CLEVELAND, Ohio — As Donald Trump’s convention moment arrives, one overriding concern among Republican delegates from battleground states is the lack of evidence pointing to a campaign ground game capable of competing with Hillary Clinton’s virtual army deployed to target voters.
Their fear: a fall campaign understaffed on the ground and under fire on the air in ways that swing-state Republicans haven’t seen in the modern era.
But Trump’s political team told CNN that it is preparing a major battleground state push in August that will flesh out their skeletal staff and lay the groundwork for sophisticated micro-targeting operation this fall.
While even the Republican National Committee had struggled to get complete staff lists from the Trump operation for much of the last month, the campaign shared a list of 13 battleground state directors and advisers on Monday, including in long shot states like Michigan and Maine.
“We are at the point where we can push the button,” a Trump strategist who spoke on background to discuss internal deliberations. Given the enthusiasm of Trump’s supporters: “It’s like directing a firehose.”
The team has identified more than 4 million registered voters nationally it believes have a high likelihood of supporting Trump, but are low-propensity — and they are gearing up to target those voters.
Trump’s campaign knows it has a great deal of work to do with married female voters between the ages of 35 to 54, who have concerns about the billionaire’s temperament. It plans to expand its outreach to those voters by moving beyond big rallies, and putting Trump in more intimate settings in coming months like voter town halls where he can address concerns more directly. Trump aides believe that many of those voters — particularly independent women — who have issues with Trump’s temperament line up with his views in other areas like trade, jobs and the economy and education. They are planning a more direct focus on those issues in the upcoming smaller events.
The question, however, given Trump’s late fundraising start and limited cash-on-hand, is whether the Trump campaign will have the resources to create an even playing field with Clinton and make up for the opportunities they lost to build off the excitement of its historic GOP primary campaign.
Up until now the Trump campaign has relied heavily on the RNC not only to lead the charge on identifying and contacting voters, but to head the joint fundraising effort and even help with basic tasks like scheduling and policy briefings — normally under the direct purview of the presidential campaign.
“Every single day, you have so much daylight and you have so many waking hours,” said Scott Jennings, a former George W. Bush hand who ran Mitt Romney’s Ohio operation in 2012. “Obviously all those thing get exacerbated. The staffing levels are less. The paid media levels are less. You wind up with less stuff and people, and it’s hurtful.”
The Trump campaign insists it’s not behind — pointing to the tens of millions of dollars Clinton has spent on advertising only to end up even with him in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Trump has previously scoffed at traditional campaign machinery as an unnecessary waste of money. Given his ability to reach millions of people with a simple tweet, for instance, he had indicated that traditional field and data and analytics operation would not be key to winning in November.
Because of that philosophy, one top political adviser to Trump said that his campaign team would never have the same footprint as Clinton, or even Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. But Trump staffers still believe they can win with their more streamlined structure.
“There is an ability for us to move nimbly. (The campaign) has been lean and mean — we are not going to ruin that culture,” said Trump’s national political director, Jim Murphy.
Still in conversations with more than two dozen Republican political operatives, state party chairmen and GOP vendors from around the country, many said they were alarmed by how far behind the Trump campaign is in harnessing the enormous energy of his supporters into actual grass-roots organizing.
Republican volunteers and activists going door to door in some target states often have not even had Trump literature to hand out to undecided voters.
Trump Tower has yet to allocate specific fall budgets to battleground state directors, a Trump campaign official said. That has delayed the party’s ability to build an effective grass-roots organizing machine that pairs Trump supporters with the activists that the RNC has enlisted over the past few years.
“There’s no redundancy in politics,” said Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason, a member of Trump’s finance team. “There’s never too much advertising, too many phone calls, too many door-to-door. There’s never too many. I wish people would’ve been up on the air six months ago.”
Gleason said he shared that advice with Trump about a month ago. The reply from Trump, Gleason said, was “But I’ve got billions of dollars of free publicity!”
Several state chairs said they have been baffled by their inability to get the most basic components from the campaign — like campaign signs. Explanations last week have varied from printing delays to the idea that the campaign should wait to do a full printing run until after Trump selected his vice presidential nominee.
