Rob Christensen

Clinton has bigger ground game than Trump – Christensen

Young voters hold signs and cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh in September.
Young voters hold signs and cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh in September.

The debates are over. Tens of millions of TV ads have been aired. Arenas have hosted large political rallies.

Now the ground game — the shoe leather part of of the campaign — takes on added importance, with the early voting period having begun last week.

The turnout effort is expected to be huge in North Carolina, given that the state is regarded as critical in the presidential race, has the most-watched governor’s race in the country and could determine whether the U.S. Senate flips from Republican control to the Democrats.

But it is not likely to be as large as during the the last two presidential elections, because the Democratic effort will not be headed by Barack Obama and because Republican Donald Trump seems to prefer big rallies to the less glamorous ground game.

The Democrats seem to have an edge over the Republicans in turnout efforts, both here and across the nation.

The Democrats have 27 field offices in North Carolina compared with 11 for the Republicans, according to the FiveThirtyEight political blog and by my own count. (Nationally, the Democrats have 489 field offices while the Republicans have 207 offices.)

According to the blog, the Republican field offices are often poorly placed in Democratic-leaning areas. The Orange County GOP field office that was barbarously and criminally firebombed last weekend was in one of the most Democratic leaning counties in the state.

The Democrats also seem to have far more staff operatives in the state, with staff even working in such small but Democratic-leaning areas as Bertie County in the northeast. Democrats say there are more than 150 staffers in the state with some 40,000 volunteers.

“This is a ground game that is as robust as we have seen since 2008,” said Brad Crone, a veteran Democratic consultant. “There is no comparison between what the Democrats have done with their field plan and what the Republicans have done.”

Early voting

As usual, the Democrats are expected to put a greater emphasis on early voting, while Republicans will rely more on voting on Election Day.

During the George W. Bush years, led by strategist Karl Rove, the Republican turnout effort was judged superior to that of the Democrats.

But that changed during the Obama era, when the Illinois senator made an enormous grassroots effort to expand the electorate to include more African-Americans, college students and others.

In fall 2008, the Obama campaign had 47 field offices in North Carolina, and in 2012 it had 54 offices.

But more than staff and offices, the Obama organization introduced a new level of sophistication in data-driven politics to identify and contact voters.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s operation is smaller, but Democrats say if anything it is more sophisticated.

Few people think Clinton can energize Democratic voters the way Obama did. Which is why in recent days, the president and first lady have made campaign swings into the state. Both are expected to make robo-calls into Democratic households in the coming days to encourage people to vote.

Republicans may have their own problem energizing their base because of the controversial nature of Trump.

Shifting staff

Despite Trump’s lack of interest in the ground game, the Republican National Committee has been pouring resources into the state in recent weeks — essentially doubling its staff, and reportedly shifting people down from Virginia, where its prospects seem to be fading.

“My sense is we got a late start,” said Dan Gurley, former deputy political director and field director for the RNC. “We are playing catch up, but we are catching up.”

The Trump/RNC operation’s 11 field offices in North Carolina compare to 24 that Mitt Romney had in 2012, according to FiveThirtyEight.

But they say what they lack in bricks and mortar, they are making up with boots on the ground.

Although this is comparing apples and oranges, the RNC has said it had 61 staffers in North Carolina in 2012 and this year has 657 “staff/trained organizers,” a figure which seems to include a lot of volunteers.

Chairman “Robin Hayes at the N.C. GOP, along with the RNC and their large investments in North Carolina, have put together a strong ground game competitive with Hillary’s many offices,” said Jonathan Felts, former White House political director under President George W. Bush.

“But my observation is that Donald Trump doesn’t seem very interested in the ground game,” Felts said. “Whether intentional or not, Trump seems to have decided to run a grand experiment betting that earned media and a cult of personality is more important than grass-roots infrastructure. It’s not how I learned to win elections, but we’ll see who was right on Nov. 8.”

In one sign of a possible problem of enthusiasm in the Republican ranks, there has been a dropoff in mail ballots cast in North Carolina compared with the same period in 2012. Registered Republican mail-in votes are down 58 percent from four years ago, while mail-in votes of Democratic and unaffiliated voters are roughly the same as in 2012, according to political scientist Michael Bitzer’s Old North State Politics blog.

But as Gurley notes, no other presidential candidate this year has been able to draw the crowds Trump has, and that could translate to intensity at the ballot box.