The One Reason Donald Trump Could Still Collapse, Despite His Popularity At The Debates

It's clear by now that the Republican establishment is utterly incapable of stopping Donald Trump, and level-headed folks in the GOP are becoming more and more nervous that he may actually be the party's nominee. That increases the pressure on his Republican opponents to deal him damage at the next debate, something they've thus far been able to do. But this focus may be misplaced: There's a perfectly plausible scenario wherein Trump wins the debates but loses the nomination. Getting a television audience excited is different from actually turning out vote, and so far, there's no evidence Trump can do the latter.

Of course, there's also no evidence that Trump can't get out the vote. And that's exactly the point: Trump has never actually participated in an election before. He's well-tested in the polls but completely untested at the ballot box, and winning a primary (or an election) depends on a lot more than getting large crowds of people excited at a rally, or a debate. An equally crucial component is the candidate's ground game — the behind-the-scenes, administrative process of knocking on doors, recruiting volunteers, making phone calls and convincing supporters to actually head to the polls on Election Day.

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The New York Times has cast doubt on Trump's Iowa operation, claiming he's "fallen behind in the nuts and bolts of organizing" and citing his relatively low number of precinct captains in the state. Craig Robinson at The Iowa Republican is skeptical of these claims, and is of the mind that none of the Republican candidates have a particularly impressive ground game in the first caucus state.

Regardless of who's right, the bottom line here is that ground game matters. Mobilizing voters isn't just something that automatically happens; if it were, voter participation in the US would be much higher than the pathetic 57.5 percent of eligible voters who participated in the 2012 election. It's much easier to get someone to tell you they like a candidate than to convince them to actually leave their house on voting day, and there's no evidence Trump's campaign can do the latter.

Compare this with Trump's biggest competitor for the nomination, Ted Cruz. While Cruz, too, hasn't participated in a presidential primary, he did orchestrate a very impressive come-from-behind victory during his 2012 Senate campaign. There's at least some indication that Cruz's team has organizational acumen, and there are signs that he's building a robust ground game in Iowa this time around, too.

According to a recent study, Trump's commands the highest level of support amongst people who are the least likely to vote. Combined with the reports of Trump's subpar ground game, it's entirely possible that Trump is a paper tiger who won't come within miles of winning any of the primaries.

We won't know any of this until Feb. 1, the date of the Iowa caucus, and much of the focus until then will be on Trump's performance at the next two debates. But that's a distraction: Trump could get a standing ovation at the debates and still collapse on voting day.