The Trump campaign again lags behind others when it comes to reported voter contacts. That was also the case in Iowa, though back then, it was the Cruz campaign that was out-front. This time, it's Bush and Kasich.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — On Saturday, with the New Hampshire primary precisely one month away and only four more weekends to catch people at home, an experienced observer of politics might assume that presidential campaigns in the state were pulling out all the stops on their voter contact efforts. Saturdays are a perfect day for canvassing, knocking on the doors of prospective voters and persuading them to vote for your candidate.
But that was not the scene here at Donald Trump's headquarters in the state just before 10 a.m. When I arrived, on the second stop of my tour of all of the leading candidates' headquarters that day, there were no volunteers, no clusters of people waiting for walk lists. There were a few dudes unloading some drinks and, upstairs at the actual headquarters, another dude unlocking the office door.
All were in black jackets, some emblazoned with the name of the candidate. None wanted to talk, pointing me to the campaign's national communications person. (Trump's New Hampshire headquarters is just upstairs from the state office of Americans for Prosperity, the former employer of Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.) If Trump was doing anything on the ground, I must have come at the wrong time to see it.*
The day before, Fox News released a poll showing Trump up by 18 points in the state — the sort of margin that, if it were to hold, would tend to deprioritize voter identification and turnout efforts. When we spoke last year with professor Donald Green, a man who is an expert on the effects of voter canvassing if anyone is, he estimated that a top-notch, flawless field operation could bump up a candidate eight to 12 percentage points. If Trump's up 18, why should he bother? Why should anyone?
The short answer is that late leads in early primary states are notoriously fickle. The way to preserve a lead is to figure out which voters are going to vote for you and then, on Election Day, get them to the polls. Trump's base tends to be less-frequent voters, making that sort of work all the more important. That work is called "field," or "ground game." My goal in New Hampshire last weekend was to figure out who was actually running one.
Field efforts are notoriously gauzy. They involve people making phone calls to voters or heading out to knock on doors (the latter being a much more time-intensive but much more useful effort). It's hard for an outside observer to gauge how many voters are being talked to or if those voters are even worth hitting up. (There's no point in calling a registered voter who never votes, for example.)
For the campaigns, it's often nearly as blurry, sort of the equivalent of carpet bombing an area in the hopes that 1) your bombs will go off and 2) they hit the right things. There's a science to it, but the science is overlaid on people with bad memories and conflicting priorities. A good field effort can persuade a voter to give a strong commitment and can then harass the voter on Election Day to get to the polls. But if that voter's kid is sick when it comes time to vote, no dice.
Maybe Trump's team had a bunch of walkers out knocking on doors on Saturday, though it certainly didn't seem that way. When I later did a little door-knocking of my own at the houses of high-frequency Republican voters in Merrimack and Bedford, only one guy said anyone from the Trump campaign had been to his house. But he wasn't sure. That man, Donald Joyal, 54, also said that he'd been thinking of supporting Trump anyway but he "didn't like some of the things [Trump] said" — meaning that if someone had been out to persuade Joyal, it didn't stick.
At New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's headquarters, across the Merrimack River from Manchester, things seemed a lot more campaign-y. The windows had Christie slogans scrawled on them and, at a horseshoe-shaped set of tables in the main room, one woman was diligently working the phones as Fox News was projected on the wall to her left.
Christie's team wouldn't share any numbers about whom they'd contacted or what they were targeting, but any question I might have had about their actually knocking on doors was dispelled when I ran across Christie door-hangers at voters' homes on both Saturday and Sunday. When I came back to the headquarters later, another man had joined the lady still making calls. He was assembling lawn signs — the sort of work offered to people who want to help but who don't want to call or walk.
In a nice little colonial house bizarrely stationed between two gas stations on a narrow strip next to a highway, Ohio Gov. John Kasich's headquarters was a bit more bustling — and stuffed with lawn signs, a recent addition to the campaign's efforts. (When I asked why so many signs, an aspect of campaigning of which I am justifiably skeptical, the campaign's Emmalee Kalmbach replied flatly, "People expect them.")
