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Trump’s campaign wants to salvage his ground game. But an expert says “the damage is done.”

Eric Trump Joins Volunteers At Trump NH HQ To Get Out The Vote On Primary Day
Volunteers for Trump.
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Less than a month from Election Day, Donald Trump is behind by double digits in the polls. It’s clear his campaign needs to do everything it can to get out the vote.

It’s also clear that Trump does not have a normal campaign; it is small, apparently disorganized, and, compared with Hillary Clinton’s operation, woefully behind in conventional campaign tactics. Trump is notably lagging.

In September, his then newly appointed campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said it was her intention to overhaul the campaign’s ground game tactics. "Mr. Trump is an unconventional candidate, but I have an appreciation for ... conventional tactics," Conway said, according to CNN. "We've got to invest in the fundamentals. ... Do I wish these things had been done before? Sure. But we're trying to accelerate it, and not abandon it."

But is it too late? Even if the Trump campaign has been building up his operation since September, it is irrefutable that Clinton’s campaign has invested more resources for much longer.

To ask, I called up Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the author of Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, a study of the resurgence of ground game in American politics. As the forms of political communication popular in the 1990s — like dominating the mainstream media and using political advertising — have become diluted, Nielsen makes the case that personalized political communication, with staffers and volunteers talking to voters on the ground, is an increasingly impactful arm of competitive political campaigns.

His insight on the 2016 election: Trump certainly didn’t do himself any favors by deprioritizing his ground game, and that could have adverse effects on the Republican Party in the future.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Tara Golshan

We have one candidate, Hillary Clinton, who is running close to a textbook campaign. Then you have Trump, who is only now, with his most recent hires in Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Bannon, building some ground game. It’s not nothing, but it’s still minuscule compared to Clinton’s operation. How unprecedented is this imbalance?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

We have probably not seen this kind of imbalance since the ’70s. The closest historical analogy is the George McGovern/Nixon race — where you have one candidate who is clearly in the mainstream of his party and has the support of the conventional funders, activists, and the party organization, and you have another candidate [who] is a very polarizing figure with strong support from a subset of the party but whom many from the mainstream of the party regard with great skepticism.

I live in Europe now, and we have more experience in Europe than Americans with political candidates that are seen as extreme by much of the establishment but actually do much better with the electorate than worthy observers expect them to do. I think we have seen many of the same tendencies — that if people do not expect you to be very measured and controlled and on message all the time, they never expect that of you. Donald Trump’s campaign has understood that he is not held to those [campaign] standards, and that gives him room to maneuver. That is very, very different for Hillary Clinton.

Tara Golshan

In your writings about the history of ground game, you call this era the resurgence of the “ground war.” Does Donald Trump’s approach — focusing on media messaging — shift that trend back?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

I don’t think [the resurgence] is shifting at all. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign were prioritizing other forms of campaign communication, that would really signify a large structural and pragmatic shift of how campaigns think about strategic communication. But Donald Trump’s campaign is as unusual as he is as a candidate. I think we know for sure that had the candidate from the Republican Party been Scott Walker or Jeb Bush, then the Republican Party would try to operate in the same way that the Hillary Clinton campaign is operating.

Tara Golshan

Fair enough. Does this punch any holes in how we think about how effective or imperative having a ground game is? There have been times this election cycle where you could argue Clinton wasn’t doing as well as she would like, even having such a robust ground operation.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Well, I would push back against that in two ways. A lot of political science work that would try to estimate the likely outcome of this presidential election on the basis of fundamentals — economic fundamentals, and what we know from history on the relative advantage of incumbency versus being a challenger — would actually suggest that this very well could be a Republican year. Compared to that baseline, Mr. Trump is not doing as well.

What is important to realize is that one can be competitive in many different ways. One way to be competitive is to do things by the book. Another way to be competitive is to offer something completely new that some people find attractive and seems to be the approach of Mr. Trump.

Tara Golshan

So is the point here that for Clinton, ground game is important, but Donald Trump doesn’t seem to need it?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

I think there is no question that Donald Trump would be more competitive if they had a better ground game.

Clinton Campaign Workers Prepare For South Carolina Primary Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Tara Golshan

Let me frame this in another way. Past research says ground game can improve a candidate’s odds by 1 to 5 percentage points. Given the truly abnormal nature of this campaign, how would you go about studying the effects of ground game in this election?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

The disadvantage of the Trump campaign is in its ability to turn out voters — we will only know after Election Day how significant that advantage is when we see the difference between the polls and the actual outcome.

