Now is about the time in the election cycle when voters start obsessing over electoral forecasts, clicking “refresh” every five minutes in an attempt to get the most up-to-date odds possible on who the next president will be. There are a plethora of websites at which to do this: FiveThirtyEight, the Princeton Election Consortium, the Upshot, DailyKos Elections, RealClearPolitics, the Cook Political Report, and countless others. But there’s one factor that none of the electoral forecasts account for, and it’s a big one: ground game.
The term can refer to a variety of activities, all aimed at one thing: making sure supporters get to the polls and vote on Election Day. Setting up campaign offices, hiring state field directors and staff, identifying and micro-targeting likely supporters, recruiting volunteers to knock on doors — all of this falls under the ground game umbrella. It’s the nuts and bolts of getting out the vote, and it can play an enormous role in a campaign’s success or failure.
A campaign’s ground game exists entirely independently of polling or so-called “fundamentals,” the two things most electoral forecasts are based on. It’s something of an X factor: You can’t really assess how good a candidate’s ground game is until Election Day itself. That said, there is good reason to believe that Hillary Clinton is absolutely crushing Donald Trump in the ground-game department.
Take Nevada, one of the most important swing states. On Sunday, Trump held a rally in Las Vegas. An estimated 5,000 people attended, and the campaign planned to have buses waiting to take supporters to early voting locations after the rally. A simple plan — except that ideally, Trump would have held the rally close enough to a voting location that his supporters could just walk to it.
Nevertheless, at least there was a plan. But the buses didn’t show up on time, and by the time they did, most of the rally’s attendees had already left. Ultimately, only around 20 Trump supporters actually boarded the bus, went to the voting locations, and cast their votes. The entire point of rallies is to convince people to vote, and yet Trump only locked in 20 votes that day from a rally that drew 5,000 people.
This is just one case study, but it’s illustrative of the broader problem. By all accounts, Trump’s ground game has been practically non-existent this entire cycle.
In August, the Clinton campaign had more than three times as many paid staffers on the ground in swing states that the Trump campaign. In September, Huffington Post reported that several of Trump’s field offices in Florida — a must-win state for him — didn’t yet have phone or cable service.
This still appears to be the case. As of late October, the Trump campaign had just 1,409 paid staffers on the ground in swing states, compared with 5,138 for the Clinton campaign. On a statewide level, the Nevada Republican Party had 67 staffers on its payroll, while Clinton had 240. Perhaps the biggest gap was in Pennsylvania, which had only 62 paid staffers. The Clinton campaign had 508.
According to Sasha Issenberg, who wrote an entire book about this topic in 2012, having a better ground game than your opponent can add around one to three points to a candidate’s popular vote total. And even yet this number, as Issenberg notes, is based on the assumption that both campaigns are “using comparable field tactics, at similar levels.” That wouldn’t seem to apply in 2016, as Clinton’s ground game is quantitatively greater than Trump’s by a rather large margin.
We’ll have to wait until Election Day to give a final assessment of the candidates’ ground games, but as of now, it doesn’t even look close. Clinton’s get-out-the-vote operation appears to be vastly outpacing Trump’s, and if she wins the election, that’ll be a big reason why.