The highly competitive ground-game run by the top four GOP presidential contenders in the all-important South Carolina Republican primary may decide the outcome of the brutal fight in the Palmetto State.
Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush all have jammed schedules of appearances, press-events and speeches to help persuade the many late-deciding voters, plus organized networks of volunteers who are trying to persuade and then motivate their supporters to vote during the Saturday ballot.
The two remaining candidates, John Kasich and Dr. Ben Carson, have little in the way of local infrastructure and have largely stayed away from the verbal fisticuffs.
The release today of the NBC/WSJ poll that shows Trump’s lead has dropped to 5 points suggests that the blowout victory many have been predicting is not as certain as previously thought, even though that poll is possibly an outlier.
Unlike in Iowa, where Ted Cruz dominated the ground game, both the Trump campaign and the Bush campaign are mounting an aggressive South Carolina ground game. Rubio, likewise, has a ground game, though not apparently as robust as the other contenders.
Add to this the unusual participation of several Super PACs which have endorsed Ted Cruz in the ground game wars, and the possibility of last-minute swings in voter support are increased.
Donald Trump had no ground game in Iowa, where he relied almost exclusively on massive public rallies to get out his vote. Cruz’s comparative advantage in the ground game there was one of the major factors that led to his victory there, contrary to the last polls which showed Trump in the lead.
Cruz spent a year developing a ground game in Iowa, relying on local evangelicals, home schoolers, and at least 700 Texans who drove up on their own dime, stayed at “Camp Cruz,” and zealously knocked door to door for their candidate. Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, an evangelical Christian pastor, worked tirelessly among Iowa pastors to promote his son’s candidacy for many months before the caucuses.
Though Trump claimed he improved his ground game in New Hampshire and that contributed to his big victory there, the changes in his political strategy there were more an increased scheduling of traditional small “retail politics” appearances rather than the installation of a quickly assembled ground game apparatus.
But South Carolina is a different story for Trump.
As former Trump consultant Roger Stone noted recently on Fox News, the Trump ground campaign is being run be proteges of the Lee Atwater, the late South Carolina hardball GOP political consultant who helped George H.W. Bush win the presidency in 1988.
Trump volunteers are now being besieged with emails from the South Carolina team encouraging them to make 25 phone calls or knock on 25 doors in South Carolina. They’re using state-of-the-art, easily downloaded applications on their computers and mobile devices to identify potential swing voters.
Ground games are not glamorous, but they are necessary for electoral success in most political campaigns.
They largely consist of door-to-door canvassing of likely voters by volunteer or paid canvassers. Each front door encounter between a potential voter and a canvasser should take between 3 to 5 minutes, during which time the canvasser provides the voter both verbally and in written form (via a brochure, usually) with key information about why the voter should support the candidate the canvasser supports. Often, the canvasser elicits information from the voter about their views.
In today’s ground game, the data obtained during this brief engagement between canvasser and voter is captured immediately in the canvasser’s mobile device–either a smart phone or a tablet–and entered into the campaign’s database for future use.
In only about 20 percent of the time does a canvasser actually have a conversation with the voter at the residence where they are door knocking. The remaining 80 percent of the time, the canvasser merely leaves campaign literature about their candidate on the voter’s door.
It is during those brief face-to-face conversations that occur 20 percent of the time that the most significant changes in voter behavior occur. All the latest political science research — data which the Ted Cruz campaign leads in obtaining and using–confirms that these face-to-face encounters are by far the most effective methods to change a voter’s mind in support of your candidate, or to re-enforce his or her commitment to your candidate.
All the other means of voter contact — particularly television and radio ads and robocalls or personal phone calls – are increasingly viewed as either ineffective or even counterproductive at changing voter behavior.
The Cruz team is not sitting on its ground game lead in South Carolina, which demographically is far closer to Iowa than it is to New Hampshire. In Iowa, 64 percent of caucus attendees self-identified as evangelical Christians. In New Hampshire, 23 percent of GOP primary voters self identified as evangelical Christians, and among that group, Donald Trump defeated Cruz by a 4 point margin.
In South Carolina, 65 percent of primary voters self-identify as evangelical Christians.
In addition to the re-opening of a “Camp Cruz” in South Carolina for the Cruz campaign’s volunteer door-to-door canvassers, several Cruz supporting Super PACS are mounting their own ground game efforts in the Palmetto state.
As the Daily Beast reports:
Keep the Promise—which is actually sub-divided into several different PACs, each funded by a different billionaire family—has blithely tossed the traditional super PAC playbook to the winds. In fact, they’ve taken on typical campaign operations: gathering voter data, targeting likely Cruz supporters, and knocking on thousands of doors to get out the vote.
The super PAC has had upwards of 250 people canvassing the state, targeting the homes of persuadable Republican voters. Thus far, they estimate they’ve knocked on more than 93,000 doors. And by Election Day, they’re shooting to have knocked on 100,000. In any given week, they say, 100 to 150 individual people spend eight-hour days doing the door-knocking. And most of them get paid …
South Carolina politicos describe it as an effective, relentless operation. And it has some of Cruz’s opponents feeling a little jittery.
“I’ll be very shocked, honestly, if Ted Cruz doesn’t win the primary,” said an operative for a rival campaign, citing Keep the Promise’s blanketing of the Upstate.
Trump has led by double digits in all the recent Palmetto State polls. But some are skeptical that his lead is really that commanding. And they point to the different ground games—particularly, to that of Keep the Promise—as evidence for their doubt.
Keep the Promise staff explained that the group has been door-knocking across the state, in a few targeted regions and counties, since last November. In early January, those door-knockers started focusing on persuasion: identifying likely Republican primary voters who favor an Evangelical Christian candidate, knocking on their doors, and having conversations aimed at persuading them to back Cruz.
When the votes are counted on Saturday, we will learn whether the majority of polls in South Carolina got it wrong, just as the polls in Iowa did, or if they accurately predicted the winner, as they did in New Hampshire.