You can think of turning out voters in two different ways: One is to say that you turn them out by making sure they do not forget, they are registered to vote, they send in their early ballots when possible, and on and on. All the things that ground operations are mostly focused on; the nuts and bolts of turning out the vote.

Another way to turn out your supporters is to ratchet up the intensity of the choice they face. If you can convince large parts of the public that this is a defining moment in political history and if you don’t get out and vote for your candidate, things will go very badly, that’s another way to turn out the vote. That doesn’t rely on a ground game, and it is relatively clear that the Trump campaign relied on the second version. It was message-driven and not driven by a ground game.

Personally, I think it is very unlikely that that alone will let the campaign realize its full potential. They are at a significant disadvantage — but we will only know in November.

Tara Golshan

Explain the case for investing in a ground game.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

One thing that is a little bit overlooked is the extent to which building a good ground game relies on years of investment, in staff but also in technology: building voter databases and interfaces, and making them useful in the field. It’s just clear not only that the Democratic Party was ahead of the Republican Party in 2012 but also that the ability of the Republican Party to narrow that gap or to overcome that gap has been significantly undermined by the fact that the party nominee has not prioritized investing and catching up here.

One side of this question of campaigning is: Where do you place your bets, where do you invest your money, what is your messaging in terms of strategy and organization?

But you can’t buy this off the shelf. You can’t order a good database even if you have all the money in the world. You can’t just go to Amazon and buy a perfect voter file and the technology to put it to use. There is an important question of whether the Republican Party is falling even further behind in having an effective infrastructure for an effective ground game and a competitive ground game.

Tara Golshan

So when Kellyanne Conway admitted that the Trump campaign was behind in building a ground game, but that they weren’t going to give up, you’re saying the damage has been done.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

The damage is done. You can’t unfurl a cutting-edge ground operation in such a short period of time. There is no question about that. That is simply impossible. You can always invest and always improve, but you can’t possibly put together the kind of operation or the kind of infrastructure that it would require to have a fully competitive organization.

The fundamental issue here is that when you think about American political parties, there is no centralized decision-making. The only time you have that is when you have an incumbent president who will run for reelection.

We saw this very clearly in the 2000s. George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2004 was the most sophisticated, well-organized, and professional campaign in a long time. It was an extraordinarily well-run and well-thought-through campaign in part because they knew who the candidate was going to be. They could fundraise. They could invest. They could collaborate with the state parties and other actors. Again, the 2012 Barack Obama campaign was a similar story: It was a very well-run and professionally organized and well-thought-through campaign in part because of the fact that they knew who was running and they could build the organization around that.

But if you are out of power and you don’t have a presumptive nominee, and then you have a primary process that leads to a candidate that then is regarded with some skepticism by many of the players you need to line up — but also if that candidate, in particular, himself does not chose to catch up — then it becomes very difficult.

Donald Trump Miami Press Conference
Trump has relied heavily on the media and press conferences to get out his message.
Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Tara Golshan

You write that there is no evidence that supports the idea of a consistent decline of face-to-face communication in politics. That campaigns cannot rely on “the media” alone to do it. Donald Trump is relying on the media. How does that change the impact of ground game for Clinton?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

That only increases the importance of a good ground game for the candidates that want to run a conventional campaign.

My fundamental argument in Ground Wars is that the modes of political communication that dominated in the 1990s were a heavy emphasis in controlling the mainstream media through spin and PR and heavy emphasis in television advertising focusing on voters who were unlikely to pay much attention to newspapers and television news. Those dominant forms of campaign communication became weaker, because fewer and fewer voters who could be persuaded could be reached through television advertising.

On one end, [there is] a sort of engagement strategy of using social media and digital media where you engage with your core supporters in a much closer and [more] direct way than in the past.

But most importantly, [there is] this investment in the much larger ground operation putting many more people — volunteers but also paid staffers — to work, and relying on much, much more sophisticated technology in terms of targeting those contacts.

Tara Golshan

Campaign advertising experts will say it is very hard to measure impact. Is it the same with ground game?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

There is no question that longer-term persuasion is really difficult to actually measure. We know that any effect present at one point in time is very likely to decay over time. People will be cultivated through a lifetime of exposure. In many ways, it is very artificial too — each one of us is touched by hundreds of different messages every day of a political nature. Trying to isolate the effect of one individual message is almost too artificial to help us understand how any political communication works.

But ultimately, in some ways, ground game is a much simpler thing to understand, because it is less about persuasion and more about turnout. You have a very clear measure of whether people turn out or not, and you have direct data.

Persuasion is very hard to accomplish. Motivation and activation are demonstrably doable — in particular if you have personal contacts and in particular if you have motivated volunteers going door to door.


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