Trump Sorely Needs a Debate Win

October 06, 2016

In Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate, Sen. Tim Kaine was rude, boorish and hectoring. Gov. Mike Pence dominated with his humble, polite demeanor, command of facts and Midwestern common sense. Donald Trump needs to match that performance in his debate Sunday with Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Trump needs a win in part to offset his disadvantage in one of the election’s most important activities: get-out-the-vote efforts. Democrats have opened more field offices, deployed far more organizers, and coordinated between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the party.

Mr. Trump has shown little interest in this, content to leave the turnout operation to the Republican National Committee. The RNC is doing great things, but its work would have been more effective if Mr. Trump had made this a campaign priority. All of those new faces at Mr. Trump’s many rallies during the past 16 months should have been systematically recruited, trained and deployed into a massive GOP ground game.

If Democrats have a bigger and better-organized effort, it could prove decisive. Consider 2012. The day before the election, President Obama was ahead of Mitt Romney by only 0.7% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Yet Mr. Obama won the popular vote by 3.9%.

Not a single reputable poll had predicted a margin that big. It’s likely that Mr. Obama outperformed because of a superior ground game. Mr. Romney, in combination with state and local Republican Party committees, also mounted an extensive get-out-the-vote effort. Exit polls reported that the Romney campaign personally contacted 31% of voters, and Mr. Obama’s campaign 30%.

But Team Obama emphasized the quality of its outreach. The Democrats mapped the social networks of millions of donors and volunteers so that swing voters could be contacted by someone they knew. If no volunteer knew the target voter, then the Obama campaign would assign someone who lived nearby and whose personal profile was similar.

The precision with which the Democratic campaign matched volunteers and target voters helps explain why Mr. Obama carried the last-minute deciders. On the Republican side, the phone-bank volunteer or canvasser probably didn’t know the target voter or necessarily have the same profile.

Something similar happened in 2004. The day before that election, President George W. Bush led Sen. John Kerry by 1.5% in the Real Clear Politics average. Yet Mr. Bush won the popular vote by 2.4%. Although Mr. Kerry benefited from his campaign’s extensive work turning out the vote and a huge ground game financed by George Soros called “America Coming Together,” the Bush-Cheney campaign had spent two years building the largest volunteer get-out-the-vote effort in the nation’s history. Neighbors and peers were enlisted to talk to undecided voters, which bent turnout in the GOP’s direction.

Mrs. Clinton, for all her mechanical advantages, does face a substantial challenge: Her supporters haven’t been enthusiastic about voting, and it shows. By last Thursday nearly 67,000 Iowa Democrats had requested absentee ballots, down from more than 119,000 four years before, according to Iowa Starting Line, a state politics blog.

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