Don’t Underestimate Trump’s Ground Game

Political types tend to think inside their own boxes, and then wonder why their predictions are wrong when the box collapses.

The latest Ann Selzer / DMR poll shows Trump with a 7 point lead, and I’ve said that it would take a miracle for the projected 150-200 thousand turnout that would produce those numbers.

Winter Storm Kayla could dump several inches on Des Moines and northwest Iowa. That will hurt attendance in areas where voters have to make a difficult drive and then get home in the snow. These events would appear to play to Cruz, who has had an incredible organization on the ground in Iowa.

Based on a net loss of Republican voter registrations in 2016 over 2015, and 2012’s record 122,000 turnout for the caucuses, I was thinking that 125-130 thousand would be a gracious plenty, especially with the weather predictions. My friend Brandon Finnigan of Decision Desk thought that 135-140 thousand is plausible.

But what if you’re a billionaire who really must win Iowa to earn his “creds” this race, by turning what has been pent-up demand into real votes? Donald Trump is not a politician, and one problem is we keep thinking like he is one.

For example: buying votes is illegal, but providing child care and transportation is kosher. So what if Trump rolled a thousand vans painted with the Trump logo on them into Des Moines, Sioux City, Ames, and other key cities and bought up electronic billboards telling people to get on board? Sure, we might know he’s doing this, but Trump is a master of the last-minute buy and has plenty of business connections.

What if Trump rented gymnasiums in those cities and staffed them with child care professionals and youth workers who would watch babies, play games, and otherwise care for kids, and told supporters to drop off their kids there? What if the vans stopped there?

What if Trump bought out every Uber driver in Des Moines and had them go to voters homes who needed a ride to the caucuses?

I’m not saying he’s doing any of those things. But the man is legitimately rich, and can get word out to his supporters very effectively–and not just by Twitter. Trump is also legitimately dangerous as a disruptor in every market in which he plays.

What we do know is that Trump has a real advantage in the polls. We know that if all the people who support Trump show up at the caucuses, he’ll very likely win Iowa with room to spare. What we don’t know is Trump’s plan to bridge that support into votes.

But I am not willing to bet that Trump doesn’t have a plan, and betting against his plans by thinking inside the political box hasn’t yielded good results so far. Let’s not underestimate Trump’s ground game.


Here’s Why Gov. Branstad Opposes Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz was asked Thursday night by a Fox News debate moderator about his stance on ethanol. In the course of asking the question, Chris Wallace pointed out that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, has said Cruz should be defeated.

Of course Terry Branstad thinks Ted Cruz should be defeated. Branstad isn’t looking out for the interests of Iowa, he’s looking out for his own interests.

CNN reported on January 19 that Branstad told a gathering of renewable fuels industry representatives, “It would be a big mistake for Iowa to support [Cruz].” Asked if that meant he wanted Cruz to lose in Iowa, the governor of 21 years said, “Yes.”

You see, Gov. Branstad’s son is Eric Branstad, one of the leaders of America’s Renewable Future, a group that demands candidates in Iowa support ethanol subsidies. While lobbying for welfare checks from Washington, the organization is running an independent effort to attack any candidate who dares to not bow down to federal ethanol subsidies and mandates.

With the slogan “I’m caucusing for ethanol in 2016,” America’s Renewable Future is urging Iowans to become single-issue voters who ignore issues such as religious liberty, the right to life, judicial nominations, and national security. Such a cynical appeal to vote in favor of a welfare check at the expense of all other issues is a grotesque tactic, and one that assumes Iowa Republicans don’t care about anything but the highest bidder.

So far, the younger Branstad’s biggest target has been Ted Cruz.

That’s because Ted Cruz won’t bow down to ethanol.

As National Review has pointed out, federal subsidies for ethanol started under President Jimmy Carter, hardly a president known for policies that Republicans like. They have continued to this day thanks in part to the gatekeepers of presidential politics: Iowa voters, and politicians who have so far refused to shoot straight with them about the impact of the subsidies. It takes guts to point out in an ethanol-loving state that government subsidies are a form of dependence that elevate one citizen’s work above another’s and puts government – not free markets – in the business of picking winners and losers.

