Trump’s Superior Ground Game Could Prove Decisive

It wasn’t long ago that presidential election analysts focused on the state of each campaign’s “ground game” to predict the likely victor. In fact, the two parties have competed for nearly two decades to put together the most effective field operation to register new voters and mobilize them to vote for their favored candidate. 

Under the tutelage of longtime GOP operative Karl Rove, George W. Bush pioneered this aspect of presidential campaigning to great effect in 2000 and 2004. Stung by their losses in both years, Democrats went to school on Rove’s campaign tactics and fashioned their own comprehensive playbook. Advisers to Barack Obama, many of them former grassroots organizers like David Axelrod, as well as veterans of Howard Dean’s unsuccessful 2004 primary campaign, put together the most sophisticated ground game in American history and rolled over John McCain’s paltry field operation to victory in 2008.

In the last two election cycles, Democrats seem to have forgotten the sources of their own success, while it’s the Republicans who have gone to school. In 2016, Donald Trump barnstormed through the Rust Belt while an overconfident Hillary Clinton largely dithered. The pattern seems to be repeating itself in the 2020 election, with Election Day less than two weeks away and voting already underway in many states. Trump is flooding the Rust Belt with campaign organizers to register and turn out new voters while Joe Biden, who seems to loathe retail campaigning altogether, is relying on a massive “air war” on television. 

True, Biden, like Obama, has a well-funded digital operation. But it’s Trump who is knocking on doors, putting up yard signs, and resuming nonstop campaign rallies in small rural towns to fire up his base and mobilize support for his re-election.

The national news media seems oblivious to the potential implications of Biden’s inability—or unwillingness—to wage the ground war. Sensing his disadvantage, Biden in recent weeks has begun showing up to campaign in battleground states but his presence is belated and episodic. Trump has visited these same locales again and again over a period of many months, creating a groundswell of support. While liberal pundits increasingly highlight Biden’s apparent lead in national polling, Trump is still slightly ahead of where Clinton was polling in the battleground states in 2016. 

Trump’s remarkable advantage over Biden in the area of voter registration is one of the great untold stories of this election. In some battleground states, the margin of difference between Trump and Biden in voter registration is more than enough to tilt the election the president’s way, assuming these new voters actually cast their ballots. Most of the current polling fails to account for Trump’s profound registration advantage. Pollsters typically use a sampling frame of “likely” voters, which screens in respondents who have voted previously but fails to include first-time voters. Many of the polls that use a “registered” voter sampling frame may not capture the newest voters, either. As a result, there’s likely a Trump undercount of a significant margin in 2020 just as there was in 2016.

The Democrats’ zealous support for mail-in voting could well come back to haunt them. Trump and Biden have argued over the potential for fraud but that’s not the real issue. The U.S. postal system has never tried to handle this volume of mail during an election—not even close. And the results from a spate of recent state and local elections suggests that a relatively high percentage of ballots may be invalidated due to mismatched names and addresses and other errors. Trump will likely have a stronger lead based on the on-site voting giving him leverage and bragging rights as irregularities in mail in voting are reviewed. Ultimately a conservative-aligned Supreme Court may be compelled to intervene.

For all of these reasons, Trump, despite appearances, may well be in a much stronger position in this race than anyone, including GOP skeptics, imagines. Trump still enjoys a 45-46 percent favorability rating from the national electorate, which is consistent with the rate that incumbents en route to re-election typically earn. Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 had fallen into the low 30s. Trump, despite the U.S. media’s massive campaign against him, is more than holding his own.

This election year, like 2016, is likely to provide another spate of useful lessons about the power of a campaign ground game. It will also highlight yet again the importance of new unregistered voters in shaping the final outcome. Trump’s victory in 2016 was no fluke. While the mainstream media continues to focus on suburban women and seniors, it’s the non-college educated voters in rural areas who see the irascible Trump as their best hope for an America that reflects their own enduring values and dreams. 

