As the presidential election marathon breaks into a final sprint, the Trump campaign faces a jaw-dropping gap in the ground game: Hillary Clinton currently has more than three times the number of campaign offices in critical states than does Donald Trump. The contrast is a test for the conventional campaign model and points to the candidates' stark differences in methods. Clinton is cleaving to the data-driven, on-the-ground machine that won two elections for Barack Obama. Trump, on the other hand, insists he does not need traditional campaign tactics to win the election, pointing to his overwhelming nomination victory achieved with a relatively small team and little spending.
A few weeks ago, Donald Trump made an unexpected, off-hand comment about his lack of interest in campaign infrastructure. "I don't know that we need to get out the vote," the Republican candidate said. "I think people that really want to vote, they're gonna just get up and vote for Trump."
And with that in mind, perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that, with 10 weeks remaining before Election Day, Team Trump's field operation is far from impressive. On Tuesday's show, Rachel highlighted this report from PBS Newshour, which did a nice job pulling together data on the major party nominees' ground games.
PBS NewsHour, to its credit, pulled together the data from "15 key states, speaking with state and national campaign officials, cross-referencing Federal Election Commission spending reports and checking local news coverage." The report found the Clinton campaign with 291 offices in these states, compared to the Trump campaign's 88.
As MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald noticed, based on the PBS NewsHour findings, Clinton currently has more field offices open in North Carolina (30) than Trump has in North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona combined.
The next question, of course, is whether or not this deficit will matter come Election Day.
Hang around campaign insiders long enough, and you'll hear plenty of talk, especially from teams that are trailing, that the candidate's ground game is at least as important as survey results. And in some instances, the argument is more than just spin: in a tight race, if one campaign has an especially effective on-the-ground operation, it can out-perform the polls, at least a little.
But Trump is trying something new, arguing that campaign observers should overlook polls and field operations. The Washington Post's John Sides published a piece last week, reviewing the latest political science research to conclude that the Trump campaign, through its general indifference towards the ground game, is very likely to leave "votes on the table."
It's worth emphasizing that the Trump campaign told PBS that it will open an additional 132 field offices "in coming days and weeks." That would still leave the Republican ticket trailing the Clinton/Kaine field operation, and it's difficult to say with certainty whether those 132 offices will actually open soon, or whether the goal is only aspirational.
Also note, the Trump campaign only recently hired a national field director -- a position that presidential operations usually fill months in advance -- and gave the job to Bill Stepien, Chris Christie's former campaign manager before he got caught up in the "Bridgegate" scandal.