N.H. Republicans Worry About Trump’s Weak Ground Game

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Donald Trump has done few traditional New Hampshire-style campaign events. Instead, he's counted on big rallies and free media coverage -- as he did Saturday in Windham. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Donald Trump has done few traditional New Hampshire-style campaign events. Instead, he's counted on big rallies and free media coverage -- as he did Saturday in Windham. (Evan Vucci/AP)

SALEM, N.H. — Donald Trump's presidential campaign has run into trouble, as the GOP candidate continues to shock and offend with controversial statements.

The most recent verbal bombshell was an apparent suggestion that "Second Amendment people" could stop Hillary Clinton. Trump is facing defections by prominent Republicans and slumping poll numbers.

And now there's concern among Republicans in New Hampshire that Trump's campaign field operation is all but absent in the state.

On a recent evening here in Salem, some 20 volunteers worked at a Democratic Party phone bank, reaching out to voters. The walls were covered with campaign posters for Democrats — including Maggie Hassan, who's running for Senate, and Clinton for president.

Fifteen-year-old Matthew Allen, from Andover, Massachusetts, was among the people working the phones. “So, have you decided if you're going to support Hillary Clinton for president this coming November?" Allen asked one of his respondents.  

This is what a late-summer presidential campaign looks like.

It’s part of what Granite State Democrats call the "New Hampshire Together Coordinated" campaign — a grassroots effort to support candidates up and down the ballot. 

"We've already got 11 field offices opened up, dozens of staffers working in every corner of the state,” said Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

According to Buckley, Democrats have thousands of volunteers working in phones banks, knocking on doors, and organizing campaign house parties. He said this kind of field organization can make a big difference come Election Day — particularly in a swing state like New Hampshire.

"One only has to look at the 2014 results, where across the country in every purple state, Democrats were in danger and many, many lost,” Buckley said. “But here in New Hampshire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen was reelected, and Gov. Maggie Hassan, despite being outspent, was reelected. And that had everything to do with the ground game."

The Democratic ground game counts on cooperation between the state party, local and statewide campaigns and Clinton's presidential effort. By contrast, on the GOP side, this kind of coordinated effort with Trump's campaign is missing, according to many concerned Republicans in this state.

"If you are a Trump supporter and want to get a sign for your yard, there's no place to go and get it," said Fergus Cullen, the former chair of the state GOP.

Cullen is not a Trump supporter, but he is worried that a lack of organization in the state will hurt the rest of the Republican ticket.

“At this point, we would traditionally have regional field offices that are being opened that are basically funded by the presidential campaign,” Cullen said. “But none of that is happening. The lack of coordination and funding on the Trump campaign means there is no organized get-out-the-vote effort, and that's going to have significant consequences down-ballot."

It's an understatement to say that Trump has defied political convention in his bid for the White House.  During the primary, that meant he did few traditional New Hampshire-style campaign events — like town hall meetings where he could engage directly with voters. Instead, he counted on big rallies and free media coverage — as he did just last weekend in the town of Windham.

But Cullen said Trump's appearance in Windham was the latest sign that he's waging a campaign in New Hampshire virtually alone — without the support of many Granite State elected Republicans.

"The president of the New Hampshire state Senate wasn't there; the speaker of the New Hampshire House wasn't there; Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Congressman Frank Guinta weren't there; the state party chair wasn't there,” Cullen said. “You're only going to see more of that as candidates flee what they perceive as a sinking ship."

The Clinton campaign has 11 regional offices and three get-out-the-vote centers and dozens of paid campaign staff members. By contrast, the Trump campaign has no regional offices, no get-out-the-vote-centers and a much leaner staff.

But Stephen Stepanek, a state representative and the co-chair of the Trump campaign in New Hampshire, said he's not worried.

"The Trump campaign has had an office in New Hampshire since April of 2015,” Stepanek said. “[Mitt] Romney didn't open up an office until September. So, we've been on the ground well before Trump even announced he was running for president."

Stepanek acknowledges that Clinton has many more paid staff in the state. But he argues that the Trump campaign has a deep database of supporters, and a willing army of volunteers from inside and outside of New Hampshire, ready to knock on doors and get people to the polls.

"That's always been a key for Republicans,” Stepanek said. “I've got hundreds and hundreds of Massachusetts volunteers who are coming now to New Hampshire to start working for us. I was just talking with Texas, and they want to send 500 volunteers to New Hampshire."

Trump has defended the relatively small size of his campaign staff by tweeting "Small is good and flexible," suggesting it saves money. So part of this is just the way Trump operates.

But Andy Smith, who heads the polling center at the University of New Hampshire, argues that there are historical reasons — quite apart from Trump — that explain why Democrats have a big organizational advantage in New Hampshire.

"For a century, the Democratic Party had been the minority party in the state and didn't have access to the people or financial resources that the Republicans had,” Smith said. “Consequently, Democrats had to rely on manpower to try to get voters out to the polls. And they built a very good get-out-the-vote operation over the past several decades."

That built-in Democratic organizational advantage is all the more reason that many Republicans in New Hampshire are worried about Trump's current effort in the state.

But Corey Lewandowski, a New Hampshire resident and Trump's former national campaign manager, doesn’t buy the gloomy outlook, and suggests it’s always risky to bet against Trump.

“New Hampshire is a battleground state, and Donald Trump knows how important it is to win it for the general election," Lewandowski said. “I think the Clinton campaign should continue to underestimate the Trump campaign. The mainstream media has done that this entire cycle, and continues to say, Trump doesn't have a ground game — but he won 38 states."

And the first of those 38 states that Trump won was New Hampshire.

This segment aired on August 11, 2016.


Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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