That Fox News poll put Kasich in fifth place in the state, though another poll from a less-established pollster had him tied for second — the sort of variability that could make a good turnout effort important. In a very Midwestern way, the campaign's staff happily assured me that it was filling its 50-or-so phones each night and had contacted thousands of voters.
If you were curious whether Kasich was embedded in the establishment: On the first floor I ran into the mayor of Somerset, Ohio, decked out in a New Hampshire hat. Upstairs, former New Hampshire senator Gordon Humphrey, showed off Kasich's iPhone app and told me that Marco Rubio "has a bad case of lazy."
Rubio's office, by the way, is in an elegant Art Deco building on Elm Street — that isn't accessible to the public. I reached out to the campaign to get in, but wasn't able to finalize when I could do so.
That said, at least one voter, David Green, 53, of Bedford, said that he'd had a visit from a Rubio walker. The walker didn't make much difference to Green, though; he was leaning toward Rubio anyway. (He didn't like Trump particularly; the businessman's declaration that protesters at a rally in Vermont be ejected into the winter cold without their coats was too much for this New Hampshirite.) Another voter I spoke with — David Towne, 70 — was also leaning toward Rubio, even though a volunteer from Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign had made a stop. "I didn't sense any passion," Towne said of the volunteer.
Cruz's office is a little bit north of Kasich's, and shares space with a fireplace store. (At one point, the sign out front read: "Ted Cruz/New Hampshire Campaign Headquarters/World's Best Smoker!") I ran into the state director, Ethan Zorfas, as he was headed to Dunkin' Donuts wearing his Patriots baseball cap, which, if you are unfamiliar, is a strong combination for the area.
Zorfas said that the rest of the senator's staff was out knocking doors and that they'd made ... (he punched some numbers into the calculator on his phone) ... 300,000 contacts over the course of the campaign. When I expressed skepticism — the total turnout in New Hampshire in 2012 was about 250,000 — he acknowledged that his count might be a little high. My point about the haziness of field numbers, in a nutshell.
He took me around back, to show me the space. Inside, as at Christie's, was a lot of red, white and blue and one solitary caller, working off of his own script. Zorfas pointed out a wall that every volunteer signed when they came in, radiating outward from the candidate's "Always stand for liberty!"
Zorfas said that the campaign rented a dormitory at Chester College that could house up to 40 temporary visitors interested in going out to knock on doors, a space that would be filled next weekend, and he was confident (as his job dictated) that Cruz's position in the polls belied their actual strength. He also pointed to the campaign's iPhone app, which The Post has written about in the past. He insisted that it allowed volunteers to tailor scripts to the interests of the person to whom they were talking, which gave them an edge. When I noted that the one volunteer I'd met was working off of his own script, Zorfas sort of sighed and told me that the caller was calling a general list, not one with a targeted audience.
Traditionally, Democrats run more effective and more robust field programs than Republicans. There are a few reasons for that. First, Democratic voters turn out less regularly than Republicans, necessitating a system to prompt them to do so. Second, the Democrats' long-standing partnership with labor and other groups lets them tap into existing organizational structures that are used to getting people to do things, making it easier.
By the time I visited the Democrats' campaign headquarters, it was about 1 p.m., a time when walkers are often starting to head back in from the field. I went first to Sanders's, which is located ... in a bank, which is off-brand for him. But that's just the main headquarters. Communications director Karthik Ganapathy escorted me to the building from which walkers were dispatched, with a group there ready to go out. (This was one of the few times I showed up when they were expecting me, so it's hard to know if those walkers were asked to hang out for a few more minutes so they'd be there when I arrived.)
At that office, on the top of a hill looking over the city, Ganapathy and his field staffer walked through the numbers. They'd had 6,300 volunteers over the course of the campaign — fewer than Hillary Clinton's campaign, but she started earlier. In the last week, they'd knocked on 25,000 doors around the state and talked to 6,000 voters. (Often, people aren't home.) Ninety paid staff in the state were responsible for getting the job done. On Saturday, Ganapathy told me later, the campaign knocked on 17,000 doors.