Right now Iowans are being told that Cruz is opposed to ethanol. One Iowa farmer even got an editorial placed in The Hill that blasted Cruz because, “he has pushed harmful policies that undermine a major Iowa industry.”

True, Cruz has said ethanol subsidies should end. But he is not opposed to ethanol. As he pointed out on the Fox News debate stage Thursday night, he believes that just as federal subsidies for ethanol must end, so too should federal regulations that make it more difficult for fuel companies to increase the amount of ethanol they use in fuel blends.

In a Des Moines Register editorial last year, Cruz noted:

“My view on energy is simple: We should pursue an ‘all of the above’ policy. We should embrace all of the energy resources with which God has blessed America: oil and gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, and biofuels and ethanol. But Washington shouldn’t be picking winners and losers.”

Sure, lobbyists like Eric Branstad and career politicians like his dad, the 21-year governor of Iowa, aren’t going to like it when Cruz says, “That’s why my tax plan ends all energy subsidies and mandates. No Washington favoritism for oil and gas, for wind, for solar, or for anyone else.” But that’s okay, because at least of all the candidates running for the GOP nomination, Ted Cruz has had the honesty to let Iowans know where he stands, and has had the faith to trust that Iowa voters aren’t cynical people who vote on the basis of a single special interest issue.

Why Caucuses Are Better

Ted Cruz will benefit from Monday’s Iowa caucus versus a primary.

From CNN‘s Karpowitz and Pope:

Candidates like Cruz and Sanders will be on their “home turf” at the caucus meetings because those meetings are likely to be filled with voters especially receptive to their more ideological messages. The single best way to change an election is to change who participates, and our choices about electoral processes — caucuses or primaries — do just that.

At a caucus, participants get to hear a speech from each candidate or supporters during the meeting, then they vote. Based on Cruz’s ground operation, every location will have someone prepped and ready to give a pretty good speech. Trump will have spottier, and in some cases, embarrassing, representation.

While I couldn’t find any online stories of past caucus-goers who actually changed their minds once the doors are closed, I do know that it’s unlikely anyone walking in the room undecided will be swayed to vote for Trump by the caucus speech. They may, however, be swayed the opposite way. (It would be interesting and useful to see what stories come out Monday.)

In primaries, especially in states like Georgia where early voting starts on Feb 8, getting people to the polls is a matter of small motivation: Akin to getting off the couch, getting in one’s car and stopping by McDonalds for a burger. By the actual primary day, over 50 percent of voters will have already cast their ballot. There’s not much that last-minute jockeying can accomplish in that environment.

But picking a presidential nominee should be more of a thoughtful process. Going to a caucus where you can look the other participants in the eye and hear each candidate’s supporters’ spiel is preferable to what’s become a lunch-hour, drive-by event. There’s a reason why the GOP has gerrymandered engineered a primary schedule that allows the frontrunner to gain unstoppable support early. And Trump is using that carefully designed process against its designers (good for him!).

Voters are not pawns to be manipulated, either by the parties or the press. The more disconnected we are from our political processes, the less thought we voters will put into our (collective) decisions. As Mrs. Banks sang in Mary Poppins, “though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” She was referring to women’s suffrage, when only men could vote. Now that women vote, they also join the stupid club, as a general observation about uninformed voters.

It works to Trump’s advantage that he’s the Great White Hope of the uninformed. But it works to the country’s advantage to replace every primary with a caucus. Kentucky did it, albeit for the arcane reason that Rand Paul gets to run for his Senate seat and the presidential nomination simultaneously.

Clearly, the GOP is facing the event horizon of a galaxy-consuming black hole. If Trump uses the media/demagogue track to successfully defeat the party’s carefully constructed primary hurdles, that system of picking a candidate may well have outlived its usefulness.

Let’s go back to Iowa’s way of choosing and consider caucusing again.


Trump’s Lead In Iowa Is Based On A Miracle

The latest Monmouth poll in Iowa shows Trump up by 7 percent over Cruz among “likely caucus attendees.” But the assumptions behind the poll numbers present a very shaky case.

