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National polls give a snapshot of how people are planning to vote at a given moment, but elections are won at the ballot box, making a candidate’s ability to turn out voters a key factor. Observers and activists agree that Hillary Clinton’s ground game is an impressive one, albeit falling short of that mounted by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Donald Trump, on the other hand, seems to have paid scant attention to that aspect of his campaign, which may prove a fatal oversight come Election Day.
“Hillary has a far superior ground game than Trump’s,” Ned Ryun, founder and CEO of the conservative grassroots organisation American Majority, told FRANCE 24. In terms of numbers of volunteers, money spent and investment of time, “it’s not even close,” Ryun said.
Get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts are sophisticated affairs that hinge on a candidate’s campaign having an army of volunteers armed with accurate data. Those volunteers are dispatched in advance of election day to make phone calls to or knock on the front doors of people who might be persuaded to vote for the candidate. The volunteers also make sure that reliable voters — those registered to a specific party with a strong history of voting — are able to reach the polls. On election day, volunteers go door to door making sure that the voters they depend on have indeed cast their ballots.
Successful GOTV operations require on-the-ground knowledge and organisation. But according toFivethirtyeight.com, Trump has just 207 offices nationwide, compared to Clinton’s 489, and her organisation dominates his in every battleground state. (Obama, for comparison, had 790 offices in 2012). Even in the states where he is strongest, Trump lags behind Clinton, with 42 offices to her 57 in Pennsylvania, 29 to her 68 in Florida and 22 to her 69 in Ohio, according to Fivethirtyeight.com.
Instead of trying to mount a convincing fight on the ground, Ryun said, Trump has instead farmed out his ground game to the Republican National Committee (RNC), relying on them to fight for him.
But luckily for Trump, the RNC is performing better than ever on that front, according to Ellen Barrosse, the RNC’s Delaware representative. “We have the best ground game we’ve ever had, we have the best data game we’ve ever had,” she told FRANCE 24. “The RNC has more people on the ground than we ever have.”
Barrosse did not give the specific number of RNC volunteers on the ground. But even if Republicans matched Democratic volunteers in sheer numbers — something observers say is unlikely — outsourcing such a critical element of the campaign is a gamble: It limits Trump GOTV activity to areas where the RNC has operations, and Republican operatives on the ground may prioritize other races — such as Senate and House races — over the presidential.
“There are plenty of people in the field who don’t like Trump,” Ryun said. “Do you really think they’re going to be putting 100 percent of their effort [into the presidential race]?”
Trump’s best hope on the ground may lie with volunteers who aren’t working for him or for the Republicans at all, but rather for special interest groups.
The Susan B. Anthony List, for example, is a non-profit group that supports pro-life candidates. According to communications director Mallory Quigley, the group has had canvassers in North Carolina, Florida and Ohio for more than a year. Last month the group expanded its operation into Missouri. And while those canvassers are focused solely on the issue of abortion, since Trump is the only mainstream presidential candidate who is pro-life, they are working on winning over voters for him.
The Susan B. Anthony List has highly targeted data and focuses not only on Republicans but also on Democrats who might be persuaded by pro-life arguments, Quigley told FRANCE 24. The organisation has 700 trained, paid canvassers who knocked on half a million doors in the past year. Their activism may help Trump, even if he was not directly behind it.
“The life issue is more likely than any other issue to motivate people to vote for him,” Quigley told FRANCE 24.
Similarly, Generation Joshua, an evangelical Christian youth group, puts hundreds of teenagers on the ground to stump for conservative candidates and causes. Over the past weekend they sent 800 kids to nine different states, said the organisation’s director Joel Grewe.
While the students don’t stump for Trump directly, “they will have the impact of turning out voters, which will affect the presidential,” Grewe told FRANCE 24.
With the difference between Trump and Clinton’s numbers within the margin of error of some polls, the question of who will move into the White House in January could hinge directly on the ground game.
“It could result in a point or two in these battleground states, which would be the difference between winning and losing,” Ryun said.