Does ground game matter? The 2016 presidential election might offer something like a definitive answer.
Campaigns’ get-out-the-vote efforts, from door knocking to phone banking to pamphleteering, have become an object of almost endless fetishization for the press in recent years. The Obama campaign in 2008 was hailed for its innovative turnout apparatus. Ted Cruz’s ability to identify and turn out his voters in this year’s GOP primaries was obsessively dissected, as was what one publication dubbed Marco Rubio’s “hollow” campaign.
But the importance of ground game, which has become the Republican National Committee’s singular focus this year, remains the subject of heated debate among political operatives. Some swear by it; others dismiss it as essentially a bunch of hocus-pocus. As one top Republican operative puts it: “A ground game means very little. It doesn’t mean nothing, it just means a lot less than people portray it as.” Because it’s difficult to know just how effective a campaign’s voter-contact efforts are, the George Washington University political scientist John Sides calls it one of the “great black boxes of campaigns.”
The Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton match-up, pitting a candidate for whom organization has been an afterthought against one who sits atop a titanic and well-oiled political machine, provides something like a perfect test case for the utility and importance of a campaign’s ground game. If Trump is victorious in battleground states despite a skeletal organization, well, what’s all the fuss about?
With Trump delegating some of the major aspects of his presidential campaign to the RNC, the committee has in turn focused its efforts almost exclusively on building an operation to turn out voters on his behalf, and it has done manful work promoting the project. Senior RNC officials held an off-the-record dinner with reporters to tout its effectiveness, and they routinely pepper journalists with updates on its progress. Reince Priebus recently gave the reporter Mark Halperin an inside look at the RNC’s efforts on Halperin’s Showtime series The Circus.
Yet many GOP strategists, the vast majority of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid criticizing their own party, remain skeptical that the reality lives up to the hype. One Romney-campaign veteran calls this an effort on the committee’s behalf to “muddy the waters” — that is, to distract attention from an otherwise disastrous campaign season. “Look at some of the worst moments of the 2012 campaign. You know, [Romney campaign manager Matt] Rhoades would say, ‘We gotta muddy the waters.’ I do think the RNC, with what they have and with what this year is like, I think it’s all they have to talk about right now. They have to muddy the waters.”
The reality is that, while the RNC’s footprint in key swing states is more robust than it was in 2012, it still falls short of the goals the committee set earlier this year — and, more important, of the Clinton campaign’s presence on the ground. In May, Republicans were supposed to have 220 paid staffers in Ohio, a must-win state for Trump; today, with only five weeks to go until the election, they have just 117, according to an RNC spokeswoman. That, in turn, is less than half of the 300-odd staffers the Clinton campaign has in the Buckeye State.
Local reviews are less than enthusiastic. A top Republican operative in Ohio calls the effort “a paper tiger.” “Take it from a guy who’s on the ground and who speaks to operatives in several other states on the ground: They are not doing anything,” the operative says, adding that whatever the GOP’s efforts, the party remains “light years behind Hillary.”
While Clinton has a machine on her side, Trump has a level of enthusiasm she cannot hope to match.
Yet Trump looks on track to cruise to victory in what has historically been a key swing state, albeit one with a growing white population that has been trending Republican in recent years. He leads the Real Clear Politics polling average of Ohio by 3.7 percentage points and has led the state in every public poll conducted for the past month. The trend has forced the Clinton campaign into the position of pushing back on the notion that it is abandoning Ohio to Trump. When she returned there for the first time in 29 days on Monday, the Washington Post heralded her arrival with a piece chronicling the ordeal of a lowly Clinton-campaign aide in Columbus attempting to win converts. The piece, appearing under the headline “Inside Clinton’s Struggle to Win over College Students in Ohio,” depicted in microcosm the campaign’s larger struggles there.
In Florida, another must-win state for Trump, the story is much the same. Until last month, his campaign had virtually organization to speak of there: just one campaign office compared with Clinton’s 51. And though the RNC now has 213 paid field workers on the ground there and Trump has since parachuted in a new state director, the Clinton campaign has deployed a 500-person army across the state. Of the GOP’s ground game, one Republican operative working on Rubio’s Senate reelection says: “We just don’t see them down here. In June and July, they had nothing happening down here. Literally what the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee] told us was, ‘You guys should assume that there will not be a single voter contact made other than some limited TV.’”
Yet despite these struggles, the Tampa Bay Times reports that it is the Clinton campaign facing an uphill battle, “struggling to meet its goals for voter registration and other outreach benchmarks.” The article compiles a litany of complaints from Democrats about the lack of enthusiasm for their nominee, some calling the campaign “underwhelming and stressful,” others griping that despite her gargantuan effort, Clinton still needs to establish “more of a presence.” Florida representative Alcee Hastings reports that he has sent the message that the Clinton campaign needs to “recalibrate.”
Unsurprisingly, the academic literature on the effectiveness of ground game offers no definitive conclusion. In their landmark book The Gamble, the political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck concluded that it offered marginal benefits — about three-tenths of a point in counties where Obama had one field office and six-tenths of a point where he had two or more, and smaller for Romney, whose operation was considered less effective. The authors conducted a simulation removing the effect of Obama’s field offices and concluded they earned him about 248,000 votes. The latest study, from Harvard’s Ryan Enos and the University of Chicago’s Anthony Fowler, reaches the opposite conclusion. Using data from the 2012 election, the researchers compared turnout among voters in the same television market but in different states — some in swing states swarming with field workers, others ignored by door-knockers and phone-bankers entirely. They found about a 7 percent increase in the likelihood of a voter’s turning out if he was contacted by a campaign, and another 7 percent increase on top of that if he was contacted a second time. And yet, Enos and Fowler conclude that Obama’s field operation, despite the mythical status it has achieved, was only marginally more effective than Romney’s.
The 2016 election, which has upended every assumption about politics and political campaigning, will certainly offer more — and more definitive — data. “For a long time now, there has been this unwritten understanding among people who would say, ‘Usually ground game is worth two or three points,’” says David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who helped run Jeb Bush’s campaign. Yet Kochel predicts that the November election may debunk that conventional wisdom. Trump’s rickety operation, he predicts, is “not going to cost him anything,” while Clinton’s glittering enterprise is “not going to benefit her very much.”
That’s because while Clinton has a machine on her side, Trump has a level of enthusiasm she cannot hope to match. With “candidates like Trump whose support is so intense, voters don’t need to have a knock on their door to go tell them to vote,” says another Republican strategist. “They’re ready to break down the doors to the polling place.”
Trump likes to point to the enormous crowds he turns out, which do show the intensity of his supporters. But he still lags in most national polls, and the question will be whether that intensity is enough to defeat Clinton’s less enthusiastic but potentially broader coalition. “Is Trump equipped to maximize the returns he could get from the ground game?” asks Sides. “Probably not. And given his position, he can’t afford to leave votes on the table.” An effective ground game harvests votes that the candidate and the other arms of a campaign, through television advertisements or otherwise, help create. If Trump loses, it will probably be because he hasn’t created enough of them.