With off-the-cuff stump speeches broadcast as free advertising on cable news from high-school gymnasiums in primary states to major arenas in Alabama and Texas, the former reality-show star’s unlikely turn as Republican frontrunner for the presidency may seem like it is run out of a television green room.
But interviews with Trump campaign officials and volunteers, as well as political operatives and voters on the ground in early nominating states, piece together a kind of master plan in the works over the four months since Trump’s bombastic debut on the campaign trail – and show that he may have staying power over the next four months before primary voters head to the polls.
Trump’s growing team has identified more than 10,000 voters – many at his hot-ticket rallies giving away their personal data for a glimpse at a celebrity – who have committed to voting for him in February’s first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, the Guardian has learned. His sprawling campaign apparatus already has more paid organizers on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire than any of his 14 Republican rivals.
“It’s massive,” Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said of the tranche of information harvested from voters. “It helps build our database, share information, solicit help – to grow the electorate.”
Long-time Republican strategists and politicians in Iowa and Washington, however, said Trump was rewriting the political grassroots rulebook, matching his ground game with celebrity appeal in “a campaign that has the mechanics down and is striking a nerve” – perhaps enough to challenge Hillary Clinton this time next year.
Even a top strategist behind Barack Obama’s groundbreaking campaign effort in 2008 – when an outsider candidate attracted new voters away from Clinton – noted the potential of Trump’s efforts to sign up fans and turn them into pledged voters. New entrants to the political process “come for the campaign and stay for the organization”, the strategist said, adding that the real test for Trump’s bluster is sustained discipline into 2016.
“Primaries are a very important component,” Lewandowski said in an interview on Monday, as Trump prepared to campaign this week in Iowa and Nevada with what he said was a “90% effort” on the party nominating contest. “But the goal is not to be the winner of the primary, the goal is to be the winner – to be president of the United States.”
From groupie to foot soldier
Trump has not been alone in drawing stadium-size crowds to political campaign events across the US this year. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, too, has filled stadiums from coast to coast. The Republican outsider candidate doesn’t just have supporters, though; he has groupies.
Ask a Trump supporter why he has come to see the real estate mogul, and he’ll probably tell you it’s not his first time. Like Grateful Dead fans rattling off the setlist from a stop on the 1977 tour, ardent supporters of the real-estate baron can recite details of each huge event they have attended in his brief stint as a politician.
The Trump campaign’s secret is just as much in the repeat visitors as the ratings: in addition to staging massive entertainment events in front of thousands in person and hundreds of thousands on CNN and MSNBC, Trump rallies allow his staff to identify supporters and involve potential long-term volunteers.
At a Trump event last weekend in Tennessee, for example, it was easy for the campaign to attract 150 volunteers, simply because it was the only way those people were guaranteed to get in and see him at a concert venue called the Factory at Franklin.
“Mr Trump has brought people into the political arena who have not been involved in the past and apathetic about politics in the past,” said Lewandowski, the campaign manager. “The tickets are such a hot commodity – in states we travel to on a regular basis and states we go to for the first time, like Alabama.”
But among the non-volunteers who attend Trump events, each attendee must sign up online with a name, address, cellphone number and email address – information that gets fed back into a master campaign database in exchange for a coveted ticket.
Once ticket-holders arrive at a rally, each potential voter is instantly given the opportunity to go from fan to oath-taker: the volunteers hand out supporter cards, encouraging attendees to pledge their support for Trump in the primary and the general election, as well as check boxes to volunteer and have their name used on press releases. These cards also require voters to share their phone numbers and email addresses with the campaign a second time.
In 2012, turnout in the New Hampshire Republican primary was just under 250,000. Provided that number stays steady next year in a much more crowded field, roughly 50,000 voters will be needed to finish first in the Granite State. With more than 10,000 supporters currently committed to him in New Hampshire, Trump is – on paper – 20% of the way to an actual primary win, not just a poll lead.
It’s not all outreach and army-building, though: Lewandowski said the stadium sign-ups also allowed the campaign to gather signatures in states that make it more difficult for candidates to get on the ballot. “Having a rally and having five, eight or 10,000 people and collecting signatures is a big advantage,” he said of a recent scheduled rally in Virginia.
The state, while not as essential to the party nominating contest as Iowa or New Hampshire, has notoriously difficult ballot laws. In 2012, the only two Republican candidates to qualify for the Virginia primary were Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.
Multi-pronged efforts of modern campaigning – from list-building to actual votes – require a long-term investment, according to Paul Tewes, who ran Obama’s successful campaign in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and reviewed fresh details of Trump’s operational infrastructure.
“From an outside point of view, he does seem to have a fairly passionate medium-sized following,” Tewes said of Trump’s support. “But organizations take discipline, and discipline starts from the top. And he doesn’t strike me as the most disciplined candidate. Most of the time, that translates into a less-disciplined organizational effort, so it’s a taller task than a traditional candidate.”
Organizing on the ground, said Obama’s former top operative in Iowa, is “a meticulous effort”.
“You have to make sure that people who are coming are also being communicated with afterwards, and I can’t tell if he’s doing it or not,” Tewes said. “It can be done – it has been done – and a lot of people will come to a candidate like Trump and give him a first look. But the question is: are they going to stay sticking around? And that’s just as much a function of the candidate himself and what he’s saying and doing – and the people working for him on the ground.”
