Like Opportunity Lives editor in chief John Hart, I should take a moment to proudly exclaim, “I told you so!” While the rest of the world mocked strategists like me as “poll truthers” unwilling to face the cold, hard facts, those of us with experience running campaigns knew they’d soon regret their taunts.
On Monday night, Trump finished a very disappointing second, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tying him for the most concrete metric with both candidates securing seven delegates to the convention in July 2016. With Trump receiving the vast majority of GOP primary earned media coverage and an astronomical built-in name ID, it seemed unlikely Trump would perform as poorly as he did.
Pollsters, pundits and media repeatedly proclaimed that a high voter participation in the GOP caucuses would mean a massive win for Donald Trump. They failed to consider, however, that a record turnout could be mainline Iowa Republicans who typically can’t be bothered to participate in the caucuses but would this year to prevent Trump from winning the caucuses or ending up as the nominee.
Even on election night, it was clear Trump knew he’d lose. He appeared sincerely distraught and worn out, clearly surprised by his own failure and crestfallen at his humiliation. While his “victory” speech was pretty tepid, he hasn’t done himself any favors since.
Americans have gasped in horror as they’ve witnessed him publicly work through his grief process. First, there was denial: he loves Iowans, wants to buy a farm there and appreciates his second place showing. Then, there was excuse-making: the media failed to appreciate that he was practically self-funded (not true), he was never going to win anyway and no one gave him a chance. Finally, there was a most stupendous crescendo: his opponents engaged in fraudulent behavior at the Iowa caucuses and in order to rectify this, the results must be nullified or a new election in Iowa must occur, otherwise he’d sue. Seriously.
This is really not a good look, especially by such a self-proclaimed “winner at life.” His borderline meltdown, which was even mocked by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh Wednesday, does little to signal confidence leading up to next week’s primary in New Hampshire, where Trump fully believes he’ll win. But the Hillary Clinton-backing billionaire mogul has more than Twitter temper tantrums to worry about for contests in the Granite State and beyond: he’s got no “ground game.”
For quite some time, Trump has seemingly relied upon rousing speeches and his fans telling him what he wants to hear, and even those crowds seem to be waning. He also wrongly believed that those individuals attending his rallies were a lock to be supporters for him. That was a risky bet, since many were merely showing up to see a celebrity at the height of his newsworthiness or were from out of town, traveling to the nearest rally location to see the show for themselves.
But that’s not how you win elections. You win elections by identifying your supporters, contacting them and motivating them to vote for you on Election Day. Your campaign’s job is to make it as easy as possible for people with a propensity to support you to turn their positive feelings toward you (or negative ones toward your opponent) into an action that serves your purpose, such as volunteering, making a donation, boosting you on social media, recruiting other supporters, or most importantly, actually pulling the lever for you.
Rick Wilson, a long-time conservative strategist with close ties to Rubio’s operation, says Trump lacked a modern ground game operation, and that ultimately sank him in Iowa.
“[It] isn’t just traditional door-knockers and phones. It’s integrated data operation using the voter file, rolling polling and social media search information to target voters, and to ensure the people you need to get to the polls do,” Wilson said. “It’s a logistics operation that keeps hitting your people with phone calls, emails and texts to make sure they’ve mailed that absentee ballot or gone to the polls on Election Day.”
“Eventbrite is not a data program,” Wilson quipped, alluding to the Trump campaign’s reliance upon mining the limited contact information rally attendees provide when registering for one of his events.
Indeed, Trump invested virtually no time or effort into developing a real “ground game” that could identify, persuade and motivate his potential supporters. In fact, Politico reported Tuesday that his campaign spent $1.2 million on his signature “Make America Great Again” hats — more than they spent on data development or voter outreach for the Iowa caucuses.
On Tuesday night, Trump conceded on Fox News’s “Hannity” that he lacked any semblance of a ground game in Iowa. He would change that, he promised, for future primary elections. Could a quickly concocted ground game offset all the damage Trump has done to himself over his Iowa performance, bringing his high poll numbers in New Hampshire to fruition?
According to Katy Tur with NBC News, Trump’s campaign handed out crudely designed recruitment fliers for prospective volunteers in New Hampshire. “Walkin’ & Talkin’ for Donald J. Trump” invites supporters to visit one of the campaign’s three New Hampshire locations in Manchester, New Market or Keene to help get his message out.
Trump does have a built-in advantage, Wilson argues, because his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski (now famous for allegedly repeatedly threatening Fox News host Megyn Kelly), is from the Granite State and is very adept at grassroots organizing there.
“New Hampshire is a primary, so it’s easier in some ways. Turnout operations will still matter. You need people on the phones, in the field, getting the buses and other transportation to the polls, running properly,” Wilson explained. “It’s a smaller logistical tail than Iowa, but you still need to drive it by data.”
But is it too little, too late? Late last month, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York interviewed several New Hampshire voters. In nearly all cases, these Republicans could not name a single person they knew who would be voting for Trump. York pointed out, however, that Trump’s support might lie within a group of voters who typically don’t turn out for Republican confabs or even the primaries.
Still, without a well-established ground game in New Hampshire, can Trump get those newfound supporters to the polls? Without a voter turnout program, can Trump really win New Hampshire — and if so, by the standards he’d need in order to neutralize his humiliating loss in Iowa and cement his role as a frontrunner?
As veteran pollster Adrian Gray points out, 62 percent of Republicans in the Granite State decided their pick for the GOP primary in the final week before the election. If Iowa’s late-breaking trends are any indication, that number could very well increase in 2016, meaning that voters Trump is counting on might not be such a sure thing for him after all.
As often as Trump and his supporters remind us that he’s an unconventional candidate, unlike any other before him, his refusal to do the work necessary to win elections isn’t novel or innovative. It’s just plain foolish.
This article first appeared at Opportunity Lives.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company. She is a former presidential campaign spokeswoman and senior congressional aide.