Let's take a time out here to note that these numbers ring true. They're impressive, but not ridiculously so. The campaign showed me a walk packet that included a map with houses identified, a voter list and a script — precisely what you'd expect. If anyone was going to have a grass-roots field effort, you had to figure it would be Sanders. And he certainly seemed to.
But Sanders isn't alone. Clinton's campaign headquarters, on an elegant downtown side street that gives off a strong aroma of recent civic development dollars, was by far the most active of any I visited. Up two flights of stairs (guided by a sign in Comic Sans) was an energetically decorated room packed with people: staff, volunteers dropping off walk packets, volunteers on laptops making calls. A large calendar on one side noted upcoming events; Lena Dunham will be there in a few weeks.
Clinton's team wouldn't share numbers, but they were very gracious about it. Sanders's walkers were largely young. Clinton's skewed heavily older and female, at least from the small sample I saw.
Oh. There is another Democrat running, too. His name is Martin O'Malley.
O'Malley's headquarters was a bit south of town, in a small strip mall. When I walked in, two staffers were sitting at laptops at long tables in an otherwise empty room. I was pointed to state director John Bivona, who was in the back. Bivona put a good face on the quiet building, insisting that a field office should be empty on a Saturday afternoon, with everyone out walking. As it was, though, large cardboard cutouts of the candidate outnumbered people.
Perhaps O'Malley had a coterie of walkers out knocking on doors. (Bivona wouldn't give numbers.) I'd have expected Clinton and Sanders to have good field programs, and in each case — perhaps due to the time of day — I found a number of people in and around their headquarters. I can't say O'Malley had fewer walkers than cardboard cut-outs (five, by my count), but I probably wouldn't bet on it.
When talking to voters, I focused on Republicans, but two of those people said that volunteers from Democratic campaigns had stopped by to talk to Democrats in the house — volunteers from Clinton and Sanders. When I stopped by David Green's house in a downpour on Sunday morning, he yelled to me from the doorway that I must be "committed to my candidate." He figured I was another volunteer; someone from Hillary's camp had stopped by to talk to his wife only five minutes earlier.
About the best we can do is hear what the campaigns say and see if it matches with the claims of the voters. Or, really, the results. The proof is in voting, so to speak, and if polls show Kasich down by two points the day before the election but he wins by four, it's pretty clear, at least, that he did a better job of turnout than whomever he beat. The campaigns all know how many people they've talked to and how much emphasis they're putting on talking to them; outsiders are usually left to guess.
Which brings us to Jeb Bush. Bush has an office on an industrial stretch of the main thoroughfare in Manchester, having taken over a closed furniture store with a tattered awning. When I stopped by early on Saturday morning, there were a few people who identified themselves as staff and two young women on laptops at long tables in the center of the room. The staff insisted I talk to the communications staffer, who was out getting a haircut.
So I left, planning to come back — only to have the national campaign, which apparently has disagreed with things The Fix has written, tell me that they couldn't justify staff taking time to talk to me. They sent me one bit of data — that they have 25 paid staff in the state and are increasing that to 40. When I drove by later on Saturday, there were a few more cars in the adjacent lot but not much more going on inside.
A less-generous person would also note that the Bush campaign headquarters is directly in front of a graveyard, but I would never do that.
In my informal tally of frequent Republican voters, one point was universal: They no longer answered their phones. (I'd tried calling people to see who'd been contacted by campaigns, but no one picked up for me either.) (Update, Feb. 9: Sanders's campaign gave up on phone completely, according to Bloomberg.) As for canvassing, people reported visits from Christie, Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, Trump — and two people said they'd had volunteers from Bush.
One was Joyal, the guy who'd been leaning toward Trump until Trump said something rude. The other was Ann Guillemette, 50, whom I caught as she was on her way to her kid's skating recital. Bush's and Kasich's folks had both stopped by, but neither had closed the deal. She was "very undetermined," she told me, saying that the presidency seemed like "too big a job for one person in office to do."
So I guess pencil her in as an "undecided."
* Worth noting that on Monday morning, a CBS reporter tweeted a picture of a call for volunteers to phone bank for Trump.