Donald Trump — who made a fortune in part by lending his name to business ventures on which he left a light touch — appears poised to take a similar approach to building his ground game.
The presumptive GOP nominee has argued he can put as many as 15 states into play this fall, but he lags far behind Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in building up troops for a general election battle. Rather than building out teams of his own hires in swing states — the model previous nominees like Mitt Romney and John McCain relied on — Trump is signaling to the Republican National Committee and state parties that he will rely on them to take the lead in organizing key toss up states.
“I’ll say that as far as building the infrastructure of a campaign, the RNC has been doing it for many years,” Trump said at a news conference late last month in North Dakota. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus “has really upped it, and all over the country, they have very good people. And part of the benefit is we get to use those people.”
Meanwhile, RNC officials still aren’t even sure where the campaign has already deployed staffers. Trump’s field organization is a patchwork of aides, some paid, some retained on a volunteer basis and many left over from the Republican primaries. While he has campaign chiefs in Florida — and solidly blue states like Washington and New York — in crucial battlegrounds including Ohio and Colorado, Trump doesn’t have so much as a state director.
One of Rick Wiley’s top tasks before he was ousted as political director after just six weeks on the job was organizing, hiring and redeploying field troops. But his sudden firing stalled the hiring process in battleground states and left the campaign hustling to replace him at a pivotal moment when traditional campaigns are rapidly ramping up on the ground. This week the campaign turned to Jim Murphy, a veteran of Bob Dole’s presidential campaigns, to fill the political director slot, according to two sources familiar with his hiring.
Amid all the public disarray, privately Trump and his aides have been making inroads with state Republican parties, essentially looking to turn them into Trump franchises for the fall campaign.
Trump doesn’t have a campaign operation in Ohio, but the billionaire businessman recently spent nearly an hour on the phone with Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges — who was a prominent attack dog for Gov. John Kasich during his presidential bid. Trump tried to bury sour sentiments from the primaries and solicited advice on how best to mount a general election campaign.
“If you’re running a big national election, you don’t go out and assume you know how to win a state like Ohio,” said Borges. “He made it clear that he wants to build an organization that is, essentially, not like what Romney did in 2012, and talk to the people in the states who know how to win these races.”
Trump and his team prided themselves on winning the primaries with a barebones staff and a modest budget. Aides expect him to take a similar tactic in the general election by hiring skeleton teams in battleground states but relying largely on the RNC and state parties to do the heavy lifting on the ground. In some states they may opt to leave traditional campaign slots, like a state communications director, unfilled, according to multiple sources in battleground states.
“What I’m hearing from them is nobody knows Iowa better than you folks,” said Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “I get the feeling that they are taking very seriously their determination to not duplicate and to be as lean as possible.”
Rob Gleason, the GOP chairman in Pennsylvania, said Trump’s approach was a welcome shift from the heavy-handed strategy Mitt Romney’s campaign took in 2012, bringing in out of state operatives and essentially duplicating existing efforts on the ground.
“They’re not going to have the full build out that Mrs. Clinton’s already doing in Pennsylvania,” Gleason acknowledged. But rather than sending a cadre of staffers to Pennsylvania, Trump would be better served by firing up his fundraising apparatus to better fund RNC and party efforts, he added.
“It would be cavalier to say we don’t need a lot of support,” Gleason said. “What Donald can do that I can’t do is raise a billion dollars.”
But whether it’s imploring Trump to adjust his campaign rhetoric or convincing him to commit to a fundraising schedule and embrace a traditional ground game, there’s nothing simple about teaching Trump to pivot.
“It’s like a painstaking education process,” said one Republican familiar with the campaign’s deliberations. “I think he does push back when you say ‘I need 25 dates and you’re locked into going to these places,'” to raise money.
Some cautioned that Trump’s light-touch approach and belated start could hamper his chances of winning. Clinton has been building a political machine in battleground states since last November, and retained much of her infrastructure in states even after the primaries ended.
Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist and CNN political commentator who worked on Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, said the campaign can’t rely on the Republican Party alone to build a machine for the general.
“States like Ohio, states like Florida, Virginia, Colorado — they’re called toss ups and battlegrounds for a reason,” Madden said, noting as few as 400,000 voters could be the difference between picking up toss up states and watching your presidential ambitions evaporate. “That’s where organization is so crucial. The ability to fight hand-to-hand combat all the way to Election Day.”
Sean Spicer, the chief strategist and communications director for the RNC, said it is better prepared than even to assist the presumptive nominee, touting 750 paid staffers working on the ground effort.
“What that allows the campaign to do like never before is actually integrate and rely on the RNC to help lead that ground effort up and down the ticket. Normally its the campaign that’s done this,” Spicer said. “We are exponentially further ahead than at any point in political history.”
Meanwhile, some states are still in a holding pattern, awaiting direction from their presumptive nominee.
“We’re just waiting to hear from them,” said North Carolina GOP Chairman Robin Hayes, who points out that the state party has a field organization that’s prepared to plug into the campaign once they reach out. “It’s just like this iPhone. I plug it into the wall and the power comes through.”
In Michigan, the RNC has begun ramping up its efforts but the state party has yet to hear from the campaign about ground game operations like staffing, said Sarah Anderson, the communications director for the Michigan Republican Party.
“I think we will hear from them, but this campaign is just different than what’s been typical,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we’re surprised to not hear from them at this point. I think they’re just not there yet.”
Some operatives in key states are eager to go into full-fledged general election mode. New Hampshire state Rep. Fred Doucette, who was a co-chair for Trump’s primary campaign in the Granite State, urged people not to “underestimate” the campaign’s ground game — “again.”
“We got the job done in New Hampshire and took 36% in the first-in-the-nation primary with everyone on the planet saying we didn’t have a ground game,” he said. “Believe me the Trump campaign is locked and loaded and ready to go.”
Trump aides emphasized that, with five months until Election Day, it’s still early — and the campaign is only beginning to get its footing for the general election because it has been focused winning the GOP primary and establishing a joint finance agreement with the RNC last month.
“We’re pre-convention. The convention is typically the kickoff point for these joint campaigns to begin,” Ed Brookover, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said of the campaign’s effort to build a machine alongside the RNC. “And so the fact that we’re beginning to work together now makes me feel good about where we are.”
However, another hitch in Trump’s plans could be funneling resources into historically Democratic states, which could also force Trump to make uncomfortable tradeoffs that could cost him in November.
“If you have 10 staffers in a place like Washington, which traditionally has been a long shot for Republicans, that’s 10 staffers that you don’t have in a place like Ohio and Florida,” Madden said. “Every dollar that you’re spending somewhere else that you’re not spending in a battleground state is potentially a wasted resource.”
Even though Trump hasn’t made overtures in states like Michigan or North Carolina, he’s already begun laying the groundwork in some deeply Democratic states he hopes to flip.
In New York — Trump’s home state and a blue bastion he badly wants to win — the campaign is counting on anti-Clinton sentiments upstate and efforts to pick up Democratic voters who are feel dissatisfied with their own party.
Carl Paladino, the campaign’s co-chair in New York and the 2010 gubernatorial nominee, said they will also rely on conventional get-out-the-vote efforts and blanketing the upstate region with signs and bumper stickers.
“Upstate will give us a wave in this election, and my instruction from HQ is really simple. It’s one word: Win,” he said. “And that’s what we intend to do.”
Trump shared a similar sentiment with Susan Hutchison, chairman of the Washington state GOP. She said she’s personally received assurances from the candidate that he will campaign in the state, which hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1984.
In one recent conversation, “His first words out of his mouth were ‘What’s going to happen in November?'” Hutchison said. “No small talk. It’s all about winning.”