The Republican National Committee's Sean Spicer is in a bit of a bind. It's his job to put the best possible face on the party's campaign efforts, even in places where it is clearly lagging. He literally gets paid to make the case for the GOP, and in a tricky election cycle, that can't be easy.
His job forces Spicer to figure out a way to reconcile contradictory things with some regularity. On Wednesday morning, that meant explaining to CNN's "New Day" how Donald Trump can simultaneously be lagging in his on-the-ground operation — as of late last month, Hillary Clinton had three times as many campaign offices — and yet still be positioned to dominate on Election Day.
But Spicer did it. He explained that, yes, Trump has far fewer offices than Clinton in nearly every battleground state, but that didn't matter. "I don't mean to be facetious," he said, "but offices don't vote. People do." Boom. Done.
The catch being that this isn't a great argument.
See whether you can spot the contradiction in this snippet of Spicer's argument.
What we recognized after the last couple of cycles is, getting a bunch of people to sit around an office is not helping us win an election, and that's what we had been focused on. I think what Obama did effectively over the last two cycles is recognizing that voter contact — community organizing, as they called it — was much more effective way of getting out in the community. Understanding those voters, face to face, learning about them, learning about the issues that were important to them.
Spicer is correct about the utility of voter contacts. "At the end of the day, what matters is the number of voter contacts you're making, the amount of data that you're collecting and figuring out who those targets are that you're either going to get out early or persuade to vote for you on Election Day or before," he told "New Day" host Alisyn Camerota at another point. That is what matters. Having people sit around an office is indeed not a useful tool for winning elections.
Which brings us to the contradiction: "Getting out in the community" demands a point of origin. Getting out into the community from where? From Washington? Is the RNC chartering planes from Reagan National into Reno, Nev., where vans meet some of the 5,000 volunteers Spicer mentioned and drive them out into the community?
This is how Trump's rallies work, mind you: He flies in and out from his base in Manhattan within a day. But it's not how field organizing works. Campaigns open offices specifically to host that organizing effort. (Which isn't really "community organizing," we'll note. It's just political organizing, in a community.) Offices exist so that an area can be blanketed, so that targeted voters can have people knock on their doors repeatedly, increasing the odds that someone will catch the voter at home.
Field organizing is grinding, incremental work. Lists of voters are generated, and staff and volunteers are mobilized to talk to them. You can't drive through a community and have meaningful conversations with a lot of voters; it takes weeks — months — of saturation in a small area to hit a meaningful number of voters. Field efforts are called the "field goal unit" in part because they can move the needle on the final results only a few percentage points.
In North Carolina in 2012, 2.1 million people voted for Mitt Romney. Let's say that a 10th of them were infrequent voters who needed a nudge to get to the polls. Assuming you contact four people an hour knocking on the doors — a good rate of success — that requires 52,500 hours knocking on doors across the state. That's just time on doors, excluding travel time from a central location. Which is why situating offices in the areas of a state with the greatest number of persuadable voters makes sense.
(Can you get people to go out and contact voters by providing lists online? Yes. But people usually want to do that around where they live, not where the campaign needs them.)
Spicer's job isn't to present an accurate assessment of the state of the field effort, it's to make viewers believe that the Trump campaign and Republican efforts are going strong. So: "Remember, you can have a million people sitting in an office. What you want is a bunch of people out in the field knocking on doors, talking to voters." Right. People who head out into the field from an office.
What the Republican Party has going, Spicer said at the outset of that interview, is "the most comprehensive ground game that any political operation's ever put out." The evidence at hand suggests that it's probably not even the most comprehensive ground game going this year.