Hillary Clinton is using her fundraising dominance to unleash all manner of modern voter tools that Donald Trump’s organization is too cash-poor, disorganized or uninterested in to use — but are they worth the massive price tag?
The question will be argued until election day, and probably for years after. But one thing clear right now is the Clinton campaign is leaving nothing to chance. Launching apps that track the movements of paid canvassers and organizing poetry slams to build camaraderie in field offices, the Clinton operation is in the final frenzy of assembling some of the most sophisticated campaign infrastructure ever.
It is building on the hallowed playbook written by President Obama’s campaign teams, implementing technological advancements that enable field organizers to find, track and prod potential voters with even more precision and efficiency.
Clinton’s approach is a stark contrast from Trump’s. He left field organizing in the hands of a Republican National Committee that must incorporate Trump into its broader effort on behalf of down-ballot candidates often at odds with the nominee.
The most advanced field technology available to Republicans is controlled by the Koch brothers’ network, which has declined to work on Trump’s behalf. The field offices that are a hub of organizing activity are few and far between on the Trump side as compared with the dozens Clinton has operational.
Gauging the likely return on all this investment is complicated. Strategists and scholars are still hotly debating how much credit Obama’s vaunted high-tech get-out-the-vote operation deserves for his victories.
Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, once described this part of the campaign as an elite “field goal unit” there to push the team over the top in a close race. Obama would probably have lost Florida in both his presidential races without a superior “ground game.” And in 2008, research suggests he would have been defeated in North Carolina and Indiana, too.
Now, the infrastructure mismatch is the most severe it has ever been.
“We have never seen an imbalance as great as we are seeing this election,” said Eitan Hersh, a political science scholar at Yale University and author of “Hacking the Electorate.” If Republicans fail to shore up their ground game in the crucial swing states, he said, they risk giving Clinton an advantage of as much as 3 percentage points in them.
Clinton is pouring money — from a war chest expected to grow to $1 billion by election day — into a massive push to find and motivate voters who might have even the slightest inclination to vote for her. Since April, Clinton’s team has sent thousands of volunteers to dozens of field offices in crucial swing states and armed them with software designed to get voters invested in casting ballots. The programs compose personalized follow-up emails and texts from the canvasser, catered to the specific interests of the voters they chat up.
“We’ve added digital components to the ground game that gives it a speed that wasn’t there before,” said Stu Trevelyan, chief executive of the software firm NGP VAN, which manages the Democratic Party’s massive voter file.
Canvassers carrying mobile devices have real-time script automation that guides their interactions with voters based on the way questions are answered, and then guides which text messages, online ads, fundraising pitches and reminders to vote are sent to the person.
If voters cast their ballots in the last election through early voting, the campaign knows it and once voting begins will send gentle nudges.
The pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, which dwarfs all of the super PACs supporting Trump, has been road-testing its strategies for drawing voters to the polls in a few key states since the primaries. One involved targeting messages at Latino and African American voters that prompted 36,000 of them to look up their polling places on a Priorities USA website.
Priorities USA is on track to have more than double the funding it did when it supported Obama in 2012, and it is aggressively expanding its get-out-the-vote efforts.
“We’ve already been able to see what is effective and what is not effective,” said Priorities USA spokesman Justin Barasky. “It is brand-new for a Democratic super PAC to be investing in some of these activities.”
The tech innovations do only so much. Their effectiveness depends on an army of paid activists and volunteers, and Clinton’s early start and massive field office presence gave her a leg up in pulling one together — even as her tepid approval ratings and discouraging poll numbers with millennials signal the campaign will struggle to attract a volunteer force the size of Obama’s. The Clinton campaign’s cumulative payroll was more than $51 million through July. The Trump campaign had spent just $3.2 million on payroll by then.
Clinton’s Mujeres in Politics — women in politics — are scouring communities for Latina matriarchs such as church secretaries and small-business owners open to recruiting their social circles. “All Latinas have a very powerful network,” said Lorellla Praeli, the campaign’s director of Latino outreach. “Starting with one, you’ve committed them to reach out and engage five more. And that begins to multiply.”
The campaign is recruiting “bilennials” – bilingual millennials – in strongholds like California and New York to hit the phones to motivate Latino voters in states where they are becoming a growing force, such as Utah, North Carolina and Iowa. In Florida, where the Latino vote will be decisive, the large campaign payroll aims to look as diverse, and as fluent in Spanish, as the electorate.
Republican officials bristle at the suggestion Trump is getting outmaneuvered on the ground. They point to tens of thousands of their people in the field and a far more robust and sophisticated presence in swing states than in 2012, when Obama’s voter turnout organization far outperformed that of rival Mitt Romney. And they note encouraging registration figures in several swing states that suggest the advantage the Democrats hold in them is shrinking.
But it is undeniable that the party’s vows to revamp its campaign infrastructure, invest heavily in a united digital operation and create a framework that resembles what the Democrats had in both 2008 and 2012 was disrupted by Trump. Those goals have not been a priority for him.
Trump only recently began to invest heavily in digital. His campaign enlisted the firm Cambridge Analytica, which helped drive Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s impressive voter targeting operation in the Republican primaries by developing “psychographic” profiles of voters propelled by consumer data.
But prominent GOP digital strategists say the delay in getting such innovative efforts underway undermines their effectiveness considerably.
There is, though, a wild card: the voter anger Trump has so successfully harnessed. It remains to be seen how he will use it to drive voters to the polls. Trump has gotten this far disregarding the usual rules, and analysts caution he may yet prove the laws of the general election turnout operations do not apply to him.
“There is no evidence that Republicans have the kind of presence in the field that Clinton does,” said Hahrie Han, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara who researches political organizing. “But Trump is tapping into this populist outrage that is out there. We don’t have a good sense of how strong it is and how much it will impact the ground game.”
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