The Big Mystery in Iowa: Donald Trump’s Ground Game

Even the experts don’t know if he has one – or whether it even matters

Supporters listen to Donald Trump in Iowa City, Iowa.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
S.V. Dáte
Jan. 27, 2016, 8 p.m.

MAR­SHALL­TOWN, Iowa—Don­ald Trump’s hopes of turn­ing real­ity TV in­to real­ity could well be in the hands of Barb Mat­ney.

She’s 57, a lifelong res­id­ent of this cent­ral Iowa town, and a sup­port­er of Trump’s pres­id­en­tial bid who re­cently signed up on his web­site to vo­lun­teer for his cam­paign. Last Sunday even­ing, eight days be­fore 2016 vot­ing starts with the Iowa caucuses, she fi­nally heard back.

“They called me the oth­er night and said I’d be a pre­cinct cap­tain,” she said as she stood in snow flur­ries wait­ing to enter a Trump rally. The job en­tails call­ing oth­er po­ten­tial Trump sup­port­ers in Mar­shall County to re­mind them to turn out Monday night at 7 p.m. Of course, to do that she needs names and phone num­bers—which, as of earli­er this week, she still had not re­ceived.

“I’ve asked for a list, and there’s only a few days left, so I hope it’s soon,” she said.

And therein lies the cent­ral mys­tery of the de­veloper-turned-real­ity-TV-star’s un­ortho­dox cam­paign: Is pre­cinct cap­tain Mat­ney’s in­ab­il­ity to get ba­sic cam­paign data the ex­cep­tion? Or the rule? And, with a can­did­ate who has re­lied on his abil­ity to hi­jack “earned me­dia” cov­er­age with out­rageous re­marks, does it even mat­ter? Even the ex­perts ad­mit they don’t know.

“Any­one who is be­ing hon­est with you will tell you that they have no earthly idea of what’s go­ing to hap­pen caucus night,” said Matt Strawn, a former chair­man of the Iowa Re­pub­lic­an Party.

The Trump cam­paign de­clined to share de­tails of its turnout op­er­a­tion with Na­tion­al Journ­al, and the Iowa of­fice staff sim­il­arly denied ac­cess to its work. But vis­its to oth­er cam­paign of­fices sug­gest that Trump’s get-out-the-vote-ef­fort pales com­pared to some of his rivals.

On a re­cent even­ing just a week out from caucus night, the Cruz Iowa headquar­ters hummed with activ­ity. Dozens of vo­lun­teers sat at fold­ing tables filling a large room in a sub­urb­an of­fice park. Each table was topped with a pair of black of­fice tele­phones. A sign on a wall stated a goal of 15,000 calls per day, and the vo­lun­teers made one call after an­oth­er, ap­pear­ing to read a script prin­ted on a piece of pa­per.

A few miles away, at the Jeb Bush Iowa headquar­ters, a dozen vo­lun­teers also made phone calls, but in an even more soph­ist­ic­ated fash­ion. Each had an open laptop run­ning a voter-data­base pro­gram, dis­play­ing de­tailed in­form­a­tion about the per­son on the oth­er end of the line, in­clud­ing what was said dur­ing pre­vi­ous calls and in-per­son con­tacts. The Bush cam­paign’s daily goal: 12,000 calls from the Des Moines headquar­ters and a Ce­dar Rap­ids field of­fice.

Also in the neigh­bor­hood, in yet an­oth­er of­fice park, was the Trump Iowa headquar­ters, where it was less clear what activ­ity was tak­ing place. A Trump staffer de­clined to give Na­tion­al Journ­al ac­cess to any­thing bey­ond the entry­way. In the course of an hour, not a single staff mem­ber or vo­lun­teer entered or ex­ited the build­ing.

The next day, at a nearby call cen­ter hired by Trump for phone-bank­ing, only eight vo­lun­teers had signed in by mid­day—by which time oth­er cam­paigns would have twice or three times as many people work­ing the phones.

How much dif­fer­ence this activ­ity—or in­activ­ity—will make is un­clear. Many voters don’t ap­pre­ci­ate get­ting un­so­li­cited phone calls.

A Trump rally at­tendee wear­ing a Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans patch and a no-Hil­lary T-shirt who would give only his first name (Frank) said he had re­ceived calls from the cam­paigns of Mike Hucka­bee, Marco Ru­bio, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz. “They get an ear­ful of pro­fan­ity and I slam the phone down,” he said.

“Many, many calls. I grew weary of the calls,” com­plained Tom Flynn, a 70-year-old law­yer at­tend­ing a Ru­bio rally in Des Moines. He said he oc­ca­sion­ally picks up for poll­sters, but nev­er for in­di­vidu­al cam­paigns. “Those are the ones I ab­so­lutely haven’t taken.”

An­oth­er Ru­bio rally-go­er, 48-year-old stay-at-home moth­er Kar­en Janssen, wondered why the Re­pub­lic­ans haven’t done much door-to-door can­vassing, which she says the Demo­crat­ic cam­paigns are act­ively do­ing. “Ex­actly two people have come to my door,” she said. One was for Sen. Rand Paul; the oth­er was a Demo­crat look­ing for the home’s pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pant.

In­deed, the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in Iowa has been that the only path to vic­tory was “re­tail.” This re­quires can­did­ates to spend hun­dreds and hun­dreds of hours meet­ing voters face to face, shak­ing hands, and an­swer­ing any and all man­ner of ques­tions, while sim­ul­tan­eously cre­at­ing a vast net­work of work­ers to identi­fy likely sup­port­ers and get them to the polls.

But with Trump ig­nor­ing that con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, al­most ex­clus­ively sta­ging large ral­lies and lead­ing the polls thanks to his celebrity, oth­er cam­paigns have re­spon­ded by sink­ing pre­cious money and staff time else­where, par­tic­u­larly New Hamp­shire, which votes just eight days later.

“The up­shot is you can do well in Iowa, but the down­side of los­ing the mo­mentum in New Hamp­shire is prob­ably too great a risk,” said one Re­pub­lic­an strategist.

Mean­while, at least some voters ap­pre­ci­ated Trump’s vis­its, even if they wer­en’t “re­tail” events. Bri­an Thomes said Trump’s re­cent rally in Mus­cat­ine, where Thomes works in a sports light­ing fact­ory, was a big deal for the com­munity. “I think him show­ing up here will help him,” Thomes said as he filled up his gas tank. “I really think he’s go­ing to take Iowa.”

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