ATLANTA (AP) — Donald Trump says he plans to win the White House largely on the strength of his personality, brushing off the need for a heavy investment in what he calls the "overrated" use of data to shape campaign strategy and get out the vote.
Should he hold to that approach, which he outlined last week in an interview with The Associated Press, Trump will flout all conventions of what it takes to win a modern presidential campaign.
By doing so, critics in both parties argue, he'd give up what could be a strategic advantage over Hillary Clinton, his expected Democratic opponent.
"It's a big risk," said Chris Wilson, who ran an expansive data operation for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump's stiffest competition in the Republican primaries. Jeremy Bird, who worked for President Barack Obama's data-rich campaign, said: "Flying blind is nuts."
A few days after the AP interview, Trump aide Rick Wiley said the campaign would indeed give priority to data and digital operations, looking first to tap the resources of the Republican National Committee and the heavy investment it has made in data over several years.
The use of data has evolved over the past several presidential campaigns into a shorthand for using information — starting with simple lists of potential voters, then mated with extensive details about their habits and beliefs — to guide a campaign toward its ultimate goal: the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Campaigns use the information in all sorts of ways, from deciding where to send a candidate to making sure supporters cast a ballot.
In his AP interview, Trump discounted the value of data: The "candidate is by far the most important thing," he said. He said he plans a "limited" use of data in his general election campaign and suggested Obama's victories — universally viewed by political professionals as groundbreaking in the way data steered the campaign to voters — are misunderstood.
"Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me," Trump said, explaining that he will continue to focus on his signature rallies, free television exposure and his personal social media accounts to win voters over.
Buzz Jacobs, who was on the losing end of Obama's success in 2008 as an aide to GOP nominee John McCain, said Trump oversimplifies the president's victories.
"We lost in large part because Obama's ability to use data was so much better than ours," Jacobs said.
According to South Carolina's Republican chairman, Matt Moore: "Elections to a great degree are won on ... that last 1 or 2 percent that shows up or stays home. That group on either edge turns out because of data and digital. That's a known fact."
Republicans and Democrats with experience running campaigns question why Trump would give up a chance to reinforce with data his ubiquitous presence on television and inarguable success with large-scale rallies — a platform of personality that Clinton has yet to match.
Bird, whose consulting firm now works for the Clinton campaign, said Trump is giving himself a false choice.
"At a big picture level, sure, Barack Obama got the votes — his bio, his policies, his ability to communicate," Bird said. "But we wanted to do everything we could to get him and get his message to the right people."
Jacobs, who worked this year for a former Trump rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said Trump is an outlier in being uninterested in data. The RNC and private groups, such as the billionaire conservative activist brothers Charles and David Koch, have spent hundreds of millions on their data programs since Obama's election.
"It would be silly to leave those on the sidelines," Jacobs said.
To be sure, Trump has not wholly abandoned data. His campaign spending disclosures show payments to multiple data firms, and the campaign maintains contact information collected when voters register for tickets to his rallies.
Wiley, a recent addition to the Trump team who previously worked for the national party, said he is "working with the RNC, putting together a state-of-the-art program." He predicted it would be able to match what "Obama was able to do in 2008."
But Trump's in-house data shop is thin, and the candidate has said that he does not give priority to the ground game. Trump's most significant loss of the primary season came in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, a victory for Cruz that was largely credited to the Texas senator's sophisticated campaign effort to turn out voters.
Wilson said he used the Cruz campaign's data to run nightly "models" leading up to the caucuses, which predicted turnout and outcomes and allowed the campaign to adjust its approach every day.
That means if Wiley and Trump's other campaign staffers are able to persuade him to pay attention to the data, they'll also need to persuade him to raise and spend the money to use it effectively in competitive states.
"He has to be convinced," South Carolina chairman Moore said. Then again, he said, "We've all been wrong about Trump for pretty much this entire campaign."
Associated Press reporters Jill Colvin and Julie Pace in New York and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
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