Politics & Policy

How Much Does Campaign Ground Game Really Matter?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump delivers remarks at the Shale Insight energy conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Reuters Photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Trump’s organizational deficiencies might doom him . . . or they might not matter.

What percentage of Hillary Clinton supporters will actually cast ballots this year? What percentage of Donald Trump supporters?

Yesterday, Katie Packer, former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney, scoffed at the notion that Donald Trump could reach the necessary 270 electoral votes, suggesting that Trump would not win any state that he wasn’t leading by five points in the polls.


Will Trump underperform his polling numbers because his campaign’s get-out-the-vote operations aren’t as good as Clinton’s?

The entire political world is about to find out how much field offices and data analysis really matter. This year, Clinton’s campaign opened plenty of offices in every swing state — 65 in Florida, 54 in Ohio, 38 in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, 34 in Virginia, 33 in Iowa, 32 in Michigan, and 25 in Colorado and New Hampshire. They’re attempting to replicate and build upon a method that proved ruthlessly effective for the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012. By comparison, the Trump campaign had just one campaign office open in Florida on September 1. Trump fans fervently believe their man will over-perform his final polling numbers, contending that there’s a “shy Tory” effect — that a significant number of voters support Trump but don’t want to reveal their support in surveys, and Trump inspires such passion in them that get-out-the-vote efforts won’t be as important as usual.

It’s unlikely that get-out-the-vote efforts will be meaningless, however. One analysis concluded that Romney’s voter-mobilization deficiencies ultimately cost him in 2012:

[The] Obama campaign’s mobilization tactics increased turnout among targeted Democrats by about 1.7 percentage points, relative to independents. The Romney campaign was also effective, but less so: their supporters were about 0.6 percentage points more likely to turn out than non-targeted independents.

If a large number of campaign offices translates to an effective voter-mobilization effort, then Clinton should absolutely crush Trump in all of those key swing states. But there are a few other factors that shouldn’t be ignored. While the Trump campaign is not putting as much effort into field staff and get-out-the-vote operations, the Republican National Committee is. The RNC boasts that it has 3,894 field staff in 33 states compared with 576 at the same time in 2012. According to their own figures, they’ve knocked on 4.4 million doors. They also boast that the number of registered Republicans is increasing in swing states:

In Florida, numbers from the secretary of state show Republicans gained 162,000 voters since 2012; Democrats lost nearly 137,000.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans gained 40,000 voters; Democrats lost 178,000.

And in North Carolina, both parties lost members as the number of unaffiliated voters rose. But Democrats lost far more than Republicans in the last four years.

Not all states register voters by party, but a review of eight states that do — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — showed Democrats since 2012 signed up more than Republicans only in Arizona and Colorado.

Most of the swing states have competitive Senate races as well: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Hampshire. It’s not as if the campaigns for Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Richard Burr, or Kelly Ayotte are just going to ignore getting out the vote for their candidates. Not every Republican who comes out for those Senate candidates will vote for Trump, but polling indicates the vast majority will.

Then there are conservative, pro-liberty, or right-leaning groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, Concerned Veterans for America, Generation Opportunity, and the LIBRE Initiative. Some of these groups have considerable differences with Trump, but the voters they want to mobilize are more likely to prefer Trump to Clinton — although a significant number may very well vote for Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin.

You can point to either of the past two cycles as justification that your preferred side will over-perform. In 2012, Obama led the final RealClearPolitics average of national head-to-head polls by seven-tenths of a percentage point, but won by four points on Election Day. In 2014, the final RCP average of the generic congressional vote showed Republicans ahead by 2.4 points. They ended up enjoying a terrific year of victories across the country, winning all cumulative ballots by 5.7 points.

Which approach is right: Trump’s or Clinton’s? We’re about to find out. The Trump team’s lack of investment in campaign infrastructure is either one of the boldest, most daring, and ingenious campaign decisions of all time, or the most unforgivably foolish. Place your bets.