The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cincinnati is the perfect demonstration of Donald Trump’s nonexistent campaign

Mitt Romney recognizes a young supporter at a rally at Jet Machine in Cincinnati on Oct. 25, 2012. (AP)

"In no place was the ground game or infrastructure battle joined more forcefully, on both sides," than in Hamilton County, Ohio, the New York Times reported shortly after the 2012 election. Mitt Romney's campaign, recognizing the importance of the area around Cincinnati, put a big emphasis on winning there.

Four years earlier, Hamilton County had backed Barack Obama -- the first time it had voted for the Democratic candidate since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in a rout. 2008 was also the first election in recent memory that the county had been more Democratic than the state as a whole. Cleveland had always leaned left; Columbus had recently moved that way. Cincinnati, though, was usually Republican territory. Until Obama.

So Romney hammered it. He made multiple stops in the region during the election and, early in the race, it was a center for his fundraising in the state. "Our operation has shown that we committed to running an aggressive, 88-county campaign," Romney's Ohio state chairman said in an email to the Columbus Dispatch that June, emphasizing in part that Romney's team would blanket the state and not just focus on Cincinnati. The Dayton Daily News reported on June 2 of that year that Romney had opened eight field offices in the state -- four in the southwestern part of the state near Cincinnati -- and was opening six more over the next two weeks. Over the course of the campaign, Romney and his allies ran 17,600 ads in the Cincinnati region, spending $14 million to do so.

On Wednesday, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story that described the efforts of the Trump campaign in the critical county. Hamilton has declined as a percentage of the state's population since 1990, but it is still home to 7 percent of Ohioans. So what's Donald Trump doing there?

With the presidential election 90 days away, the Donald Trump campaign is scrambling to set up the basics of a campaign in Hamilton County, a key county in a swing state crucial to a Republican victory, a recent internal email obtained by The Enquirer shows.
The campaign has yet to find or appoint key local leaders or open a campaign office in the county and isn't yet sure which Hamilton County Republican party's central committee members are allied with the Republican presidential nominee. ... Even campaign materials, such as signs and stickers, aren't yet available.

What's more, Trump hasn't yet run a single general election ad in Hamilton County -- or anywhere.

Last week, the Enquirer reported that Trump supporters, frustrated by the lack of infrastructure in their area, set up their own Trump headquarters in a small house. The campaign tried to spin this as a positive -- such enthusiasm! -- but it clearly isn't.

If you want to volunteer to help Trump in Hamilton County, it's not clear how you do so. If you go to Trump's campaign website and click "Get Involved," a pop-up appears that asks you to give your name, address and email. If you enter your email address and Zip code on the main page, you are taken to a contribution page that doesn't seem to have been updated in a while:

By contrast, Hillary Clinton's website makes finding a way to volunteer a one-click task. Click the "Act" button and you're taken to a page that recognizes the state you're visiting from and offers a way to find volunteer events near you. Entering a Cincinnati-area Zip code shows 100 events in and around the city over the next month or two.

In the past, Trump has said that he'd leave grass-roots organizing to the Republican Party. The party's spokesman in the state insisted that it had an effort that was already underway and that "enthusiasm is high and we expect our operation to continue growing." It's not simple to convert enthusiasm for a candidate into volunteering for a political party, though, and Trump's campaign website doesn't even point people to the GOP.

Mitt Romney lost Hamilton County and Ohio -- but not for lack of trying. Romney would later report that he was heartened on Election Day when he saw fans lining a parking garage at an airport in Pennsylvania, suggesting a groundswell of support that would carry him to victory. That argument is the same one Trump has been making -- that his big crowds at rallies suggest he's doing better than it seems.

It wasn't enough for Romney, even with a robust campaign infrastructure. It's hard to see how it will be enough for Trump in Hamilton County or Ohio without one.