But is it too little, too late? Donald Trump and his campaign have repeatedly dismissed the importance of ground organization in the presidential campaign, emphasizing instead the candidate’s ability to exploit the media for coverage and the political impact of big rallies. Now that the conventions are over and polling looks problematic for Team Trump in a number of swing states, they have started looking more closely at key counties in swing states, Politico reports this morning:
These battlegrounds — spread across the 11 battleground states from Jefferson County in Colorado to Brown County in Wisconsin to Scott County in Iowa — have become epicenters of the 2016 campaign. Both campaigns know it too, and that’s why the candidates and their surrogates have been scrambling to crisscross the country for personal visits to these places as the White House race enters a final lap.
Close to 50 interviews with GOP and Democratic party chairs from 25 of the most vital counties on the map — counties that are poised to play a major role in determining their state’s outcome either because of their size or voting history — revealed Trump himself is on his own mission to learn as much as he can from the local officials who know their voters the best.
That’s the good news. The bad news? Team Hillary began playing for the general election in these counties months ago:
And the Clinton campaign is methodically working to lock down these pivotal places by leveraging the family’s longtime relationships with local officials and activating a field organization that’s far more extensive than the ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants effort on the GOP side.
Politico’s list of 25 counties include six of the seven counties I researched for my book, Going Red. The only county in the book not included is Prince William County, Virginia, but Politico does include neighboring Loudoun County. My main point in the book is to demonstrate how national, top-down campaigning derailed the GOP in a winnable 2012 election, and how it takes the kind of peer-to-peer politics that has only grown more necessary over the last decade to roll back Democratic gains in areas Republicans still win on the local and state level.
If Team Trump really has turned that corner and started paying attention to this level of detail, that’s good news, and it may not be too late. The RNC has had its own network on the ground in these key areas for more than a year, waiting for the nominee to put it to its full, intended use. However, that presidential campaign has to orient itself to a ground-up approach in order to make full use of the advantages the Republican Leadership Initiative provides.
If this report is solid, we should start seeing the campaign do more to contextualize the Trump agenda into the local issues that voters see first and foremost, and Going Red describes a number of these in each of the seven swing counties. That includes listening to feedback on messaging and being nimble enough to adapt to it. The question will be whether Trump himself is willing to adapt on the fly to such feedback, and whether the campaign itself will be robust enough to process that data.
On that note, there is a hopeful signal that emerges from this Politico report. The key, as I wrote in the book, was to engage local Republicans with track records of success rather than to air-drop outside officials and consultants to run those campaigns. If Trump is engaging “local officials who know their voters the best,” then he’s a step ahead of the 2012 campaign — even if he’s getting there a little late.