None of the Republican candidates know how to do field — especially Trump

Field campaigns aren’t complicated, but they’re really difficult to do well. That’s because the single most effective way a campaign can win votes — targeted voter contact — is straightforward and labor-intensive. It takes countless hours recruiting and training volunteers, who then have countless conversations with voters on the phone and at their doors. You build as big of a list of identified supporters as you can, and then when Election Day rolls around you make sure everyone on your list shows up to vote.

In the general election, where the vast majority of voters can’t be swayed, a field campaign is considered to be a raging success if it moves the needle by one or two percentage points. In a primary or caucus, however, there are far more votes up for grabs. What’s more, since the ideological differences between the candidates are far smaller, a personal appeal from a local volunteer is much more likely to factor into someone’s vote choice. So if targeted voter contact is the most worthwhile investment a campaign can make in the general election, that’s even more true in the primaries.

Which is why it’s so fascinating that the entire Republican field remains so bad at it.

According to the New York Times, Donald Trump’s field operation is particularly embarrassing:

Donald Trump, via iprimages / Flickr

Donald Trump, via iprimages / Flickr

One volunteer leader enlisted by Donald J. Trump to turn out Iowa voters has yet to knock on a single door or to make a phone call. Another is a “9/11 truther” with a website claiming that the Sept. 11 attacks were a government conspiracy. A third caucus precinct captain, who like the others attended a training session in West Des Moines last month, said the campaign’s goal of having them each enlist 25 supporters was unrealistic.

“There’s probably not even 25 registered voters in a precinct,” said the captain, Kathy Hawk, a retired trauma therapist in Ottumwa, who began making calls only on Monday.

Some volunteers in charge of turning out supporters to caucus on Feb. 1 are given lists of all registered Republicans in their precincts to contact, ignoring the large number of independents and Democrats who appear to be leaning toward Mr. Trump. Moreover, the volunteers urge people to caucus regardless of whom they support, which risks turning out voters for Mr. Trump’s rivals.

“I got 12 to go to the caucus, but I don’t know if they will actually vote forDonald Trump,” said Rick Shaddock, a precinct captain in Fairfield and the one who maintains the Sept. 11 conspiracy site.

Mr. Shaddock said one of Mr. Trump’s senior Iowa operatives, Marshall Critchfield, had told him not to bring up his conspiracy views when calling voters.

Okay, so that’s really bad. But the Times should be careful before claiming, as they do in their article, that this means Trump’s field campaign is at a massive disadvantage against the “well-oiled machines of other leading candidates.” Just because your volunteers know better than to say that Bush did 9/11 doesn’t mean that your ground game is something to be admired. And yet, here is the evidence the Times provides to back up their claim that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are positively dominating Trump on the ground:

Seven volunteers worked the phones at the Iowa headquarters of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida in a Des Moines suburb one night last week. At the state headquarters of Mr. Cruz, there were 24 volunteers in a room beneath a sign proclaiming a daily goal of making 6,000 calls. The Trump state headquarters in West Des Moines were largely deserted.

24 volunteers for one phonebank is respectable (seven isn’t terrible, either), but bear in mind that these numbers are coming out of these candidates’ state headquarters. Rubio doesn’t have any other offices in Iowa, and from what Marco Rubio’s campaign has said about the relative merits of field organizing, it’s highly unlikely that there are seven Rubio volunteers congregated anywhere else in the state on a regular basis. Ted Cruz currently has two offices in Iowa, and he didn’t open his first until six months after he officially launched his presidential bid. So even if that 6,000 daily call goal is the daily call goal for that office alone — as opposed to the statewide goal that it very well could be — it’s safe to say that that represents the bulk of Cruz’s organizing capacity.

Bernie Sanders had 23 offices in Iowa listed as of the end of last month. Hillary Clinton had 26, most of which opened before Ted Cruz had a single office in the state. Even Martin O’Malley has three Iowa offices — the same number as Cruz and Rubio combined. Cruz’s ground game, which the Times is holding up as the high water mark for GOP field efforts in Iowa, would be getting positively embarrassed in Iowa if it were matched up against Clinton’s or Sanders’s field efforts.

Donald Trump has set a pitifully low bar to clear for what passes as a solid ground game in a race where the marginal benefit of every door knocked and phone call made could not be higher. Just because your volunteers are encouraged to make more than eight calls at a time doesn’t mean you’ve got an objectively dominant ground game. Cruz and Rubio’s field operations may better than their opponents’, but they’re leagues behind what would count as an average Democratic field operation.

Something to keep in mind for reporters covering ground-level organizing in these early states.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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3 Responses to “None of the Republican candidates know how to do field — especially Trump”

  1. William K Mabra says:

    Just ask yourself the question if Donald Trump didnt already have billions and wasnt funding most of his campaign himself would he even be considered a viable candidate for U.S. president? very doubtful.
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  3. BeccaM says:

    What’s even more embarrassing is the millions of dollars worth of free air time and advertising being given to Der Trumpenfuhrer every single goddamned day.

    And it’s not just Faux News — MSNBC, CNN, the regular broadcast networks, they’re all doing it. Through the holidays, my wife and I had a running bet as to whether MSNBC would have more prison shows or more Trump propaganda. It was close, but the prison shows seemed to come out ahead, but not by much.

    Something else to keep in mind is Trumpolini may not NEED a ground operation, if every time he says something outrageous or bigoted, his face is plastered all over TV. Eventually, y’know what happens? Otherwise decent but gullible American voters will think it’s actually okay again to be a publicly racist, misogynistic, homophobic bigot — and to vote one of their own into the Oval Office.

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