaky ground. The reason for this is that Trump, possibly the richest candidate in US presidential election history, is also the cheapest. Self-funding was a fine mantra for the primaries, driven as they are by partisans. When it comes to the general election, what matters is a Get Out The Vote or GOTV operation, which has, in part, made it in recent cycles, a billion dollar race.
This is also true for successful campaigns in India. For instance, during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, potential voters were contacted multiple times, in person as party workers went door-to-door handing out voting slips, and via calls and text message reminders. In the case of the BJP, this effort was bolstered by the RSS apparatus, an outreach that added the extra percentages needed for victory.
It’s just as significant, if not more, in the United States, with a dozen or so swing states deciding who gets to occupy the Oval Office. Republicans once led in GOTV efforts, like when Karl Rove managed George W Bush’s campaigns. Barack Obama’s 2008 machine brought in analytics and targeting and an army of volunteers to supplement his popular appeal. That calculus worked four years later in a far more difficult contest against Mitt Romney. According to the psephological site FiveThirtyEight, Obama’s campaign had 790 field offices in the country, nearly 500 more than Romney’s, and that ratio was also reflected in critical states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which may again be decisive this year. After all, how many purple states go Democrat blue or Republican red changes the complexion of the contest’s outcome.
Trump may boast of having spent over $100 million of his own money since he started campaigning in the summer of 2015 (down, curiously enough, from the $150 million figure he totted up and touted a few months earlier), but he has only about 180 offices, just about a third of what Hillary Clinton’s campaign has opened. There’s a level of cheapness to the Trump election project that’s startling.
Trump ran his primary campaigns in many states, as senior Republican strategists have pointed out, as prefab outfits, remote controlled from New York. He was relying upon the Republican Party, its state units and experienced political operatives to compensate for his lack of willingness to invest in mobilisation. Many of those he’s dismissed as party elites have dumped him and left his campaign with little by way of turning out shy voters or leaners, let alone convincing Democrats to switch. That is similar to expecting Narendra Modi to win power with much of the Sangh or a large section of BJP workers disinterested in supplying the manpower to fuel the turnout.
Trump’s team has bungled the basics. It’s as organised as the candidate is articulate in a presidential debate. Trump keeps pleading with those attending his rallies to work as his cohorts. Even if the situation improves by November 8, according to estimates, a third of the electorate will have voted early.
Whether Trump survives his eruptions of political pornography is doubtful, but lack of a great ground game will surely bring his campaign crashing to earth. But what his hot mic train wreck may have accomplished is to turn a predictable defeat into a possible debacle.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal