Trump's 'voter suppression' strategy isn't likely to work -- because he's only a marketing genius in some ways

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The Trump campaign has been getting a lot of attention for claiming to have “
three major voter suppression operations under way,” a brag that Bloomberg Businessweek reports a “senior campaign official” made to them.

This statement hands a gift to Democrats, who can now motivate their voters by telling them Donald Trump is running not one but three operations to suppress their votes.

But in a case of the Trump campaign being simultaneously indiscreet and grandiose, the “operations” in question aren’t even “voter suppression” in the usual sense of, for example, posting menacing people outside polling places in an effort to discourage voting.

Instead, the reported brag refers to three messaging strategies aimed at demotivating Democratic voting blocs: running Facebook ads aimed at African-Americans about Hillary Clinton’s “super-predator” comments from the 1990s; telling former Bernie Sanders supporters about Clinton’s past support for the Trans Pacific Partnership; and, most puzzlingly of all, trying to demotivate young women by talking about sexual allegations against Bill Clinton.

That’s not voter suppression — it’s negative campaigning. And it’s not especially well-conceived negative campaigning.

Actual political professionals have been heaping scorn on the data and demotivation operation described in the Businessweek story, and there will be a counter-temptation to wonder if Trump is onto something that the professionals are missing. After all, Trump is in certain ways a marketing genius, who won a Republican presidential primary using a strategy and a message that none of the professionals thought would work.

But Trump is only a marketing genius in certain ways.

Trump knows a lot about being an angry white guy, and he knows a lot about being a striver who wishes he were fancy. Trump’s ability to empathise with a certain kind of person is how he knew he could sell apartments covered in brass and pink marble. It’s how he knew he could take people in with something like Trump University. And it’s how he knew his campaign would find an eager audience in a Republican primary.

Trump does not know a lot about being a young woman, or an African-American, or a Sanders supporter. And that’s why his outreach to these groups — whether trying to draw votes to himself or discourage support for Clinton — has been ham-fisted and ineffective even when it has been genuine.

Of course, most candidates lack the ability to empathise directly with every slice of the electorate, which is why they rely heavily on testing and polling and data analytics to develop their messages for specific groups. Trump’s campaign may sometimes be using data to decide which voters to reach, but the messages seem to be developed entirely within his gut.

And that’s not going to work very well outside the minority of voters with guts like Trump’s.

This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.

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