Over the last few months, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has done an amazing job of mastering the media. The real estate billionaire and reality television star has garnered more than $1 billion dollars’ worth of free media vs. his current campaign rival Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Trump is also beating Cruz in the race for delegates with 743 vs. Cruz’s 517. However, there are 150 “unbound” delegates in the mix which the Cruz campaign is aggressively courting in an effort to block Trump from achieving the 1237 delegates needed to secure the party nomination. Cruz, is reportedly better positioned than Trump from a ground game perspective with a superior campaign organization which knows how to turn meet and greets, phone banks, and handshakes into delegate commitments.
Most recently, Cruz defeated Trump in the Wisconsin primary by a higher than anticipated margin of 13 points. Furthermore, this week while Colorado was choosing its 37 delegates at congressional conventions and the state convention, Cruz successfully walked away with the support of 34 delegates. This includes the 13 delegates available at the state convention on Saturday and the 21 delegates which were in play at the seven congressional district conventions which were held earlier this past week. The remaining three delegates are reserved for state party officials. Word on the street was that the Cruz campaign was in constant contact with Colorado delegates while the Trump team was missing in action. Furthermore, the Trump team had a number of tactical miss-steps including distributing flyers at the campaign events which included delegate names aligned with incorrect delegate numbers. Ironically, some of the printed numbers were for delegates supporting Cruz. While the Trump campaign reprinted the flyer, the revised flyer also included errors. Cruz made a personal appearance at the Colorado state delegate events, but both Trump and Kasich sent surrogates. Of course, it didn’t help matters that Trump’s Colorado representative, James Baker, was fired this week.
Even in Arizona, where Trump clinched the primary, the Cruz campaign is doing a better job of winning over delegates for a second ballot. Cruz also delivered the keynote address at the North Dakota State GOP convention where he had the opportunity to woo the state’s 25 unbound delegates. Cruz also fared well in the congressional delegate races in Iowa, taking almost all of the 12 delegates up for grabs on the second ballot. While Trump won 47% of the votes in Virginia’s 9th Congressional District, Cruz took two of the delegates and Trump took the third. In South Carolina, where all the delegates are bound to Trump on the first ballot, Cruz walked away with three of the six available from two districts and Trump took one. The other two delegates were uncommitted. Michigan was only state where Cruz did not secure any delegates. Five of the available delegates went to Trump and other three went to Kasich.
From an organizational perspective Trump appears to be playing catch up, recently opening his first campaign office in Washington. He also engaged House Representatives Chris Collins (R-New York) and Duncan Hunter (R-California) to lead his congressional outreach efforts and hired veteran GOP strategist Paul Manafort who was previously an advisor to the campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush, to manage campaign operations at the Republican National Convention.
History supports the importance of a strong campaign ground game. In 2015 Harvard Business School published a research report entitled The Air War versus The Ground Game; An Analysis of Multi-Channel Marketing in US Presidential Elections which was written by HBS professor Doug J. Chung and graduate student Lingling Zhang which included “18,650 observations on voting outcomes and campaign activities for the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential races.” The purpose of the research was to address certain communications’ effectiveness questions including “(How) the candidates’ own ads versus outside ads—and personal selling from field operations—in the form of door-to-door visits and phone calls to voters—affect voter preferences? And (also) how do these campaign activities affect the outcome of elections through their diverse effects on various types of people?”
The analysis demonstrated that President Barack Obama’s campaign victories in 2008 and 2012 could be attributed to successful “personal selling”. “The reason Obama won was because of the utilization of ground forces—the personal selling and get-out-the-vote strategy,” Chung says. “The idea was not to change people’s minds who didn’t like him, but to get people who liked him to go out and vote for him. It was a ‘we need you’ message—we need you to come out and vote.” Furthermore, in 2004, 2008 and 2012, the Democrats did a far better job than the Republicans in setting up field operations where they were able to make “face to face” contacts in the community.
We see elements of the Obama campaigns at work in the Cruz campaign which has clearly mastered the practice of retail politics. While Donald Trump may be dominating our television airwaves and internet streams, Cruz’s team is engaged in traditional get out the vote activities where they are able to “personally sell” the candidate’s message. As we approach the critical April 19 New York primary where 95 delegates are in play, having a good ground game will be even more essential. While many pundits believe that Trump, a New York native with strong community and business roots, is poised to take the Empire State, there is a groundswell of speculation that the Cruz organization will pull out all the stops to stem the Trump tidal wave. Although, Cruz is unlikely to win the New York primary outright, his team is throwing out enough handshakes, emails and tweets with the goal of keeping the Donald’s support below the 50% threshold needed to be a winner take all of the 95 delegates. As for the Trump camp, they are shrugging off comments about their organizational weakness and holding fast to the mantra that they are in it to win it. They will take Manhattan, Queens and Albany, too.
Will Trump’s campaign organization prove to be his emperor without clothes moment or will he wave a magic wand and “build a big beautiful” campaign machine over night? Or will Team Cruz slowly and steadily forge a path to the GOP nomination? It remains to be seen.