As it happens, the RNC expected its nominee to lack a serious ground game, so this overlooked report from the Associated Press last night doesn’t exactly indicate disaster. It does, however, raise some questions about how much Donald Trump will need to rely on the RNC — and whether he’s temperamentally suited to that kind of team environment as a candidate:
The Republican presidential nomination may be in his sights, yet Donald Trump has so far ignored vital preparations needed for a quick and effective transition to the general election.
The New York businessman has collected little information about tens of millions of voters he needs to turn out in the fall. He’s sent few people to battleground states compared with likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, accumulated little if any research on her, and taken no steps to build a network capable of raising the roughly $1 billion needed to run a modern-day general election campaign.
“He may be able to get by on bluster and personality during the primaries, but the general election is a whole different ballgame,” said Ryan Williams, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. “They’re essentially starting from zero heading into the general election.”
Actually, they aren’t — and they can thank Reince Priebus for that. In the 2013 autopsy (called the Growth & Opportunity Project by the RNC), the lack of ground-up organization in the 2012 presidential loss was cited as one of the reasons for Mitt Romney’s loss. The campaign spent all of its primary cash fighting other Republicans, and struggled to organize effectively for the general election. The autopsy noted the qualitative contrasts that resulted in field operations:
There is a strong consensus that we have not invested the financial resources in a labor pool that can actively conduct and run “in-person” contact at the ground level. The Obama campaign budgeted its spending to ensure the most personal forms of voter contact were a priority. But they went beyond this. They gave volunteers and field staff flexibility in implementation and creativity in decision-making to get the most out of their field teams. And they acted based on information they received from volunteers through their voter contact operation. We need to write campaign plans that reflect an increased presence of field staff in states starting much earlier than we have done in the past. …
First and foremost, with respect to campaign mechanics, there was general consensus and concern about the quality of our voter contacts in comparison to our competition. Despite reaching more voters than ever before through traditional forms of voter contact, we lost. Our conversion rates from contact to votes are a serious challenge for future campaigns and the 2016 presidential race. And volunteer contact has to be used not only to identify voters but also to persuade them to support our candidates.
Democrats had the clear edge on new media and ground game, in terms of both reach and effectiveness. Obama’s campaign knocked on twice as many doors as the Romney campaign, and Obama’s campaign had a ballot edge among those contacted by both campaigns.
In addition, the president’s campaign significantly changed the makeup of the national electorate and identified, persuaded, and turned out low-propensity voters by unleashing a barrage of human and technological resources previously unseen in a presidential contest. Marrying grassroots politics with technology and analytics, they successfully contacted, persuaded and turned out their margin of victory. There are many lessons to be learned from their efforts, particularly with respect to voter contact.
Another consistent theme that emerged from our conversations related to mechanics is the immediate need for the RNC and Republicans to foster what has been referred to as an “environment of intellectual curiosity” and a “culture of data and learning,” and the RNC must lead this effort.
By the time I began to travel to swing states to do research for Going Red, the RNC had built a considerable network already. In an exclusive interview for the book, RNC chair Reince Priebus explained the use of the Republican Leadership Initiative (RLI), and the reason that the party’s donors agreed to take that cost off the hands of the eventual nominee:
“The way national parties have worked over the years is that we accumulate cash, we wait for a nominee, and then we spend that money,” Priebus says. “But I can’t show up in Cleveland and Cincinnati for the first time in four years in September of 2016 and expect to have an impact on the community. So the basic premise of this is that if you are going to compete in Hispanic, black, or Asian communities, and compete better with veterans and people of faith, you have to work on it on a year-round basis.” …
“At the end of 2014, I think we had over 4,200 paid employees. When I walked in the door here, we had less than 80,” Priebus says. The RLI “hire[s] people from the communities that we want to influence, from the community to stay in the community, to then meet metrics that we set,” he explains. “That means one-on-one meetings for that community, and that means not just necessarily sitting around talking about fracking and clean coal; it means having a pizza party, bringing a band in, once in a while giving hot dogs out and talking to people, and then going to community events.” …
Priebus wants to lift that burden from the candidate by building a turnkey operation that can coordinate with the eventual nominee, no matter who he or she is. “The fact is,” Priebus says, “when you’ve got sixteen candidates, they’re raising money to win a nomination fight in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. They are not necessarily worried about how many voter registrations we’re picking up in Florida, Ohio, or Nevada. That’s our problem.”
Of course, the candidate would have to decide whether to use this RNC turnkey organization, but as Priebus says, they would have to be crazy to pass it up. “We sit down with the nominee and say, here you go. We’ve not only got our finances straight, we’ve got the $26 million waiting in the presidential trust for you,” Priebus says. “We’ve got this field operation with this many thousands or however many the amount of people. We got a data operation that is something that we can be proud of. We’ve got our act together when it comes to our digital operation as well. That’s what a competent national party needs to be able to do.”
Reprinted (or Adapted) from GOING RED: THE TWO MILLION VOTERS WHO WILL ELECT THE NEXT PRESIDENT—AND HOW CONSERVATIVES CAN WIN THEM Copyright © 2016 by Ed Morrissey, published by Crown Forum, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Two weeks ago, Trump talked about kicking Priebus to the curb, but apparently cooler heads have prevailed. By yesterday afternoon — before Priebus called Trump the “presumptive GOP nominee” — his campaign spoke much more approvingly of Priebus’ preparations:
Lewandowski and other aides have also signaled a willingness to work closely with the Republican National Committee should Trump claim the nomination — “hand in glove,” in Lewandowski’s words.
Ed Brookover is working from a recently opened Washington-area office that is tasked with developing Trump’s detailed policy prescriptions and working with allies on Capitol Hill.
“From all reports — we’ve not gone in and kicked the tires yet — the RNC’s got a larger ground game already in place than ever before,” Brookover said. “And they’ve been investing an incredible amount of money on data.” He said that’s “going to be incredibly helpful.”
This still requires a presidential campaign to orient itself for peer-to-peer politics and ground-up communications. As the autopsy pointed out, the Obama campaign didn’t just use their network for data collection; they used the network to campaign in every critical neighborhood and to contextualize their agenda into the lives of those voters. Having the tools is essential, but using the tools is equally important, for many reasons covered in Going Red, and not just in the presidential election. Much of this depends on a willingness to listen to elected local and state-level officials about the best way to engage the constituents they know best, and how to expand the party footprint.
Still, that’s some kind of welcome-wagon gift basket from the RNC. We’ll see how much Team Trump’s inclined to use it.
Update: Gift basket, not basked. Fixed above.