Trump gambles on changing the electorate in key early state

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LAS VEGAS – Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSan Diego newspaper endorses Clinton Clinton proposes 'reserve' program for volunteers Voters want more from Clinton, Trump on fiscal issues, poll says MORE has proven the pundits wrong by staying atop the 2016 polls for six months, but skeptics question whether the billionaire has the organization needed to turn out the vote. 

Grassroots organizing is crucial in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and Trump insists he has built a top-flight operation that can compete with his rivals and propel him to victory. 

"We're going to take it to ... the convention, and after that we're going to beat Hillary, or whoever it is, so bad," he told an Atlanta crowd in early October, mentioning his top Democratic competitor, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSan Diego newspaper endorses Clinton Clinton proposes 'reserve' program for volunteers Voters want more from Clinton, Trump on fiscal issues, poll says MORE. 

But questions about the strength of Trump’s operation linger, with just over a month until the first ballots are cast in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. 

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The chief strategist for Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, Stuart Stevens, says there is a "cold fusion" quality to Trump's theory that through sheer force of personality he can get a new universe of first-time voters to show up and vote in caucuses.

"It's an interesting idea," Stevens said. "I doubt it will work." 

Said to be out-organized in Iowa, Trump is seeking to build a firewall in Nevada, the fourth state in the nominating process. 

The businessman is relying on an unconventional approach there, having given the reins to an operative who has never previously navigated the state’s complex caucus process. 

Instead of using the voter targeting systems favored by rival campaigns, Trump’s Nevada operation is relying on broad-based communications aimed at firing up the real estate tycoon's army of grassroots supporters. 

By doing so, Trump's operation is betting it can turn out thousands of people who have never voted before in a Republican caucus — a gamble that could pay handsome dividends or lead to disaster. 

Nevada requires especially strong ground operations because voters need to be registered Republicans and cannot register themselves on voting day, as Iowans can. 

Over the course of a week in Nevada, The Hill spent time with the campaigns of leading Republican candidates Donald Trump, Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzCruz criticizes federal law enforcement on terrorism Four states sue to stop internet transition House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown MORE (R-Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioFlorida paper endorses Clinton, writes separate piece on why not Trump Overnight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform The Trail 2016: Just a little kick MORE (R-Fla.), as well as those of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. 

What emerged is a clear picture: Trump, who led the two most recent Nevada polls, has the largest and most passionate crowds. But his opponents have more professional organizations and believe their superior get-out-the-vote operations can win in a caucus process that is still unfamiliar to Nevadans. Turnout for the caucuses has hovered around 10 percent the past two election cycles. 

The Bush, Cruz, Rubio and Carson operations in Nevada have similar or, in the case of Bush and Carson, slightly larger, Nevada staffs than Trump, but they are led by more experienced operatives.

Bush’s leading operatives, Scott Scheid and Ryan Erwin, are two of the most sought-after campaigners in the state and were key forces behind Romney’s victory in the 2012 caucuses. 

Rubio’s Nevada director, Jeremy Hughes, led the successful campaigns of Nevada’s Republican Sen. Dean HellerDean HellerFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Senate lays groundwork for spending deal GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase MORE and its governor, Brian Sandoval. Cruz’s lead operative, Robert Uithoven, and Carson’s state director, Jimmy Stracner, are both respected campaign veterans. 

Trump’s fortunes in Nevada rest on the shoulders of Charles Munoz, 26, the former deputy state director for the Koch network grassroots organizing group Americans for Prosperity. He has four Nevada-based staff working with him and two offices: one in Vegas and one in Reno. 

Munoz acknowledges he is educating himself on the caucus process on the fly.  

“I would say this isn’t rocket science, just working really hard and having a passion for it,” Munoz said. “And so I just dug in, studied every single aspect of it, studied all the rules, all the, you know, the history of it, and just figured it out.”

The eight-person Bush operation, by contrast, uses sophisticated voter ID applications provided by i360, a data company linked to the political network helmed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

The information is automatically uploaded into a central database and the Bush team — whose candidate has fallen to low single digits in national polls — is ruthless about homing in on their likely supporters and turning them out. 

Asked what the Trump campaign was doing to target important Nevada constituent groups such as Mormons, Munoz said his team was not thinking about the electorate like that. 

“We’re doing outreach to every single group,” Munoz said. “We talk to anybody and everybody.” 

“What we’re doing here is a little different than I guess doing the traditional reach-out to historical turnout people,” he added. 

Many of these supporters, the Trump team believes, are currently Democrats and will need to change their voter registrations in order to vote on Feb. 23.   

“These folks who are going to be caucusing, a big percentage of them have never caucused before," Munoz said. "And it’s a bit more work obviously than doing the traditional folks that have done this for the last two cycles. But that’s kind of the great thing about Mr. Trump. Everybody is coming in.”  

The Carson campaign, on the other hand, is zeroing in on evangelical Christians and has strong ties to Las Vegas churches. Carson's operatives believe that given Nevada's historically minuscule turnout, this targeted approach will yield better results than the broad-based strategy being employed by Trump.  

Munoz believes the competitive advantage of the Trump operation is not its paid staff but its army of supporters and volunteers, who are unrivaled for passion. 

He says that so many people showed up to a recent "open day" held at the three-room Trump Vegas office that traffic needed to be diverted on the road outside.  

When Jerry Chanin and his wife, Pam, walked into Trump’s campaign office during The Hill’s visit, he said something that few other candidates could expect to hear from a supporter. 

Describing what the billionaire GOP front-runner could say or do to lose his support, Chanin, holding a “Make America Great!” yard sign, said, “He could come to my house and lay a major turd on my lawn and I’d still vote for him.”

Chanin’s comments reflect recent focus groups held by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “I've never seen voters so passionate and committed to a candidate after seeing an hour's worth of reasons why not to vote for him,” he told CBS News. 

These anecdotes also reflect polling data that show a higher proportion of Trump's supporters saying they have made up their minds than other candidates.  

At Nevada rallies last week, Trump's crowd dwarfed those of Cruz and Rubio in both size and intensity. 

At the Trump rally, the crowd of several thousand was on its feet, yelling and chanting; protesters were booted out, teenage boys wore blonde Trump wigs and dozens of supporters bought “Make America Great Again!” hats at the merchandise stand outside. 

More than half a dozen Trump supporters interviewed said they had made up their mind for Trump, no matter what.   

“I am 100 percent. 100 percent [for Trump],” said Charlene Dzadon, a retired flight attendant who is passionate about gun ownership. “He can act silly. … We need someone like that. We need change.

"And I don’t care how crazy it sounds. He’s acting like we are.” 

Rubio's crowd, earlier on the same day at a Vegas hotel a few minutes down the road, was about a tenth of the size of Trump's and much quieter. And at Cruz’s rally a few days later at a gated retiree community in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin, several hundred seniors sat politely in rows of chairs, listening to the candidate.  

Trump boasts that no candidate can draw the crowds he does, but there were signs at last week's rally that he is beginning to focus on voter turnout. At one point in his speech, Trump interrupted his flow to remind the crowd to vote in Nevada.  

And in a sign of more committed organization, outside the rally the Trump campaign was registering supporters.  

"Organizing matters," Munoz said, "[But] you can be as organized as, you know, anybody else out there, but if people aren't believing and buying into your candidate, then the rest means nothing."