Days before last week’s election, Democratic insiders were convinced that Hillary Clinton’s ground game would crush Donald Trump’s.
“Democrats have a plan and are executing it,” one North Carolina Democrat told Politico. “Republicans have no plan and frankly, no clue.”
Well, not exactly.
Last Tuesday it was Republicans who executed, and Democrats who fell short.
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Trump got 2.34 million votes in North Carolina on his way to winning the presidency. That was more than Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain got in 2012 and 2008, respectively.
Clinton won 2.16 million votes – fewer than Democrat Barack Obama garnered four years earlier.
“We thought we did a great job, but we got blindsided,” state Democratic Chair Patsy Keever said Tuesday.
For much of the campaign, Democrats touted Clinton’s ground game – that is, identifying her voters and getting them to the polls – as her not-so-secret weapon. They thought, and hoped, that she had inherited the operation that twice carried Obama to national victory.
But it was Republicans who had the better turnout operation. And they found their inspiration in an unlikely source – Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“It would be malpractice to take something that was successful and worked for a campaign and ignore it,” said Kara Carter, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “Our ground game is due in part to inspiration from the Obama campaign. But we made it our own and integrated more sophisticated data and targeting.”
The Republican ground game started after the 2012 election, when GOP Chairman Reince Priebus had the party focus on Obama-style grassroots organizing rather than saving money for a final blitz of TV ads.
“Chairman Priebus has changed the role of the RNC,” GOP spokesman Sean Spicer said in a 2013 memo. “The lesson from 2012 is we must have a permanent ground game. We must engage with voters year-round in their communities. …”
Josh Kivett, the RNC’s regional political director, said the GOP did exactly that in North Carolina. “We’ve been on the ground since 2013, and we never left,” he said.
Kivett said the effort paid off in 2014, when Republican Thom Tillis defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.
Here’s how the ground game worked this year: Republicans divided the state into 118 “turfs.” Each one had up to 10,000 target voters. Teams of trained volunteers staffed each turf, identifying loyal as well as “low-propensity” voters.
While the Clinton campaign touted the number of field offices, Republicans met with voters in living rooms and coffee shops, including many in rural areas.
“We did not come in as the wise old folks,” Kivett said. “We came in to listen and learn.”
With a team of 1,263 paid staff and trained organizers, Carter said Republicans knocked on more doors and made more personal contacts than in all of 2012. They’d visit voters and download information about their interests and inclinations into a phone app. The information would then move into a giant database to further refine the party’s appeals.
When Trump won the nomination, new volunteers enlisted. “They wanted a vehicle to harness their enthusiasm,” Kivett said, “and we gave them that.”
Analysts have pointed to an “enthusiasm gap” that cost Clinton votes. That was evident when more than 3 million North Carolinians voted early. Democratic turnout in early voting was slightly down from 2012, and Republicans’ was up by 13 percent. Unaffiliated turnout was up about 40 percent.
“I’ve noticed that after the last several election periods, the Republicans sound very quiet but they’ve got a lot going on,” Keever said.
Kivett said the permanent ground game is here to stay.
“It can’t go away. North Carolina is a state that’s going to be important for every cycle going forward,” he said. “We’re committed.”