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
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
PROBE CAME FROM INQUIRY INTO MANAFORT’S FINANCES
Mueller Investigating Tony Podesta and His Firm
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Tony Podesta and the Podesta Group are now the subjects of a federal investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, three sources with knowledge of the matter told NBC News. The probe of Podesta and his Democratic-leaning lobbying firm grew out of Mueller's inquiry into the finances of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort."

Source:
OFF TO MICHIGAN, SURPRISE TRIP
FLOTUS to Kick Off Anti-Bullying Initiative
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

"First lady Melania Trump is making good on a promise she made earlier this year to combat childhood bullying, taking a surprise trip Monday to a middle school in a Detroit suburb." She is bringing awareness to the problem with a campaign she found called #NoOneEatsAlone, which encourages kids to be inclusive.

Source:
SURPRISE VISIT
Tillerson in Kabul
2 hours ago
THE LATEST
WITHOUT NAMING HIM, CALLS OUT “BONE SPUR”
McCain Needles Trump on Vietnam
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS
SCHEDULED FOR TUESDAY
House Intel Will Interview Trump Digital Director
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

"President Donald Trump’s campaign digital director, Brad Parscale, will be interviewed Tuesday by the House Intelligence Committee, his first appearance before any of the panels examining the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mr. Parscale confirmed his scheduled appearance. The Senate committees also probing interference haven’t scheduled time with Mr. Parscale, he said, declining to comment further."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login