We’ve all seen the headlines plastered across the news media. Where’s the ground game? Donald Trump’s ground game has been reported to be mostly non-existent, with rather disconcerting reports of a 12-year-old pretty much running operations in Jefferson County, Colorado—a key county in the state—and the Trump campaign having only one field office in all of Florida. Trump needs to win both Florida and Ohio to get to 270. While the polls have been tightening, with some showing the Republican nominee ahead of Hillary Clinton in the states that he needs to win, there’s a question about turnout. With what seems to be skeleton crews running these operations, there is a feeling of unease—and rightfully so. Yet, Townhall spoke with senior officials at the Republican National Committee about the 2016 ground game operation—to show that it’s actually quite a robust machine that’s been getting ready for this election for the past three years.
In 2015, there was a strong internal review at the RNC about laying the groundwork for the 2016 election. The RNC’s machinery did very well in 2014, with the GOP retaking the Senate, nabbing two-thirds of the governorships, 66/99 state legislatures, and the most elected state lawmakers since 1920. Oh, and the largest House majority since Herbert Hoover. This is just abject slaughter, with donkeys littered everywhere across a wide swath of races ranging from state house representative to U.S. Senator. This is another key component to their ground operation, but let’s take a 30,000-foot view first.
Here’s what the two RNC officials told us. They knew that by 2016, a change needed to happen. Post-2012, the same ground game that Republicans have deployed in the past was dead; that plan aptly described by conservative commentator George Will as winning the South, the Midwest, the West, and spending the equivalent of the GDP of Brazil to win Ohio. Obama changed all that.
Another senior official worked for Romney in Nevada in 2012, and saw the effectiveness of what the president did through community organizing in his re-elect effort. They did a deep-dive into what Organizing for Action did, combed through old manuals, and even perused old blog posts from the Obama team that dated back to his 2008 campaign to essentially try and reach parity with the Democrats in their ground game operations. It’s not that Republicans were bad, it’s that they let the 2004 Bush re-elect remain static, which in turn let that apparatus atrophy with time. It goes back to the old axiom of American politics: there are no permanent victories. So, they went back into the basics.
- Voter Registration – the RNC wanted to revitalize their voter registration efforts since you can put states on the map and take states off.
- Persuasion – We all have debated endlessly about how the GOP has a messaging problem. The 2012 election made that explicitly clear. There was no room for more Todd Akins blowing up the spot. In short, the GOP knew they had to change the way they talked and approached voters. One of the things they’ve done is shift away from phone calls. In the past the RNC used to have massive phone banks, where legions of volunteers would make as many calls as possible. With landlines becoming more obsolete, it’s harder to reach voters, so they shifted 90 percent of their voter outreach to door knocking and utilizing community organizing practices. About 95 percent of the data obtained through neighborhood canvassing is gathered through digital walk apps; they’ve ditched the clipboards. With most of their data is being obtained on smart phones, the RNC now has the ability to get a sense of what is driving voter conversations on the ground and rapidly retool any messaging needed to be more effective in outreach. Also, ditching paper means that ¼ of the staff doesn’t have to take time analyzing the sheets and entering the data, cannibalizing the most precious resource in politics: time.
- Turnout – Democrats walk with swagger over their turnout operations, but the Republican Party is just as good. You need to look no further than the midterm elections to see the results. The problem for national years is that the GOP didn’t juice up their voter registration efforts and they didn’t really take the time to get to know the voters in the areas that decide elections. It was sort of like a carnival mindset. The D.C. operative would arrive, set up victory offices, and then leave. There was no projection from the national party that they cherished and valued every vote and the local activists who helped them in the various communities that dot the country. These are the people who know how to win in these areas, they now the point of the lance in these efforts. Concerning doors, the RNC said their numbers have dwarfed what they did in 2012. As for registration, there are scores of new Republicans. There has been a massive spike in the August numbers, and they’ve seen increases for each succeeding week since then.
Wait—aren’t voter registration drives a massive waste of time? I mean, these people weren’t registered to vote in the first place; what makes you think they’ll be reliable voters in November. These people simply don’t care. Well, that’s not necessarily true.
The RNC noted that research shows that a newly registered Republican will vote 70-75 percent of the time. They also view it within the paradigm of the selective service. Moreover, we’re a country that moves constantly. Voter registration drives allow transplanted active Republican voters to re-register, re-enroll, and cast their ballot for the party come Election Day.
