The Marion County GOP headquarters in Ocala, Florida, is haunted. More specifically, the former movie theater that housed the headquarters washaunted, until it was torn down this summer to make way for a parking lot. And yet, for Republicans looking to volunteer in Ocala, the county GOP’s website still lists its address as the recently razed home of “Morris” the ghost.
Directing would-be volunteers to demolished buildings (and their now-homeless ghosts) is just one risk of outsourcing field operations to state and local parties. Both the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns are coordinating field efforts with their party, but Trump is leaning on the Republican National Committee almost entirely. Until a couple of weeks ago, the Ocala office was one of only a few offices in all of Florida working to elect Trump.
That lonely, haunted Ocala non-headquarters exemplifies Trump’s ground game strategy — ephemeral and ineffectual.
Trump’s decision to partner with the RNC, though framed as being more efficient, robs him of the opportunity to organize in areas where the state or local party is not already strong. Many county parties don’t have an office, and even when they do, their leadership may prioritize electing other statewide or local GOP candidates. In Wisconsin, for example, many of the state party’s Victoryoffices predate the 2016 campaign and seem more focused on U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s re-election.
Campaigns simply don’t have the money or the staff to set up offices everywhere, so they put them in areas where they expect voter mobilization (such as door knocking, phone banking and distributing yard signs) might be most impactful. Offices that primarily advocate for down-ballot candidates, or are located inefficiently, won’t have the same payoff as logically placed, coordinated campaign offices focused on the party’s nominee.
In 2012, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns opened their field offices strategically: Obama focused most offices on mobilizing Democrats in his “core” counties, while putting offices in “swing” and Republican areas equally. Romney invested equally in core Republican counties and swing counties, while generally avoiding heavily Democratic areas.
Who holds the advantage in the ground game this year, and how do the campaigns compare to those of four years ago? We collected the first county-level data set of field offices in this election to find out. (Check out the footnotes for more detail on this data.1)
Neither campaign can claim a field operation equal to their party’s 2012 nominee. The Clinton campaign has work to do if it wants to reach Obama’s total of 790 field offices nationwide: Obama had 103 offices in Florida alone, for example (compared to Clinton’s 68), and his 61 Virginia offices far outpace her 27. Clinton may open more offices before the election is over, but she seems unlikely to match Obama.2
Clinton’s operation is already much larger than Romney’s was, however. Her 489 total offices well exceed Romney’s 283, with larger disparities in battleground states (75 vs. 40 in Ohio; 57 vs. 25 in Pennsylvania; and 29 vs. 14 in Colorado).
On the Republican side, Trump’s operation lags well behind Romney’s. Romney had far more offices than Trump does in battleground states like Iowa (13 vs. 5), North Carolina (24 vs. 8), and Virginia (29 vs. 11). Of the 10 most critical states, Trump’s field offices exceed Romney’s only in Pennsylvania, which Trump currently has only about a 20 percent chance of winning. Trump has so far failed to match the organization of his Republican predecessor.
Or his current opponent’s:
In 2016, like in 2012, it is not close. Clinton has nearly three times the number of field offices as Trump nationwide (489 vs. 178), and her organization dominates Trump’s in every battleground state. Clinton’s offices outnumber Trump’s by 19 in New Hampshire, 23 in Iowa and Colorado, and 28 in North Carolina. In the states where Trump has opened the most offices, such as Pennsylvania (35), Florida (21) and Ohio (25), Clinton’s advantage tends to be even larger: She bests him by 22 offices in Pennsylvania, 47 in Florida and 50 in Ohio. Trump’s ground game is far from nonexistent, but his campaign simply does not have the infrastructure to match Clinton’s capabilities for voter contact and mobilization.
North Carolina illustrates the problems with Trump’s field office locations well.
Trump has eight offices in the Tar Heel State. Most are found near population centers that are friendly to Clinton, such as the counties containing Charlotte (which Obama carried with 60.7 percent of the vote in 2012), Asheville (55.3 percent for Obama), and Raleigh (54.9 percent). Clinton’s campaign, on the other hand, has the Democratic-leaning and voter-rich counties containing Durham (75.8 percent for Obama), Fayetteville (59.4 percent) and Greensboro (57.7 percent) to themselves. Romney opened offices in all of these counties in 2012, but Trump is leaving them uncontested on the ground.
The scarceness of Trump’s offices in several of his must-win states, and their unclear focus on his candidacy, cast real doubts on the Republican nominee’s ability to get out the vote. Clinton’s edge in battleground states will allow her campaign to focus on getting her voters to the polls, target those on the fence and find the Democrats in deep-red counties. If Trump’s chances of winning depend upon disaffected rural voters and previously unregistered Republicans, as some have suggested, those voters may need to mobilize and persuade themselves: The campaign simply does not have the organizational scope to reach them.
Clinton’s field offices were also much simpler to find online. Just this week, Trump’s campaign introduced a “States” section on its site with lists of offices — for only six states.3 Before that, it was very difficult to locate Trump offices: We were determined to find them and spent many hours looking. How many would-be Trump volunteers just gave up? Clinton’s site is much more straightforward, directing people to their nearest office with asimple ZIP-code entry tool. Field offices are only as effective as the volunteers they can attract, and supporters need to know where they are — though, too often, they are nowhere to be found in the places Trump will need them the most.
Research shows that field offices can earn campaigns about a 1 percentage point increase in vote share per county. That effect may sound small, but it was enough to change the outcomes in North Carolina — and possibly Florida and Indiana as well — in 2008. If Trump is behind on Nov. 8, he won’t be able to rely on his ground game to make up the difference.
Kirill Bryanov and Christianna Silva contributed research.
UPDATE (Oct. 7, 11:20 a.m.): To better show the relative size of the candidates’ field operations in each state, the maps in this article have been updated so that the area of each circle, rather than the circle’s diameter, is proportional to the number of field offices.
Joshua Darr is an assistant professor of political communication in the Manship School of Mass Communication and the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. His research focuses on campaign strategy. @joshuadarr