Since Trump draws a disproportionate amount of support from voters who are not political diehards, he will need a strong turnout to emerge victorious on February 1st. Based on past voting history and voters’ stated intentions to attend this year’s caucuses, the current poll estimates turnout will be approximately 170,000 voters, which would far surpass the 122,000 record GOP turnout from four years ago. Increasing the poll’s turnout projection to 200,000 voters widens Trump’s lead to 32% over 21% for Cruz, with Rubio at 16% and Carson at 9%. Decreasing the turnout projection to 130,000 voters, which would still be a record level, puts the race in a tie at 26% for Trump and 26% for Cruz, with Rubio at 15% and Carson at 12%.

Really, so in order to justify Trump’s lead, somehow 50,000 more caucus attendees will have to show up and vote for Trump than have ever shown up before. Trump has 12 paid staffers in Iowa, led by Tana Goetz, a 48-year-old former runner up on “The Apprentice.” Wow, what raw horsepower.

One volunteer leader enlisted by Donald J. Trump to turn out Iowa voters has yet to knock on a single door or to make a phone call. Another is a “9/11 truther” with a website claiming that the Sept. 11 attacks were a government conspiracy. A third caucus precinct captain, who like the others attended a training session in West Des Moines last month, said the campaign’s goal of having them each enlist 25 supporters was unrealistic.

Cruz has over 1,000 precinct chairs, a 240-plus person leadership team and over 5,000 volunteers in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties (all of which Cruz has pledged to visit before the caucuses, and it looks like he’ll make it happen). They’re led by seasoned professionals such as Jake Dagel, who was field director for Turning Point USA.

So, all this heat and light coming off the Trump campaign is based on people answering pollster questions on the phone.

Interviewer: “Are you going to attend the caucus?”

Trump supporter: “Yeah, I’ll go to the caucus.”

“Have you gone before?”

“Yeah, once in 1988. I supported Reagan.”

“B…but Reagan wasn’t even…”

“Yeah man! Trump! Trump! USA! USA!”

Okay, mark that as a “likely caucus attendee.” Now extrapolate that over all of Iowa and put it in a spreadsheet. It’s one thing to answer a phone call. It’s quite another to show up before 7 p.m. on the dot at a specific location, produce I.D. and voter registration confirmation, and spend an hour to cast your vote for a candidate.

It’s possible this will be a record-breaking Iowa caucus turnout, but to assume that as part of a poll…well, that’s counting on a miracle.

Iowa Ground Game In The Home Stretch: Shoe Leather vs. The Show

With the latest polls in Iowa showing Donald Trump up between 2 and 7 points over Ted Cruz, the importance of a ground game and GOTV effort becomes more evident.

Here’s where the candidates are, and this reflects the size of their operations on the ground in Iowa. Note that all the candidates will be in Des Moines on the 28th for the Fox News GOP debate.


Today (26th), a 5 p.m. rally in Marshalltown and a 7:30 p.m. rally in Iowa City. He flies back to New York to sleep in his bed, and doesn’t return to Iowa until the 30th for a big rally in Davenport. On the 29th, Trump is in New Hampshire.

Trump can pull together a rally in practically any size arena and fill it, and bring staffers to the event with very little notice. All he needs is an airport. Notably, his GOTV online caucus-finder is smooth, easy to use, and very competently done. None of the other candidates have this feature (they should).

It’s yet to be seen how well this hands-off approach works, or if Trump has an out-of-state effort to move potential supporters on caucus day. But nothing works better than a knock on the door.


The man is indestructible. Cruz is making 7 stops today. On the 27th he has a big pro-life rally with Rick Perry in Clive, followed by a string of 5 appearances between Ringside and Wapello on Friday. No break on Saturday with another 5 appearances between Hubbard and Sioux City, capped by a rally with Rep. Steve King.

On Sunday the 31st, Cruz continues in Iowa with 3 events (I assume after church), starting in Iowa City and ending in Des Moines with a rally at the State Fair Grounds. Monday, Feb 1 has Cruz in Jefferson and Marion for a pre-caucus rally at Grace Baptist Church.

