Republicans confident in strong early-voting ground game for Trump
© Getty Images

The Republican National Committee (RNC) is voicing confidence that it is well prepared for early voting thanks to the fruits of an increased investment in its data and ground game.

The party found itself disadvantaged last cycle, as President Obama’s massive field operation helped to secure his reelection.


It faces a new challenge this cycle, though, as Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE’s lack of organizational investment is forcing the RNC to serve as his A-team on the ground.

RNC officials believe they are ready for the challenge, arguing massive improvements have been made over the past four years.

“Our analytic and data capacity is so far above where we've ever been at this point in time,” a senior RNC aide told The Hill.

“In 2013, the chairman really wanted to make sure we upped our game, and this was one of the byproducts — making sure we had this advanced analytics program to do predictive modeling and answer the question: Where do we stand?”

As Trump continues to languish in the polls, the clock is ticking for the RNC, which is trying to boost his numbers and hold on to the Senate majority.

Early ballots are scheduled to go out in late September in both Illinois and Wisconsin, where the GOP is facing uphill battles in both the presidential and Senate races.

In October, voters in Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona and Georgia will all have the chance to turn in ballots ahead of Election Day. All are expected to be competitive in the presidential race, and all also host Senate races this fall. 

The stakes are high, as census data estimates that about one-third of the vote comes either from early voting or by mail.

Experts say that Democrats historically have emerged from the early vote with the upper hand, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE is now ahead in the polls.   

Trump also has been outspent by Clinton and her allies by tens of millions on the airwaves so far. And the Clinton campaign has over seven times more staffers than Trump.

The RNC believes it can help close the gap. 

After 2012, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus prioritized a massive investment in the data program. That resulted in the creation of a data model that scores the preferences of every voter across the country, a model that’s regularly refreshed to capture trends. 

The party used the model to help guide decisions in 2014, when it won back control of the Senate, but the 2016 cycle represents the first massive roll out of the platform.  

The RNC’s ground game includes 500 paid staffers and 4,000-plus volunteers. It prioritizes Trump but also works with other candidates down the ballot.

In contrast with the GOP, Clinton’s campaign is driving the Democratic Party’s ground game.

As she marched through the primaries, Clinton’s campaign started to shift staff toward battleground states in order to put down roots, collect data and flex organizational muscle.

The campaign is tight-lipped about its numbers on the ground. But Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement, told The Hill in a statement that the campaign wants to give voters every opportunity to vote, whether it be early, absentee or on Election Day.

“You can't build that overnight, and we've been working for months to reach out to voters to make casting their ballot as easy and accessible as possible,” he said.

The Republican investment is a marked improvement from 2012, when the GOP had 170 paid staffers on the ground, according to The Associated Press. But reports have revealed that the party has faced delays on getting its operatives into some states.

In a normal cycle, the nominee's campaign could have stepped in and filled the void as the party rolled out its staff. But the Trump campaign doesn’t have those resources.

“Of course, the RNC does some of this, but you still need a competent presidential campaign organization,” said Doug Heye, a former RNC staffer who is not supporting Trump, of the ground game efforts.

“You need all cylinders firing. ... That doesn't exist with Trump.”

But to Sarah Isgur Flores, a former RNC staffer who served as Carly Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager during her Republican presidential bid, there’s “no particular reason why this arrangement wouldn’t work very well,” since most operatives who’d work on the ground typically come from the party anyway.

There are still a lot of unknowns as to how the early vote will break down, especially in such an odd election year.

Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who studies early voting, said that the strongest partisans typically vote early, so there could be a “rush” this year because the candidates are so polarizing.

But that could be complicated by a lack of enthusiasm, as many strong partisans are motivated by a dislike of the opposing party’s nominee or by those who are still weighing tight Senate races. 

Historically, Republicans gain an early lead with mail voters, who skew older. But Democrats end up on top after the in-person early vote, which includes many young and minority voters. 

While early voting shouldn’t mirror the polls, McDonald said it’s typically “reflective” of a candidate’s strength in the state, especially when compared to previous years. That could benefit Clinton if she continues to hold her swing-state leads.

Isgur Flores said the RNC might have hoped its presidential nominee would have a larger organization at the state level to deal with early voting. At the same time, she said the RNC appears ready for the challenge.

“They had been building a ground game. They had been building data,” Isgur Flores said.

“It may or may not be the way you’d want to run a presidential campaign, but if you are going to run it this way, it turned out to be fortuitous that they had been building this for at least a cycle ahead of time.”