Another senior official chimed in to say that they saw the value in voter registration with Obama’s efforts in 2012. Yet, what about the spike in GOP registration—aren’t these just conservative Reagan Democrats who have been voting Republican for years who are now changing their voter registration?
Both senior officials added that Donald Trump brings a whole other level of enthusiasm, which we all saw during the primaries. That enthusiasm has driven a new pool of voters that have registered who might have sat out in the past few cycles, though they did admit that there are Democrats who have voted Republican, like in Western Pennsylvania, that have decided to switch party affiliations. Yet, the numbers are weighed more towards new voters.
So, what about the campaign office issue? Well, it turns out that it might not matter all that much—and they’re certainly not worried about it. It’s all about reaching voters and offices don’t do that. Second, offices usually involve phone banking, which the RNC has actively moved away from this cycle. In the end, it would be a waste of money. This year, the GOP is looking for places where Americans congregate, like public libraries, churches, and high schools, while using the local infrastructure to build upon the inroads created by the local parties. To them, the Clinton campaign seems to be running a very 2004-based campaign strategy with their emphasis on field offices. Yet, the notion of building on the existing local party network, the investment in people, and reaching those people personally is the focus of this multi-year project.
One thing they did admit was that they often got on the ground way too late. The old plan was to run a six-month spring to the finish. With Clinton, that team seems to be following the same format, one of the officials said that a million man-hours went by before Team Hillary began assembling their ground operation. The GOP has been on the ground since 2013—and they haven’t left.
Concerning the early voting strategy, all eyes are on North Carolina for now. The ballots have gone out, with the data operation and the field operation. The RNC claims that their crew in the Tar Heel State has been collecting absentee request forms at rallies and through door knocks, especially when it comes to low propensity Trump supporters. They started collecting these requests this summer (when legal), as well as Florida, which has been going strong. It came back to a discussion about getting the data.
Since 2013, the data-collecting wing of the RNC’s operation needed a revamp, they had a test program that would apply individual voter scores and saw success. They rolled it out in early 2014 and were used to get updated voter information throughout the summer for that cycle’s’ senate races. It gauged a voter score based on 0-100 concerning turnout, voting tendencies (do they lean Republican, Democratic, or veer towards the Independent camp), and who they are likely to support.
The RNC officials said that they update the database frequently during the 2014 midterms. A test to the accuracy of this system came with the North Carolina Senate race between Republican challenger Thom Tillis and incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. They projected that Tillis would win by a margin of 1.3 percent; he ended up winning by 1.5 percent. At the time, the RNC stuck their necks out and assured the now-senator that he would win his election, which did happen. From 2014 onward, this database has been built upon ever since.
In July of 2015, the RNC gave itself a baseline, set their voter scores, and went about calibrating their voter database to have the best information to take on the Clinton machine. By December 2015-January of 2016, the decision was made to refresh it monthly, compile and find trends in the data throughout February, March, and April—pretty much up until now. These folks are feeling pretty good about the insight they have regarding he likelihood of turnout and support for Trump. Each month allows the RNC to better gauge their voting universe pre-Election Day
They added that each time they do an update; they get a projected snapshot and a clear picture of where the race is right now. More importantly, they know exactly where their voter deficits are pre-Election Day. It also shows gives them a target area for where absentee ballot requests can be made and where they should go.
With individuals that are less likely to turnout to vote, this database allows the field teams to find them. As for the current projections, RNC officials say that the direction looks good, with a lot of their findings matching what’s being reported in the latest string of public polling. Is their model also finding secret Trump voters? Yes—with 3.7 billion voter projections each month that takes into account the support level for presidential, Senate, and congressional named ballots. I think the Trump campaign is overestimating the size of this silent voting bloc, but they exist. And they’re large enough to scare Democratic pollsters, who have a feeling that voters in their own samples are lying to them about their support for Clinton. Hey, this whole cycle has been dotted by extreme volatility, yet the RNC’s 1,100 staff spread throughout the country seem confident that they have their ground game operation in a good place to help their entire slate come November. Let’s see if their projections are just as accurate as the ones they gave Tillis and the rest of the GOP slate in 2014.