That’s a total of 23 events on Cruz’s calendar–far more than anyone else. Only a well-developed, committed team on the ground can support this kind of whistle-stop campaigning. You can be sure that Cruz volunteers and staffers are calling every single voter to remind them to get to the caucuses, telling them where their locations are, offering to help with transportation, child care or any other issues. Cruz will maximize his turnout.


Where’s Marco? He’s got 4 events today (26th) starting in Pella, going through Marshalltown before Trump gets there, and ending in Des Moines with a town hall at the Sheraton. On Wednesday (27th), Rubio has a rally at Wellman’s Pub and Rooftop, a few miles from the hotel.

And that’s it. After the debate, Rubio leaves Iowa, and heads (I don’t know where) somewhere. His website has no obvious links to “events” and even searching for “events” yields nothing useful. Rubio has no events in New Hampshire through Feb 2nd, so really, where is Marco?

Update: Rubio’s Communications Director, Alex Conant, tweeted that Rubio will remain in Iowa through the caucuses. Find the updated schedule here.


Just for comparisons’ sake, I added Carson in. He’s got one event tonight (26th) called REVIVE714 at Heritage Assembly of God in Des Moines. Then he’s gone. He’s not in New Hampshire; actually he goes to Denver for an organizational meeting, then back to Iowa for the debate. After that, he’s got nothing on the calendar until after the caucus, when he travels to California for a week.

Dr. Carson, do you know that there’s a primary in New Hampshire on Feb 9?


It’s going to be Trump vs. Cruz. Cruz is all in and will follow Reagan’s (and John Wayne’s) path to victory for GOTV. “There is no substitute for down-to-earth, house to house, person-to-person contact.” Shoe leather vs. The Show.

History is betting on shoe leather, but Trump may overturn everything.

Cruz Dogged By Birther Issue In Iowa: ‘I Can’t Guarantee We’ll Win’

Ted Cruz is hitting the road hard in Iowa, a must-win state for him to stop the Trump juggernaut, but he admitted he’s the underdog.

“I can’t guarantee we’ll win,” Cruz told a group of pastors Monday at a private meeting in Cedar Rapids. “I don’t know that. That’s out of my hands. I believe we have a path to victory.”

A friend of mine told me the night of the last debate that “Cruz’s run is done” when Trump went for the birther angle. “He’s successfully planted doubts.” I poo-poohed it, but that really has hurt Cruz. The latest CBS News’ poll shows 16 percent of Republican primary voters think it’s a serious issue, well beyond the margin of error.

According to the Washington Post, a loss in Iowa “would call into question the depth of his coalition.”

Also at stake is the credibility of his vaunted data and field operation, which in Iowa is believed to be more sophisticated than any other Republican’s.

I’m not sure that’s really the issue. Having the ground game and data is important, but using 40 years of persuasion techniques, from body language to word choice, Trump is making a non-issue stick to Cruz like a blood libel.

Instead of a test of Cruz’s careful preparation and campaign management, this is really a test of Trump’s ability to mesmerize and hoodwink the electorate into believing whatever he says.

How Trump Loses

With the collective sphincters of many conservative writers, bloggers, and media tighter than Mark Watney’s when he left Mars, and the fate of the conservative movement hanging in the balance, there’s good news.

Trump’s supporters are loud, and some of his critics are also loud, but the “silent majority” he is courting may not like him nearly as much as he thinks.

Robert Tracinski over at The Federalist wrote an excellent analysis of what is now a three-man race: Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.

Trump’s strategy, by contrast, has a major subtractive element. He has pandered so hard to one particular kind of voter that they have given him their fanatical devotion. My ultimate theory on Trump’s appeal is that his core base of support is the unpandered-to voter, the kind of people who feel they have been slighted and ignored by every other politician because no one has ever come out before and told them they’re absolutely right about how Mexican rapists pouring across the border are the source of all our problems, or about how we have to shut down trade with China because they’re taking away our jobs. I suspect that’s why these people are unfazed when you tell them that Trump doesn’t have a consistent record and that he’s just pandering to them and telling them what they want to hear. For these voters, that misses the real point. The point is that he’s pandering to them and telling them what they want to hear. Nobody’s ever really done that before, so they’re ecstatic.

