This is the season when a presidential campaign’s mammoth machinery rumbles into action to pull in every last potential voter, particularly in a state like Ohio, where presidential contests have been decided by less than 5 points in the last four elections.
If that is happening here for Donald Trump, it’s hardly visible.
With the presidential contest a dead heat in this state and early voting already underway, strategists and groups working here — Republican and Democratic alike — say they have yet to see much evidence of an operation to secure a Trump victory. No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, and the state is almost certainly one Trump would need to carry if he were to have a hope of winning.
Rather than the kind of operation that drove President Obama’s two victories and President George W. Bush’s successes before that, Trump appears to be relying largely on what has propelled his candidacy: supporters who are taking things into their own hands.
Melissa Mayne of Middletown, Ohio, said she registered 16 people before Tuesday’s deadline and is already planning to help numerous family members get to the polls.
Asked whether she’d coordinated with the Trump campaign, she shook her head: “I did it by myself.”
The problem is an effort of that kind would have to be multiplied a hundred thousand times to equal the sort of get-out-the-vote operation typically required for a win in Ohio. Such an operation can be good for a few points’ advantage — or roughly the margin of victory here in recent elections.
Trump’s effort pales compared with the one being mounted by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican who holds a double-digit lead here over his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Ted Strickland.
The campaign’s database includes nearly 1 million supporters and more than 2.6 million swing voters, Bliss said. The campaign has divided those voters into 22 groups depending on their favorite issues, and is courting them with targeted on-line ads, door hangers and telephone contacts.
“It’s going to benefit all Republicans in Ohio, if you’re running for president or city council,” Bliss said.
Asked whether Trump had activated a similar program, almost a dozen county and state Republican officials in Ohio either declined to comment or did not respond to phone calls and emails. The Trump campaign also did not respond to multiple inquiries, although in an August interview Trump’s Ohio campaign director said he would have what he needed for victory.
“We’re going to have the staffing and the resources we need to get the job done in Ohio,” Robert Paduchik said. “That will become very apparent to people.”
Ohioans watching the race said they had seen little evidence of that.
The Ohio branch of Americans for Prosperity, the independent group funded by the Koch brothers and other conservative donors, has made 1.8 million phone calls and knocked on 140,000 doors, according to state director Micah Derry. It is working to reelect Portman, but has taken a pass on the presidential contest.
“Given the size of our operation, we tend to get a little bit of a feel for what’s in the field and what’s not,” Derry said. “We have not run into any Trump folks.”
“Anything that they have had has been minuscule and very, very late in coming,” said Chris Schrimpf, a Columbus-based political strategist who worked for Gov. John Kasich.
“To the extent that Trump does well or okay in Ohio, he’s really riding the coattails of Rob Portman’s effort and the Ohio Republican Party’s.”
A major complication is the fraught nature of Republican relationships in Ohio. Kasich, who ran against Trump in the GOP primaries, has declined to endorse him, a signal to his loyalists.
Portman had endorsed Trump but managed for months to avoid being in the same television frame with him. Last week, after the release of a 2005 video in which Trump boasted that he could get away with sexually assaulting women, Portman said that he would not vote for Trump, but instead would write in the name of his running mate, Mike Pence.
The state Republican Party chairman, Matt Borges, has been openly uncertain about whether he will vote for Trump. A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter who spent the second presidential debate in Borges’ home recounted that the chairman’s wife had refused to allow a Trump sign on their lawn and that their dog had thrown up when Trump defended his videotaped comments about women as “locker-room talk.”
The Trump campaign retaliated Saturday by sending a letter to the state party’s committee members breaking off relations with Borges, whom Paduchik, Trump’s Ohio director, accused of “duplicity.”
All of that has denied Trump political allies and, by extension, their tested organizations, even if he may benefit marginally from others’ efforts.
“The governor of the state says openly that he does not support Trump, and the party is led by the governor,” said David Pepper, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “There’s no trust on which they could build a ground game.”
Pepper has taken pictures of empty Trump campaign offices and published them on social media. “The empty office is the perfect metaphor,” he said. “It’s a hollow effort.”
Trump had been leading in Ohio in September, but Clinton went narrowly ahead at the beginning of October, before the controversy over the 2005 video and the subsequent accusations by at least half a dozen women who say Trump assaulted them.
Although an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal/ Marist poll released Thursday gave Trump a 1-point advantage, Clinton retains a 1.6-point edge in a polling average compiled by Real Clear Politics.
As it is nationally, Trump’s support is strongest here among blue-collar, white voters, particularly men. Clinton holds nonwhite and female voters. The two are fighting over the suburbs, where college-educated voters who usually side with Republican nominees have been turning away from Trump.
This last week, in visits that coincided with the end of voter registration and the beginning of early voting, Clinton’s campaign brought President Obama and former President Bill Clinton to the state.
Clinton herself arrived Monday, the day before voter registration closed in Ohio. An estimated 18,500 people showed up to greet her at Ohio State University, her largest audience of the campaign.
Among them were Ronnie Carlson and Madeline Otto, two Ohio State freshmen. Both said they had recently registered, the result of the persistent organizing efforts here by the Clinton campaign and other Democrats.
“Five times a day you’re asked to register,” laughed Carlson, an arts management major.
Both were determined to vote for Clinton.
“Your vote really counts here,” said Otto, an engineering student. “In Ohio, you can’t just say ‘I don’t like the candidates.’”
But if their presence spoke to the heft of the Democratic organization, a Trump rally on Thursday night in Cincinnati was a reminder of the hold he retains on his supporters.
State Sen. Keith Faber exhorted more than 15,000 Trump supporters in the U.S. Bank Arena to step up their activities.
“You are responsible for this election; you’ve got to get people to the polls,” he said.
He didn’t have to convince Mayne, a life-long Democrat who said she voted for President Obama in 2008 but had soured on him and on Clinton.
“How can you vote for somebody you don’t trust?” she asked.
Mayne said her husband, Lawrence, had lost $18,000 in overtime per year because of cutbacks at AK Steel, the Middletown mill where he works. She compared her family’s financial standing negatively to that of an immigrant co-worker who “has two new cars paid off and just bought a brand-new house.”
She had a one-word answer for why she will help as many people as she can to vote for Trump, working as a cog in an otherwise invisible machine.
“Jobs,” she said.