Trump's flashy Granite State ground game

Story highlights

  • Trump is relying on showmanship and momentum to carry him to a first place finish in New Hampshire
  • Trump's campaign was tight-lipped about it's ground game in Iowa, but changed course in the Granite State

Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN)When the results pour in on Tuesday night, Donald Trump may notch his first real victory of the 2016 election cycle.

But it won't be because of his ground game.
In the absence of a sophisticated field operation built on data and voter targeting, Trump is relying on showmanship and momentum to carry him to a first place finish in the Granite State.
    "Personally, I think the debate tonight is more important than the ground game," Trump told CNN after his disciplined performance in Saturday's GOP debate. "In New Hampshire, the people, they like you, and they're going to go out and they're going to vote and they're going to go back. You know, there's not so much of a ground game."
    In Iowa, the campaign was so tight-lipped about its field organization that a CNN reporter was booted from the property.
    But in the days after coming in No. 2, the campaign made an effort to highlight its Granite State organization. Trump stopped by local field offices to thank volunteers. And Corey Lewandowski -- a longtime New Hampshire operative and Trump's campaign manager -- invited journalists to join volunteers as they went door-knocking.
    That's how reporters ended up trailing James Radcliffe, a 22-year-old entrepreneur and Dave Chiokadze, a 22-year-old college student, as they trekked through New Hampshire suburbs touting Trump's ground organization just days before the primary.
    "The fire is lit in our bellies and we're going for it every day," Radcliffe said. "We have a real chance to shake things up. And nobody shakes things up like Donald Trump."
    Radcliffe, who lives in Connecticut, and Chiokadze, who goes to school in Rhode Island, were both staying in a makeshift dorm the campaign had arranged. They said they were working 17 or 18 hour days knocking on doors, making phone calls and doling out campaign signs.
    They described the campaign as a lean organization, but added that Trump swag helped them flip supporters into volunteers pretty quickly.
    "I'll identify if they are a Trump supporter, and I'll give them an opportunity," said Chiokadze. "I'll tell them we have free shirts, we have Trump gear, 'cause that's going off the shelf."
    The Trump campaign has said it's targeting low propensity voters who haven't turned out in previous cycles. Staffers are relying, in part, on lists of thousands of people who attend their campaign rallies and could go beyond traditional GOP voters to include independents and even disaffected Democrats.
    In a state like New Hampshire, with its wide swath of independents, those voters could bolster Trump on primary night.
    Despite the increased visibility, there's little indication the campaign has remedied the underlying challenges that plagued Trump in the Hawkeye State.
    They switched up their phone-banking system three times in New Hampshire as they tried to work out the kinks, according to volunteers. And the campaign has not spent significantly on a data operation to help identify and turn out supporters, campaign finance records show.
    "He's put together, for lack of a better word, a pretty pathetic political operation," said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and New Hampshire campaign veteran who is supporting Jeb Bush.
    The Bush team has tapped into data to help identify supporters, as well as undecided and persuadable voters to bolster its turnout efforts in the final push.
    "There's a reason campaigns have invested a lot in turnout efforts and voter ID efforts over the last eight months," Williams said.
    The other dirty secret of New Hampshire politics: Most campaigns aren't relying on an army of Granite State volunteers. The Bush campaign, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are all tapping hundreds of out-of-state supporters to fuel their efforts on the ground in New Hampshire.
    Kasich has attracted roughly 500 out-of-state volunteers -- the majority from Ohio -- in the lead up to the primary. The campaign covered the tab for many of their volunteers' transportation and helped them find housing in everything from farm houses to local supporters' living rooms.
    Cruz has a scaled-back version of the "Camp Cruz" initiative that helped him sail to victory in Iowa. The volunteers are taking the same data-driven approach, but are clear-eyed about Cruz's odds in a less conservative and more secular state.
    "I think Trump will win, but I think Ted and Marco will have really good showings," said Brad Marston, a Cruz volunteer who works as a political consultant in Massachusetts. "I'm hoping for a second place for Ted up here, but if he finishes third but beats his poll numbers going into Election Day, that's still a win for us."
    While other campaigns obsesses over data, Team Trump obsesses over visibility.
    On Monday, the last full day of campaigning before the New Hampshire primary, Trump beefed up his schedule, adding three events throughout the state in addition to a long-planned rally at Manchester's nearly 12,000-capacity sports arena.
    The latter is the type of event Trump prefers: Thousands of fans, crushed in to hear the billionaire businessmen, all with relatively minimal one-on-one contact.
    The arrive-by-jet and hold-a-huge-rally approach can be an effective strategy in both South Carolina and Florida, fly around states where Trump advisers expect to do well.
    But first, they have to plow through New Hampshire, a state that prizes the retail politics that Trump once thought he could get away with skipping.
    Rival campaigns and political operatives in New Hampshire said they believe Trump is favored to win Tuesday's primary, but many predicted it would be by a tighter margin than recent polling suggests.
    "I think it's still up for grabs," said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman in New Hampshire. "Donald Trump is still in the lead, but I don't think the lead is anywhere near 15 or 20 points."