But there’s a reason nobody ever panders to these voters, or at least why nobody ever panders to them as hard as Trump has. The harder you appeal to this one group, the more you risk alienating other groups. Pander to the hard-core anti-immigrationists and you lose the Hispanic vote. Pander to the wild-eyed populists and you lose the sober moderates. Pander to the emotion-driven voters, and you lose the ideological voters. You get huge support within a particular group at the expense of high opposition everywhere else. It’s a subtractive strategy.

The numbers work out that Nobody is more hated than Trump (Nobody being John Kasich–even Bush is less hated in most of the polls).

This is an enormous problem in the general election, where Trump is spectacularly unpopular. As the New York Post observes, both parties are about to nominate candidates that most Americans hate. But it’s also a problem in the primaries. Trump is the only major Republican candidate where there are a lot of people in the party who would rather drive a rail spike through their foreheads than vote for him.

It’s also a problem in the primaries, and especially in Iowa. Looking at the latest polls that have tracked favorability, Trump is in the cellar.






In order for Trump to win Iowa, he would have to overthrow decades of caucus attendee trends. He would have to completely hijack the GOP base–a virtual miracle. Polls are one thing, but in a caucus, getting people to the building on time is the game (a ground game, which Cruz, Rubio and Carson are quietly pursuing).


Despite his lead in the polls, what makes me skeptical about Trump’s path to the nomination is that he only wins if This Time Is Different. He wins if celebrity culture has completely rewritten the rules and overturned everything everybody knows about running a campaign. And over the years, a lot of people have come to grief thinking that This Time Is Different.

This will soon become an either/or scenario. Either Trump overcomes everyone’s doubts and takes Iowa decisively, or he starts to fade. Winning only works when you win, and all bluster aside, Trump’s response to losing may be more important than anything else that he does in this race.

If he lives up to his predictable nature, it won’t be pretty.

Cruz (and Sanders) Own the High Ground in Iowa

Thursday’s GOP debate made it clear that Ted Cruz is the man to beat in Iowa, and now Bernie Sanders on the Democrat side has joined the “you have to beat me to win” club.

Her failure to take Sanders seriously has caused Hillary to do what Trump just did to Cruz: attack an opponent who sits on higher ground. This close to Iowa, that kind of “going negative” is the act of a campaign desperate to retain its momentum (which is clearly diminished).

Clinton – who has struggled to stoke the passion of her supporters – had a surfeit of oomph in the Charleston debate hall, but her jacked-up performance also reinforced the impression that she’s more motivated by personal survival than a fervor to reverse economic injustices. In a dial-test focus group held near the venue by Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis, 29 out of 30 undecided voters declared the less-strident Sanders the winner of the debate’s first hour. The Clinton campaign dismissed that as aberration, claiming recent polls showed a hefty majority of undecideds breaking for Clinton.

When Trump tried to attack Cruz on campaign contributions from big donors at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention, Trump was booed by the crowd, something he’s clearly not used to.

“You give a campaign contribution to Ted Cruz, you get whatever the hell you want,” he said, before boos erupted from the crowd.

Trump went on as the boos grew louder: “Say whatever you want, it’s okay, he didn’t report his bank loans. He’s got bank loans from Goldman Sachs, he’s got bank loans from Citibank, folks, and then he acts like Robin Hood?”

Even with new media beginning to dominate message, campaigns are not won on Twitter. It’s easy for Trump to rest on his laurels, although by no means do I think he’s slowing down his efforts. It’s simply that the law of diminishing returns operates without fail, and without mercy.

Just look at the tone and frequency of these attacks.

Meanwhile, there’s barely a mention of Trump from Cruz’s Twitter account, other than a retweet of Cruz’s win in New York’s Metropolitan Republican Club straw poll. The high ground, like at Gettysburg, makes all the difference.

Suddenly, Cruz’s comments about “gravity” are beginning to make a lot more sense. Before burning every single bridge with Cruz, the GOP should stop to consider who ends up being right.