Enthusiasm gap looms for Clinton
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What matters more in winning elections: voter enthusiasm or the ground game?

It’s a question that has long been debated among political operatives and is now being put to the test in this year's presidential election.

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Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House protests extend into sixth day despite rain Clinton: US is 'losing friends and allies' under Trump Justice Dept releases surveillance applications for former Trump aide MORE is running her operation by the book, spending millions of dollars on staff, TV ads, data modeling and field office in battleground states.

Her Republican rival, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff: Surveillance warrant docs show that Nunes memo 'misrepresented and distorted these applications' Chicago detention facility under investigation following allegations of abuse of migrant children Ex-Trump aide: Surveillance warrants are 'complete ignorance' and 'insanity' MORE, has done little of that. He has relied largely on media coverage to fuel his candidacy and has called data-led political activity “overrated.” His field operation is skeletal, leaning instead on the more extensive network put in place by the Republican National Committee (RNC).

But, for all that, Trump is competitive, recently pulling ahead of Clinton in polls of swing states like Ohio and Florida, and reducing the Democrat’s lead in national polls to around a single percentage point. 

One reason for his strength: People who intend to vote for him are more enthusiastic about doing so than those planning to back Clinton, according to three major recent polls.

That fact alone makes some Republicans bullish about Trump’s prospects.

“You can have all the infrastructure you want, but if people are not inspired or excited to vote for you, then it is not going to do you any good,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the RNC. “You can have very little, or weak, infrastructure, but if you create momentum or a force majeure that wins the argument.”

Steele cited the example of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBernie Sanders mocks Trump: ‘He could change his mind tomorrow’ Sunday shows preview: Questions linger over Trump-Putin summit Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE (I-Vt.), who challenged Clinton from the left in the Democratic primaries. Even though Sanders did not win, Steele suggested that the strength shown by the left-wing Vermonter demonstrated the power of grassroots enthusiasm. 

If Steele is right, it would be very good news for Trump. Recent major polls have sent a consistent message on voter enthusiasm: The GOP nominee has the edge over Clinton.

Most strikingly, a CNN/ORC poll indicated that more than 1 in 5 five would-be Clinton voters were “not at all enthusiastic” about backing her, almost twice as many as said the same about Trump. The poll found 58 percent of Trump supporters saying they felt either “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about their choice, and only 46 percent in the Clinton camp feeling the same.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 46 percent of Trump backers were “very enthusiastic,” compared with only 33 percent of Clinton supporters. And a New York Times/CBS News poll saw Trump outperforming Clinton by the same metric, 45 percent to 36 percent.  

Everyone agrees enthusiasm matters. But some experts caution against it being treated as the end-all, be-all for campaigns.

“It is not clear that enthusiasm as it shows up in polls is a prerequisite for ultimately voting,” said Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Victory Lab,” a book about modern, data-led campaigning. “People do all sorts of things in their lives about which they are not enthusiastic. We get our oil changed, we go to the dentist, we mow our lawns. I don’t think anyone would ever say they are enthusiastic about those things.”

But Issenberg noted another facet of the argument. Enthusiasm matters to a campaign’s ability to attract volunteers, who in turn do much of the day-to-day work of contacting people in their communities and boosting turnout. If Trump’s stalwart supporters are willing to proselytize for him, that could go some of the way toward making up for his thin get-out-the-vote operation.

The RNC has pushed a version of this argument — though it also denies that Clinton has any organizational advantage. A news release last Friday, for example, asserted that 1,500 volunteer prospects had been “pushed to the field” since the Monday before and that “over 14,000 volunteer prospects were provided to the field from the RNC’s Direct Mail Team this week.” 

Earlier this month, the RNC communications director Sean Spicer told CNN’s “New Day,” “I don’t mean to be facetious, but offices don’t vote. People do.”

That’s just as well for the Trump campaign. An analysis by "PBS Newshour” found that at the end of last month, Clinton had 291 field offices in battleground states to just 88 for Trump. 

Geography also poses a problem for the Trump operation. A sizable part of his base is composed of rural or small-town whites, many of whom are not habitual voters. But the fact that they often live much farther apart than the urban voters who are the bedrock of Democratic support means that it is more difficult to contact them via door knocking and other traditional means.

“Republicans can’t open an RNC office in every rural town in the country, so they have to come up with an alternative strategy,” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who also runs the United States Elections Project website. “Will that strategy be effective in mobilizing a group of people they haven’t, in the past, had to worry about so much?”

Both campaigns, and their allies, evince confidence. Clinton backers argue the importance of the enthusiasm gap is overstated and that voters will turn up for her as Election Day nears and the stakes become clearer. Trump loyalists believe their candidate has inspiration on his side, while the RNC cites plenty of data to show its ground game is robust.

Success for Trump in November would seem to call into question much of the received wisdom about campaigning. But experts, including Issenberg, caution that any lessons from this highly unusual election year might not be universally applicable.

“This is structured almost like a thought experiment to measure what matters anymore in campaigns,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve seen a candidate [like Trump] who renounces whole categories of ... campaigning, mostly because it seems he doesn’t really understand them or he doesn’t think that they’re fun.

“At the same time, it is often hard to disentangle. Anybody who looks back after Election Day and wants to determine that something Donald Trump did or didn’t do is something that will work for other candidates risks learning the wrong lessons from this year.”