While the Trump campaign plans to share all its data with the RNC — a coup for Chairman Reince Priebus — state Republican operatives say there is little evidence that the Trump campaign has been using its primary data to follow up with people who attended their rallies and usher them into the RNC apparatus as potential volunteers.
Headed into this week’s convention, there have been signs of progress. The Trump campaign announced a rapid-response director (a position that existed in virtually every other Republican primary campaign). It also hired a surrogate director, who can help amplify the candidate’s message, rather than relying on Trump supporters who appear on television on his behalf, but often seem out of the loop on day-to day strategy.
The official roll out of 13 battleground state directors and advisers is a sign that the Trump campaign’s struggles to recruit and hire staff are beginning to ease now under the more streamlined political operation of Jim Murphy and Paul Manafort.
The team includes: Arizona State Director Brian Seitchik; Colorado State Director Patrick Davis, a veteran strategist who has worked on many state races; Florida State Director Jennifer Locetta, who served as the statewide data director for the Florida GOP in 2012; Nevada State Director Charles Munoz, who organized voters in Nevada for Americans for Prosperity last cycle; Ohio State Director Bob Paduchik, who ran Rob Portman’s campaign for Senate in 2010 and was state director for George W. Bush; and Pennsylvania State Director Ted Christian, who served in the Bush White House and ran Pennsylvania for the McCain-Palin ticket.
Helping to guide the political team are two veteran GOP operatives: strategist David Urban, who was the chief of staff to former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, and New Hampshire-based Mike Biundo, who advised the presidential campaigns of Santorum, Rand Paul and Mitt Romney.
Cash crunch and building fund
But big questions remain about the Trump campaign’s fundraising efforts — particularly its ability to reach small donors, a fundraising effort that has lagged far behind past GOP nominees at this juncture of the nominating process.
“He was behind from the second he became the presumptive nominee, because he didn’t run a traditional campaign in the primary,” said Ryan Williams, a GOP operative who was a spokesman for Mitt Romney in 2012. “There was no fundraising effort that was mining small dollar donors, getting their contact information, to go back at them in the general election.”
Thus far, the Trump campaign has refused to discuss its small dollar fundraising effort, its direct mail strategy, or the pace at which they are knocking on doors and contacting voters by phone.
One way that the RNC is looking to stave off any cash crunch, CNN has learned: Using a pool of money intended for building renovations at political parties’ Washington, D.C., headquarters to pay rent for headquarters in counties and states. A 2014 spending bill allowed political parties to collect about $100,000 a year for their segregable building fund, but since the legislation lists “headquarters” in the plural, Republicans believe that it offers an innovative and above-board way to stretch every dollar.
That means that Republicans wouldn’t have to spend their precious swing-state budgets on building rents — they could use their flush building bank accounts, and then spend their budgets on voter contact or television ads.
It is, nevertheless, controversial. Republican election lawyers expect it to be challenged, even if it is legally defensible as long as the staff working out of the offices are paid by the RNC and not by the Trump campaign.
“I do think the RNC or DNC could use their building funds to fund state party facilities,” said Robert Kelner, a Republican election lawyer who has represented the RNC in the past. “There is very little law addressing permissible uses for the new building funds.”
RNC amps up its ground game
While many are waiting to whether Trump can ramp up his fundraising to pay for a larger battleground operation, the RNC is far ahead of where they were four years ago.
In June 2012, the RNC had 170 paid staffers in target states; this June they had 483. That has increased their ability to identify voters via door knocks, which are the most reliable form of identifying voters.
“The RNC has built the most efficient and effective ground game in the party’s history,” said RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. “We are focused on the entire ticket, working to get all Republicans on the ballot elected to office.”
Walters pointed to the nearly 500 paid staffers, 3,500 trained organizers and thousands of volunteers in the field. “In total we have over 775 total staff dedicated to beating Hillary Clinton,” she said. “No other campaign, committee, or organization has been doing this for as long as we have. We are the infrastructure for the entire GOP ticket. And the Trump campaign has embraced that.”