It turns out that these voters are still the single largest chunk of the U.S. electorate—about one-fifth according to some estimates, but possibly as high as one-third. Trump understands far better than liberal Democrats not just their demographic weight but their political potential. Unless and until Democrats can develop the same commitment to reaching and mobilizing these voters on the ground as Trump can, their hold on political power will remain fragile, even if they somehow manage to win this November.

About Stewart J. Lawrence

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on national issues.

Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

9 responses to “Trump’s Superior Ground Game Could Prove Decisive”

  1. Been out door knocking with the Trump campaign for a bit over a month, now. Scattered indifference and/or hostility to the President but, all-in-all, there seems to be widespread support for the man — tweets and all. In that time, have not seen any evidence of similar activity from Biden. Could be different locations they are working or could be they are deploying a totally different strategy (digital and more advertising).

    I think the Left is underestimating the value of positive, personal contact.

    Even wearing masks, maintaining six feet of distance and all of that, voters long holed up have repeatedly expressed three main thoughts: 1) it is nice to talk with someone in real time; 2) it is nice to talk with someone how does not think them a bigot, a racist, a deplorable or a chump (thanks, Sloppy Joe); and 3) it is nice to talk with someone who also sees America as a positive force in the world. Will that be enough to win? I think so.

  2. The biggest indicator of an impending Democratic landslide is the early voting. People are still waiting all day in huge lines at every Fairfax County Government center to vote early, and putting up with covid restrictions that slow down the process. Nearly all of them are Democrats. We aren’t doing that. And the total capacity on Election Day is only 2x the entire early voting capacity (product of locations x total number of hours open).

    • I went through Trumbull County, OH recently and it’s very Democrat. Yards signs in plenty places with a Democrat running for State Rep. office with Trump/Pence signs right next to his. This means Democrats are splitting their ticket voting Democrat on local, Trump on National. Went by their Board of Elections it was crowded and I was told it’s 20-25 minutes to vote. Huge absentee ballot response with people dropping off ballots into their drop box. Numerous county Sheriff cars in parking lot. BOC employee standing near the drop box. Trump has the ground game and now owns the YouTube masthead 24/7 thru election day.

    • In swing states Republicans are either tied with, or ahead of, Democrats in early voting. Dems were heavily reliant on creating a big gap before Election Day and that gap is not materializing. See Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

    • The early voting lines in my state are very long. . .. I stood in line for over three hours and over time conversations emerged with people around me spreading to me. . . . . .and every single person who spoke up as our conversations rippled up and down the line were voting for Trump. Every single one.

      Different from 2016 when there were scattered Hillary voters.

      In both years, the conversations were very congenial in our middle class suburban area. But a big theme was the impression that if the Democrats get power AntiFA and BLM will have power to terrorize the streets (not unrealistic considering what we have seen nearby), Cancel culture and job insecurity because they like Trump will rise to suffocating heights, we will plunge into a lock-down and a deep depression, Pelosi, AOC and other crazies will control Congress and impose a set of activist judges through court packing, judges cramming their wish list down our throats and we will re-engage in the endless wars Trump has ended. There were other themes but those were the biggies. I do not think the Democrats get how completely destructive of their pitch their support or rioting was and their threats against the Courts and attacks on Amy Coney Barrett (universally admired in these conversations) were. The Democrats really fell on their swords on those issues. Biden is seen as corrupt but that was not as important as the rioting, court packing, raised taxes and anti-energy industry policies that will crack our region economically like a nut-cracker.

    • Fairfax county? you mean the deep state swamp? Great evidence…..btw I’m in Arl, and guess who showed up early to vote for Trump ….KAG!

  3. President Trump will win a second term, there will be an appropriate stimulus package, a vaccine for the Wuhan virus will be successfully release, ACB will be appointed to the SCOTUS and the TDS the libturds have will morph to TBH-Terminal Butt Hurt!! America and Real Americans will win!! MAGA KAG

  4. I have a hunch that the Dems will be giving many new Trump voters free rides to the polls.

  5. I’ve never heard so many blacks be so excited about a white president in my life.