Multimillion-dollar ad campaigns. Hollywood celebrities raising money. Massive, state-based organizing that officials describe as unprecedented.
It’s August 2019 and the presidential campaign is already taking on the frenetic pace of a contest in its final months.
Driven by a contest that’s widely expected to draw record voter turnout, political operatives and volunteers from both parties have begun diligently ramping up their electoral efforts — dead set on gaining an advantage in the key 2020 general election battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
“It feels like more August of the election year than August of the year out,” said Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “Everything is happening a year earlier than it normally would, even in an intense election cycle.”
Wikler listed a series of unusual ways people have offered to help the state party. He said men and women are already arriving from out of state to help with organizing efforts and even considering relocating to the state, and he cited a Twitter-enabled fundraiser backed by celebrities that netted the state party $80,000.
Some volunteers are even offering to take early retirement or a career sabbatical to commit to Wisconsin’s Democratic party full-time between now and Election Day, Wikler said, noting it all adds up to a level of participation that matches 2018, when the state held contentious gubernatorial and Senate races.
Officials in other critical swing states are seeing the same rush.
“Typically there’s a lull; typically there’s a drop off,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who represents part of Philadelphia. “And then things maybe start to ramp up a year later for the presidential.
“What’s really interesting for me is there was no lull after 2018,” he continued. “It went right into 2020. No drop in intensity or interest at all.”
Boyle and others say the level of activity isn’t a surprise: President Donald Trump’s polarizing presence in the White House led to high turnout in last year’s midterm elections, and polls indicate next year’s re-election battle is already drawing significant interest.
A Fox News poll released earlier this month found that 57 percent of people described themselves as “extremely” interested in the next election, despite it being more than a year away. By comparison, the same poll found that just days before the 2016 presidential election, 54 percent described themselves as “extremely” interested in the race. In the summer of 2015, only 30 percent said they were that interested in the race.
This summer, officials with the Democratic National Committee helped put more than 200 organizers on the ground in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, focused particularly on reaching out to communities of color in many of the states’ larger cities.
“The DNC is taking nothing for granted and we are taking unprecedented steps through programs like Organizing Corp to build the infrastructure our eventual nominee will need to defeat Trump in 2020,” said David Bergstein, DNC spokesman.
Officials with the Republican National Committee and Trump’s re-election campaign dismissed the Democratic operation as modest and dated compared to their own.
RNC and campaign officials told McClatchy that, while the Democrats may have kept their 2018 operations in place, Trump’s apparatus never shut down after the last general election and has consistently grown since 2015 from an impassioned, haphazard effort to one “befitting an incumbent.”
“Democrats can try, but they will fail to approach the success of the ground game President Trump and Republicans already have in place in key states,” said Erin Perrine, deputy communications director for the Trump campaign. “Having been non-stop on the ground since 2015, the voter contact and data is fresher and stronger than anything Democrats could hope to gather. Not only do we have the strongest record of success of any president in history to run on, we’ve got the ground game to back it up.”
RNC officials leading efforts to hold key states in the Midwest said they are working with the Trump campaign to build a local network of highly trained volunteers. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, says he wants to recruit and train a record 2 million volunteers over the course of the race.
“We’re permanent, we’re there since 2015 and we’re not leaving,” said Mandi Merritt, a regional communications director for the RNC. “And we have poured millions into our data program, and that allows us to target our voters with near-surgical precision. They (Democrats) may be knocking doors just to collect data that we already have.”
Another RNC official, Rick Gorka, mocked some of the Democratic tactics as premature: “I’d be curious at their strategy to essentially waste their time on efforts that atrophy,” he stated. Gorka also emphasized the party’s increasingly data-driven targeting effort to identify the locations of roughly 26 million voters they believe will decide the election and the volunteers best positioned to turn them out to the polls.
That will include new phone apps that incentivize enthusiastic supporters to identify their waffling neighbors and friends. The Trump campaign is building an app that will offer an award system with perks to users who provide information on potential voters, and some Democratic candidates are not far behind in preparing their own relational organizing apps, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
But apps will not replace grassroots work, Gorka said. The GOP has already held two “national weeks” in Wisconsin that have drafted and trained hundreds of volunteers per session. Thousands have been trained in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, and “thousands more” have been contacted by the volunteer network already in place, the Trump campaign said.
The 2020 re-elect campaign has erected a structure with regional political and field directors, state directors, data directors and organizers that dwarfs Trump’s general election campaign when it first began in the spring of 2016.
Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, expressed confidence the re-election effort would meet their ambitious target of recruiting 2 million volunteers.
“We have made significant progress and will meet or exceed our goal,” Murtaugh asserted. “Enthusiasm among the president’s supporters is extremely high.”
David Smiley contributed to this report.