The Fight on the Ground

Donald Trump's get out the vote operation doesn't compare to Hillary Clinton's. Does it matter?

ORLANDO—Inside the bustling central Florida office of Organize Now, a progressive nonprofit, a volunteer is painstakingly making one of three contacts with a would-be voter. The first is to encourage a resident to register to vote, and to apply for an early ballot to remove the added pressure of getting to a poll on Election Day. The second is to make sure the early ballot arrived and that the address and other information on it is correct, so it will not be invalidated. And the third is to make sure the voter sends out the ballot – signed on the back, or it won't be counted.

Meanwhile, canvassers for the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, are knocking on doors, hoping to win over votes for Republicans Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio. It's grueling, labor-intensive work, the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat, as activists hope to make the difference in this swingiest of swing states.

This is the unglamorous part of campaigning, the stuff that happens outside the big rallies and high-stakes live debates. There are the candidates and the personalities, and then there is the basic machinery of mounting a successful run for office. In a close race, veteran Democratic and Republican operatives agree, such efforts can make the difference between winning and losing the state. And in Florida, where winners of the state's 29 electoral votes have been awarded by razor-thin margins in recent elections, ground games can decide who occupies the Oval Office.

"Everything we know about politics indicates that in very close races, the ground game is absolutely critical. Being able to identify your voters and get them out to the polls is one of the fundamentals of running a professional campaign," says Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP consultant. "And that is particularly true in a year when we have two remarkably unpopular candidates as the nominees of their respective parties."

Campaigns have become increasingly professionalized over the decades, with candidates hiring a slew of high-priced pollsters, fundraisers, ad-makers and consultants who advise them on everything from internet strategy to negotiating the Electoral College map. Campaign managers many years ago might have been the candidate's smart best friend. Now it's a paid professional who moves onto another campaign after the client wins or loses.

Trump, however, seems not to have gotten the memo. Despite a declared effort after the Republican National Convention to expand the ground game, Trump lags way behind Clinton in field offices. According to a tally assembled by the election blog "538," Trump has 207 field offices, compared to Clinton's 489. In Florida – a state Trump must capture to win the election – the ratio is similar, with Clinton beating Trump 68 offices to his 29.

Businessman Trump has argued that campaigns need not overspend and overstaff to be successful. But even on one of the least-costly ways of mobilizing voters and volunteers – the internet – Trump is far outdone by Clinton. The former secretary of state's main website allows surfers to click onto state-specific sites for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Trump has personalized sites for just 15 battleground states. Unlike Clinton's site, Trump's does not include information in Spanish, despite the fact that Hispanic voters are important in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Virginia.

And the respective Florida campaign sites? Trump's includes information on registering to vote and voting early; alerts to upcoming candidate visits; a form to volunteer; a request for donations and a rundown on what Trump's policies mean for Florida. It has no phone number or address for Trump campaign offices, listing Republican Party offices only.

Clinton's Florida website is one-stop campaign shopping. Aside from details of Clinton's policy positions, there's a mini-quiz to help volunteers determine what kind of work – canvassing, phone work – would best fit a volunteer's schedule and skills. Plug in your zip code, and the site brings up the closest field offices, along with details of hundreds of events, ranging from phone-banking to voter registration drives, in a 10-mile radius. A resident can also click to volunteer a spare room or couch for visiting volunteers.

It's understandable that Trump would assume a pared-down ground game works, notes Steve Kerrigan, CEO of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, since he got the GOP nomination. But the general election contest is different, with a large part of the electorate entrenched in a political party but needing a tap on the shoulder (or kick in the behind) to actually vote.

"He didn't use the ground game in the primary, and now he's not going to use it, and is arrogant enough to think he doesn't need it," Kerrigan says. "Any adult who thinks that needs to have his head examined."

Notably, Trump was indeed doing remarkably well without an aggressive ground game, before the release of an audio with Trump bragging about using his fame to grope women and make unwanted sexual advances. In a number of swing states, Trump was within or near the margin or error in polls or even (as in Ohio and Iowa) ahead of Clinton. In critical Florida, the two were neck-and-neck (Clinton has pulled ahead by 6 points in a Thursday Florida Atlantic University survey).

But a good ground game, consultants in both parties generally agree, makes a 3-5 point difference in a battleground state's election results – meaning an aggressive effort could easily, in a close election, determine who occupies the White House.

In Ohio, for example, Republicans in 2012 assumed President Obama could not possibly achieve the African-American turnout he did during his history-making run in 2008. Instead, the president (whose campaign had 131 Ohio field offices to opponent Mitt Romney's 40, according to a post-campaign count by UCLA Ph.D. student Brian Law) upped the black vote in the Buckeye State from 11 to 16 percent, Ayres says. Further, Ayres says, Romney's campaign followed up with voters who expressed a level 7 interest in the campaign (on a 1-10 scale), while Obama workers expanded its target to those who expressed a 4 or higher level of interest.

Trump can make up for a lagging formal GOTV structure by relying on other, affiliated efforts. For example, a turnout operation by the Republican National Committee or Senate and House candidates could drive more Republican voters to the polls. In recent elections, where ticket-splitting has become less common, that might have a reverse coattails effect for Trump. But this year, Trump has been at war with the GOP establishment and a number of Republican downticket contenders are trying to separate themselves from their party's bombastic nominee.

The Republican Party of Florida – which has a critical Senate seat to defend, along with a pivotal presidential contest – says it is working hard for the whole GOP line. "The Republican Party of Florida and the RNC have been working hard in this state since January of 2015. Since then, we have been registering voters, developing relationships with community leaders and training people. We are using traditional GOTV efforts, as well as a data-driven campaign to get people to the polls," party chairman Blaise Ingoglia said in a written response.

Outside interest groups are also picking up some of the slack. The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List has contacted well over 300,000 voters in Florida, close to 70,000 in Ohio, and expects to reach 20,000-30,000 in Missouri, says Laurie Lee, the group's state director for those three states. "The life issue is one that crosses all demographics – age, race, all religions, all political persuasions," Lee says, helping to bring Trump votes from demographic groups that might not, on paper, support him. She says the recent uproar over Trump's lewd comments and alleged behavior have not interfered with their efforts. "The people against Trump are a lot more inflamed. But the people who are for him are more empowered," Lee says.

Clinton for much of the campaign has indeed suffered from an enthusiasm gap. And with reports that Trump is trying to depress the vote to boost his chances, both the Clinton campaign and sympathetic groups are feverishly working to get out the vote, even now (as many as 40 percent of voters in battleground states are expected to vote early this year). A group called For Florida's Future anticipates knocking on 2.1 million doors in Florida alone by Election Day. The Human Rights Campaign, a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, is mounting what it says is its biggest GOTV effort in its 35-year history, targeting all 50 states. In North Carolina, where a controversial law has angered the LGBT community, the Human Rights Campaign expects to connect with 400,000 voters.

Trump may well lose. But does his success at getting the nomination – then coming very close in national and state polls – indicate that future candidates don't need an array of consultant, pollsters and ground gamers to win? Kerrigan says no.

"I would be cautious of anyone who derives any corollaries between his campaign and future campaigns," Kerrigan says. Trump, he notes, is a unique character, someone who leveraged his TV fame and business reputation to the political arena. "I don't think anyone else can catch the lightening-in-a-bottle he can," Kerrigan says. "And he might have it explode in the sand." Meanwhile, Democrats, not taking any chances, are knocking on doors.

Source: Susan Milligan, U.S. News and World Report