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.