Republican Donald Trump’s unorthodox presidential campaign, which has defied expectations and upended conventional wisdom, will face its final test Tuesday.
Greatly outspent by Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump chose to outsource much of his ground game to the Republican National Committee. And despite the RNC’s insistence that it is prepared to deliver, many experts believe it comes nowhere near matching the Clinton juggernaut.
“If it does end up that way, there are gong to be a lot of political science departments canceling their campaigns and elections classes. And we’d be one of them.”
According to everything those experts think they know about American politics, that disparity should give Clinton a boost. In the handful of close states that will decide the outcome, that could make the difference between winning and losing.
Count Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer is among the skeptics who doubt enthusiasm, alone, can overcome the organizational deficit.
“If it does end up that way, there are going to be a lot of political science departments canceling their campaigns and elections classes,” he said “And we’d be one of them.”
The Trump campaign and the RNC now have 273 field offices in 13 key states. Although that represents a big increase since the Republican National Convention in July, Bitzer said he believes the gap remains wide.
“They’re at least behind schedule, to say the least,” said Kyle Kopko, a political scientist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
The Hill newspaper last month reported that campaign finance reports show that Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, and state parties have deployed 5,138 staffers across 15 battleground states, compared with 1,409 in 24 states on the Republican side.
“My sense is that it is still very much advantage Clinton in terms of the field offices and staff,” he said.
Traditionally, Campaigns Matter
Academic research suggests campaigns can make a difference. In one study, researchers looked at split media markets serving territory covering multiple states in an attempt to isolate the effect of the ground game vs. TV ads. For instance, the impact of TV ads in the Reno, Nevada, media market should be the same on voters from the California side of the market as it is for those from the Nevada side, since all of the voters see the same ads regardless of where they live.
But only voters in battleground Nevada get mailers, phone calls, and volunteers showing up at their doors, while campaigns ignore those in deep-blue California. In 2012, Nevada received the most campaign attention, about five phone calls, .07 pieces of direct mail, and 0.5 door knocks attempted for every eligible voter.
The researchers estimated that the efforts of both President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney increased turnout 7-8 percentage points in the most heavily targeted states — some 2.6 million additional voters nationwide who likely would have skipped the election. The increase exceeded 10 percentage points for some voter groups.
The conclusion from the study that is most important for Tuesday’s election is that the Obama and Romney campaigns were equally effective at mobilizing supporters they identified as likely supporters.
The finding stands as a flashing warning light for the Trump campaign. If the polls show a particular state tied but Clinton’s superior field operation boosts turnout on her side, Trump could end up losing close contests Tuesday.
[lz_table title=”Obama vs. the Polls” source=”RealClearPolitics”]President Obama outperformed 2012 polls in several key states
“If Trump is really behind as much on the ground game as people believe he is … it could be [the] margin of victory for Clinton,” said Harvard University professor Ryan Enos, one of the study’s authors.
Obama’s campaigns famously perfected “big data,” shorthand for the ability to identify and target voters with specific messages — almost down to the individual household. In 2012, although the final RealClearPolitics polling average showed Obama trailing in Florida, he won the state. He also outperformed his RCP average in Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Enos questioned whether the Republican National Committee is equipped to pick up the slack for the lean Trump campaign, considering that the party also has state and congressional campaigns to assist.
“It’s a little hard to imagine that it’s doable,” he said. “The RNC has other things that it needs to do.”
GOP officials argue that the skeptics are wrong on two counts. They contend that Trump supporters, evidenced by his massive crowds, do not need special prodding to get them to the polls. And they dispute the basic premise that the get-out-the-vote operation significantly trails Clinton.
“The Trump campaign could not be more enthusiastic about where we are right now,” Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie told reporters on a conference call last week. “Each battleground state is growing more and more competitive as our momentum continues to build.”
RNC officials point to the party’s improvement in early voting as evidence of the increased enthusiasm. North Carolina Republicans as of Sunday had cast 115,000 more ballots than in 2012, while ballots from Democrats are down by 25,000. The GOP deficit is 140,000 smaller than in 2012. The Republican share of Florida early ballots is up by 2.5 percentage points, while Democrats are down by 4.5 points.
Republicans won every day of early voting last week in Colorado and now have a slight lead in ballots returned. The Democratic lead in early ballots in Iowa is smaller by 20,000 ballots compared with the same point in 2012. In Nevada, the Democratic lead is more than 2,000 ballots smaller.
“We’ve seen a wave of momentum in Mr. Trump’s direction,” said Chris Carr, the GOP’s political director, calling it a “testament to the RNC’s powerful ground game.”
Chris Young, the party’s national field director, said the party decided soon after the 2012 election that a “culture change” was necessary and that the “ground game is firing on all cylinders” heading into Tuesday. The party has supplemented 3,100 paid staff across the country with 4,500 trained volunteers who are part of the Republican Leadership Initiative. That compares with 880 that the RNC fielded in 2012.
Young said the reorganization has paid off. The party is on target to meet its projection of 17 million door knocks by Tuesday, compared with 11.5 million in 2012. The party also has lined up 240,000 volunteer shifts in battleground states.
“Those are precious, precious voter contacts and interactions that we need to have,” Young said. “If we exhausted resources paying for brick-and-mortar, I don’t know if we’d ever have gotten as far as we have.”
Carr said reaching voters is more important than the visibility of campaign offices.
“We’ve moved away from strictly brick-and-mortar. We thought our investment should be heavier on boots on the ground, doing voter contact — everything from recruiting volunteers, training volunteers, maintaining the volunteers — was more important than offices.”
Christopher Devine, a political science professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said there is not better way to measure the Trump-RNC strategy than Election Day.
“This is a test case for it,” he said. “That’s one of the many things about the Trump campaign that is so interesting. He defied the odds in the primaries … We won’t know until we see this tested in a way it has been tested.”
Enos, the Harvard professor, said that he is skeptical of the GOP turnout operation — but he does not discount the possibility that Trump could compensate for it in other ways.
“If he is outperforming his polls, it could be from something else,” he said.