Donald Trump says he can win big in November by turning blue states red.
"I will win states that no Republican would even run in," he said, with his staff telling the Associated Press he is sending teams into 15 states by the end of May to begin that fight. But on the ground, there are few signs the action of building a large campaign apparatus is underway.
One Trump campaign source told NBC News that boasting to the AP of 15 state directors being deployed was a “piece ginned up to make it seem like we’re doing something when we’re not.”
"It's either fluid or non-existent,” the source continued, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I would lean towards the latter."
Asked about his ground game on Thursday, Trump said the Republican National Committee would help substantially.
"As far as building the infrastructure for campaign, the RNC has been doing it for many years, Reince [Priebus, the RNC chairman] has really upped it, all over the country, and part of the benefit is that we get to use those people," he said, noting they were staffing themselves but suggesting that the RNC could build a ground game better than he could in just a few months.
Former RNC National Chairman Michael Steele laughed when asked if the RNC could be a candidate's entire ground game.
"That is part of what they do," he said. "I’m sure Paul Manafort and others know they’ve got to put a lot of that ground game in."
The RNC has historically played a big role in helping to elect presidential candidates, but they're also helping with dozens of Senate and House elections across the nation. Could the RNC afford to take on the job of building Trump's entire ground game if they wanted to?
"No," Steele said. "Those duties and responsibilities have to be split."
Perhaps creating even more problems, the Trump staffer working with the RNC, National Political Director Rick Wiley, parted ways with the campaign Wednesday after just six weeks on the team. A senior Republican strategist told NBC News that his departure would complicate the campaign’s operations with the RNC, as he was a daily figure at RNC headquarters and heavily involved in joint strategy, due to a long history of working with the group. That background, the source said, is part of what caused "cultural differences" between him and the Trump team.
In interviews with NBC News, state and national staffers for the Trump campaign said they’re not adding new staff yet even though it's just five months until the general election and Democrats start with a prohibitive advantage in the electoral college. Trump's team isn't worried. A nontraditional candidate doesn’t need a traditional campaign, advisers say.
"That’s highly unusual, but this is an unusual campaign," Steele said when asked about this apparent strategy.
Trump recently declared that the "candidate is by far the most important thing," according to the Associated Press. He noted in the interview that he’d put a “limited” focus on data, a pillar of modern campaign machines. Meanwhile, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has already built a campaign operation 10 times the size of Trump’s staff, forming a data-driven machine her team hopes will identify, target, persuade and get voters out to the polls – much in the vein of President Barack Obama’s game-changing campaign machine.
Allies say Trump's appeal is so massive there isn't a need for a strong ground game.
“Generally, yes, you want to start early, but I would say with Trump, as soon as we turn the lights on in the office, the machine is raring to go,” Pennsylvania Republican and Trump state campaign co-chairman Rep. Lou Barletta said of efforts in his state, where the Trump campaign hasn't staffed up yet. “All I’ll need is the go-ahead for some campaign officers, and they won’t need to do much -- we’ll be able to handle it in a hurry.”
Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks declined to discuss the staffing or offer up any names of any new hires. According to another campaign staffer who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, the infrastructure will eventually come, but it won't be as important.
“I don’t think the Trump campaign organization has to be much different than any other organization — other than maybe it doesn’t need to be as big,” one campaign staffer told NBC News. “We don’t have to rely as much on it.”
In other words, much of Trump's get-out-the-vote effort may already be in place: Twitter blasts, written by the candidate, that reverberate through the far corners of the Internet, and huge, inevitably dramatic rallies in which Trump can personally convince thousands of people, and even more watching at home via livestreams or on TV, that he's their guy.
In Pennsylvania, a key swing state, Barletta said the volunteers are more ready than the campaign.
“We’re telling them we need to slow down, we’ve gotta get through the convention and gear up for the general,” he said, insisting that the level of die-hard supporters negates the need to build a large machine as early as other campaigns might.
As proof, Barletta described the Trump campaign’s successful last-minute effort to get voters to directly elect delegates who supported Trump. In April, when the Republican primary seemed on the verge of dragging on into a contested convention, the Trump and Ted Cruz campaigns were competing to get delegates who supported them elected.
The primary came after weeks of botched delegate hunting operations, where Cruz's organization outmuscled Trump's team time and time again while his staffers released error-riddled delegate slates and struggled to make headway.
Less than 72 hours before the election, Barletta said he reached out to the campaign and indicated that they needed “more resources” to make sure voters understood how the quirky and unusual process worked -- and that they voted for delegates that supported Trump, not just Trump himself.
“From Saturday to Tuesday, they put the resources that were needed to totally clean up,” he said, noting that they deployed social media and advertising to ensure that Trump voters knew the process. “It was a done deal.”
In Florida, a swing state that is key for Trump’s November success, state director Karen Giorno said the network built to win the Republican primary there in March is still in place, but she said they wouldn’t be really gearing up publicly – or staffing up any more — until late June.
“The traditional model is to add staff, because that’s the way it’s done,” she said. “We’re looking at this campaign in a smarter way.”
She wouldn't offer numbers to contradict the idea that they don't have a strong staff or ground game, arguing that it would be easier to beat the opponents if they thought she didn't have enough of a team.
“We will have the right amount of people that we need to win,” she said “We are really looking at this in a very, very smart way. It’s not about numbers, it’s about quality.”
Republican strategists say how Trump transitions to the general election is key, precisely because they’ve run such a nontraditional primary bid.
“Donald Trump’s campaign was built to get the nomination. It has yet to be built to win the election. How they transition … will be critical,” Republican strategist John Brabender said. “The Clinton campaign has been built to win the election -- they’re seeing the primary as a nuisance.”