Chester County: all quiet on the presidential front

Clinton, Trump have fairly low profile, but likely for differing reasons

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

timespoliticsunusualWhile the usual (or usually unusual) back and forth of local congressional and state legislative races has kicked into what I lovingly call “red mist” mode (a state of hyper intense political engagement that lowers IQ about 25 points and drops discourse to that fourth grade lunch room taunts), things have been eerily quiet locally on the presidential front.

Too quiet.

Yes, it’s true that Hillary Clinton set up an office in West Chester — albeit weeks later than Barack Obama did in 2008 or 2012 — but we haven’t seen the usual flow of high visibility events and surrogates from either her campaign or that of the Donald J. Trump For President, Inc. campaign.

Yes, it’s early. And yes, we’re likely to see some events, if only for window dressing.

But I began to dig into it to try to figure out why — if as many argue, Chester County is a key pivot in winning Pennsylvania, seen by many as among the top five swings states, why so quiet?

On the Trump side, there appears to be continuing disorganization. Even the candidate himself seems sent off in odd places (either states he has locked up or no chance of winning) instead of battlegrounds. His recent management changes do seem to be tightening up his planning and schedule and starting the months-late building of a proper field organization, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see him pop up somewhere in the county.

I am told by reliable GOP sources that much of the usual workload taken up usually by national GOP campaigns has, uh, trickled down to the Republican National Committee, which in turn has pushed responsibilities on state parties, which in turn, has asked a lot more from county committees, placing a burden on folks who are already pretty busy this time of year. At this point, there clearly appears to be less Trump infrastructure in the county than there was Romney infrastructure in 2012 (and interestingly, a lot of local folks were frustrated by the lack of resources then, and now point to Romney’s victory over Obama here, fairly, as quite an accomplishment for local party officials).

That could explain why things might be a bit quiet in terms of the Chester County Trumpverse.

Why Team Clinton is keeping a low profile is almost the exact opposite, it appears.

Clinton’s campaign has rapidly rolled out resources, opening offices all over the southeast of Pennsylvania and running numerous volunteer events. But unlike 2008 or 2012, things seem to have an almost “low key” feel to them.

I have a suspicion as to why: analytics.

While the Obama campaign rose to new heights in identifying and mobilizing voters — mostly through Internet contact and phone banking — it appears that the Clinton campaign is moving in an entirely new, and more advanced way.

It is, in short, big data.

Ever notice when you are on a Web page and ads pop up for something you were just shopping for? Or that suddenly, you get a lot of email offers for just that product you just found out you need?

For a bit now, corporate America has been mining what pages you surf to, your comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, where you shop, who your friends are, where you work, your marital status, how many kids you have, your income, your education and other data to draw a digital picture of who you are, what you’re interested in and what you might want to buy — even sometimes before you know you do.

Well, consider the same technology and data crunching being applied to every voter.

Near as I can tell, that’s what the Clinton Campaign is doing. They know if you’re registered, which party, how likely you are to vote and for whom and most importantly, why (thanks to all of the above mentioned data they have on you). Instead of working through mass media, they’re targeting you individually (if they think you’re persuadable or not locked in on Trump). This also allows them to run simulations of the election in real time, with data runs predicting who will vote and for whom, and where the campaign needs to make pushes or work to reassure voters on specific issues.

So why so quiet in Chester County, then?

I think they’ve simulated it out and know they have a solid lead and are saving resources for voter activation in the final stretch. From the data we know, Trump is underperforming among college educated white folks — of which Chester County has a large number. Add in poor Trump support among minorities and young people, and a basic picture emerges.

But the polling numbers are like crayons and a five-year-old’s coloring book. Clinton’s data people seem to be developing a Renior, with brush strokes and detail unimaginable only a few years ago.

Understandably, the Clinton people don’t want to trumpet this effort — or in anyway tamp down the enthusiasm of its supporters or voters, as turnout remains a crucial issue.

No one will confirm the effort on the record, but I’ve been able to gather enough bits and pieces of data to feel pretty solid that this is what is happening.

Is it wrong?

No more wrong than the fact that Google may know more about you than your spouse.

It is, like it or not, the future of political campaigns, and possibly the future of everything. At this point, I have no evidence that the GOP data effort is as sophisticated or thorough (the suggestion is that the Republicans haven’t entirely caught up with the Obama innovations, let alone this) — but the party is going to need to catch up soon or face major problems in the coming years, as the Clinton data model will be replicated and refined for state and local races almost immediately.

***

You’ll be hearing a lot about League of Women Voters candidate forums — who challenged whom to one and whom isn’t responding.

As with every campaign season, its a part of stagecraft. Incumbents don’t love doing them and challengers want every opportunity to be seen on an equal footing with their opponents.

A couple of recent examples — county Republicans pushed hard to get state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-19) to do such an event with challenger Jack London, to which Dinniman did ultimately agree. Democrat Josh Maxwell this week challenged State Rep. Harry Lewis Jr. (R-74) to a similar event — there’s been no formal response from the Lewis camp as far as I know.

To be sure, doing these is events is better than not doing them.

But, to be polite, these events stink.

I may be the only person in the county who has prepped candidates for such events, participated in them as a candidate, covered them as a journalist — and yes, elsewhere, even moderated LWV candidate forums, so you could say I have a unique perspective on them.

The format — as done in Chester County — is awful. The two candidates stick to their carefully prepared talking points, get planted questions from the handful of supporters in the audience and in reality, don’t really answer any serious questions. There’s no challenge of non-answers, no follow-up, no real engagement and too many of the questions appear to be written by folks who lack a deep understanding of the issues. Most of the time there isn’t even video.

In short, it’s a well-meaning dog and pony show.

Understand, this is not an issue of the national LWV forcing this format on local organizers, but one of local choice and tradition. I’ve personally moderated events in other states with the LWV that allowed a hybrid of audience and media questions, follow ups from the moderators and attending press as well as more true back and forth between the candidates.

We can and should do better.

We’re working on something jointly with a public interest group — an October event we expect to be announced shortly — that we hope will better serve the public interest.

Stay tuned.

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