The major difference between Obama in 2007 and Trump in 2015, he said, was the number of people actually working on the ground. The veteran Democratic operative noted that in Iowa alone, the typical Democratic campaign might have anywhere from 120 to 200 organizers by caucus night in early February.
While Trump has more paid organizers on the ground in both Iowa and New Hampshire than any other Republican campaign, he still barely cracks a double-digit count of paid staff in either.
Stumping for Trump at the town dump
Despite Trump’s personal wealth that is potentially available to fund his campaign, the mogul’s on-the-ground team has been surprisingly frugal, with a heavy reliance on volunteers to match the free advertising from cable news.
At a late September event inside a packed high school gym in the college townof Keene, New Hampshire, the volunteers spanned all levels of age and commitment – including a ninth-grader doing community service for school credit.
Mark Kilbane, a neatly dressed middle-aged volunteer from the town of Exeter, nearly two hours east on the coast, has been active in volunteering for Republican campaigns since George HW Bush ran for president. Though primarily working out of Trump’s campaign headquarters in Manchester, he had been “making phone calls, doing behind-the-scenes work getting endorsements on a high level and doing schlep work”.
Sandy Woodmansee, a bespectacled, bearded man with a thick New England accent who showed no hesitation bossing around much younger staffers, had never been in involved in political campaigns before Trump came to town. As chair of the campaign in Epping (population: 6,411), he spends 30 hours each week making phone calls, attending Republican meetings in his and surrounding towns, and visiting the local garbage dump to evangelize Trump as more than a flash in the pan.
He stumps at the dump on Sundays, Woodmansee explained – not on Saturdays or Wednesdays – because “they have a cup of coffee in their car, they’re not in a hurry and willing to talk about Trump”.
As of yet, however, he had not taken down any names. He did plan on bringing supporter cards in the future, to turn casual conversations into committed support. And he has been hitting the phones, getting people to show up at rallies or following up with rally attendees to confirm they are still supporting the campaign and see whether they might be interested in volunteering their time as well.
Phone calls, rather than old-school door-knocking or new-school email blasts, seem to be the backbone of the Trump campaign’s voter contact effort. John Hikel, a car mechanic and former state representative from Goffstown who had attended a backyard rally for Trump in June, long before volunteering in Keene, said: “Eighty per cent of the people who answer the phone tell me they like Trump – and the others just aren’t home.”
Confidence in a non-traditional model
At many smalltown events in early voting states like Iowa, the Trump campaign is the only presidential campaign making face-to-face contact. One Democrat in Iowa said he was astounded that three people in Trump T-shirts were representing the campaign at a summer fair in Davis County – a rural, remote jurisdiction with less than 10,000 people on the Missouri border.
The everywhere campaign has left longtime conservative operatives and even new organizers a little befuddled and surprisingly impressed.
“Foot soldiers of the Republican Party in Iowa resent Donald Trump going around them and directly to individual voters, many of whom have not been active or participated in the past,” said Jamie Johnson, a longtime Republican activist in the state who worked on Rick Perry’s failed campaign.
Jeff Kaufmann, the chair of Iowa’s Republican party, said the Trump operation amounted to a “very good ground game and very good organization”.
He said Trump’s campaign in the Hawkeye State, run by veteran operative Chuck Laudner, was “a two and one” – “a campaign that has the mechanics down and is striking a nerve with its approaches”. While he understood why someone outside the state might not take Trump’s campaign seriously, “I can guarantee that everyone in Iowa does”, he told the Guardian.
The question ahead is how Trump’s team can direct supporters into the most productive means of voter contact and keep potential new voters engaged ahead of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in early February.
After all, for every Trump supporter willing to make calls, there is another like Frank Ricci of Johnston, Rhode Island, who printed up thousands of pro-Trump yard signs at his own expense with a picture of an eagle and slogans like “The silent majority STANDS WITH TRUMP”.
Ted Yoho, the Tea Party Republican congressman from Florida, said Trump’s campaign represented the follow-through of a bubbling disapproval of the status quo.
“I think he is engaging the people who were sitting out in the sidelines and were frustrated,” Yoho told the Guardian. “He definitely has stirred up the base and a very strong reflection of the American people are feeling.”
Tewes, reflecting on his time working for Obama, insisted it was important to harness the natural instincts of voters and volunteers: “You don’t want to discourage people doing things on their own – that’s awesome.”
So far, Trump campaign officials say they see no signs of disengagement from early volunteers and remain confident in their non-traditional model.
But there is no way to be sure that a hot ticket and strong numbers in telephone polls will turn into a coalition of disaffected conservatives, many of whom are new to politics, until February. And there is little precedent: the Obama model of turning out new voters was never wholly unusual in a Democratic party long familiar with the liberal grassroots campaigns of candidates such as George McGovern and Jesse Jackson, but Republican upstarts like Pat Buchanan had neither the celebrity nor the infrastructure of a reality television star running for president in a digital age.
“If you look at the two past Republican presidential campaigns, they lost, so whichever model they used failed,” said Lewandowski. “We’re not going to rely on something that was unsuccessful.”