In 2020, the Ground Game is All Trump
by Joshua P. Darr
Political scientists are trained to look for campaign effects in situations with unequal effort by campaigns: for example, if one candidate is airing way more ads or receiving outsized media attention. In 2020, the campaign ground game not only meets this definition, but also is lopsided in the opposite direction as recent elections. Trump has over 300 field offices, according to my data, while Biden has no traditional offices -- a complete reversal of the typical partisan pattern.*
In 2012 and 2016, Democrats opened hundreds more offices than Republicans did. Obama opened 791 offices in 2012 compared to Romney’s 283, and Clinton opened 538 in 2016 versus Trump’s 165. Offices help campaigns coordinate with and empower their local organizers while providing a space for events and trainings, and offices have been shown to increase a party’s county-level vote share by around one percent. (Interestingly, given the partisan breakdown this year, previous studies have found field office effects for Democrats but not Republicans.)
The Biden campaign’s complete lack of offices is explained by the coronavirus pandemic, and isn’t without logic. Sixty-three percent of voters are uncomfortable with canvassers knocking on their door, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult Poll in late September. Biden’s volunteers are texting and calling voters as part of, in his campaign’s words, “the most innovative and technologically advanced” voter contact operation ever. However, they also just announced that door-knocking will start soon, so they do still see some value in face-to-face interaction.
Trump’s volunteers and field staff, on the other hand, are knocking on doors and making calls across his 307 offices in 22 states. The Trump campaign has the most offices in Wisconsin (49), Florida (44), and Pennsylvania (42), three of the four states clustered around the “tipping point” according to FiveThirtyEight’s latest forecast. Each of these totals represents a major increase in Trump’s field investment from 2016, when my research found 13 offices in Wisconsin, 11 in Pennsylvania**, and 23 in Florida***.
Trump’s strategy in 2020 seems clear: maintain a broad network of offices in the three states he absolutely needs to hold from 2016, while spreading a thinner organization across the rest of the battlegrounds. After the top three target states, there is a large drop-off to a second tier. Minnesota has 18 offices, followed by Michigan (17), Texas (15), Iowa (14), Colorado (14), and Arizona (13). Trump is clearly playing defense, opening more than double the offices in three states he needs to hold (and is currently tied or trailing) as in any other state. His campaign’s route to 270 electoral votes depends fundamentally upon those states.
The Trump field operation is an undeniable improvement over 2016, even before considering the lack of competition. Unlike in 2016, when office locations were not posted online until early October, would-be Trump volunteers can now go to an easily searchable and accessible website with the locations of not only phone banks and canvasses in offices, but also social events like “MAGA Meet-ups” in offices and other locations.
Much like Trump’s approach of holding in-person rallies, however, there is real risk involved: if a MAGA Meet-up or a sick canvasser leads to the spread of coronavirus infections, that would be a public relations problem in exactly the locations where the campaign can’t afford it. However, in the same poll mentioned earlier, more Republicans reported being comfortable with door-knocking than Democrats, so Trump’s volunteers may get a better reception than Biden’s at the doors. (Notably, this poll was taken before the President himself tested positive for covid-19.)
So is the media missing a major source of hidden Trump strength? Not quite. The direct effects of opening an office in normal times are pretty negligible: an average gain of 400-500 votes per county with an office, according to my research. Trump’s operation remains substantially smaller than Clinton’s losing effort in 2016, and does not amount to half the offices from the vaunted Obama ground games in 2008 and 2012. Trump may benefit slightly in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2020, but he simply doesn’t have enough offices to make the difference in anything other than a razor-thin election in those states or others like Michigan and Minnesota.
Overall, it’s not clear if Trump is winning at voter contact or if Biden is playing a completely different game on a separate field. Biden is staying on message and prioritizing public health guidelines, while Trump is pressing any possible advantage he can get -- and possibly pressing his luck -- by sending volunteers to meet voters and each other in person.
*Data on Trump offices was collected from www.trumpvictory.com, and is current as of September 30. The Biden campaign claims 109 “supply centers” in 17 states that distribute yard signs and literature. I was unable to find these addresses, and these centers do not meet the traditional definition of “field office” as a center of voter contact activity and volunteer training. Soheil Kafiliveyjuyeh assisted with data collection.
**In my FiveThirtyEight article on field offices in 2016, the number of Pennsylvania offices was overstated relative to the final count provided by Trump’s website, which only began listing offices in early October.
***The full dataset of field offices in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 can be found in my replication data posted here.
Joshua P. Darr is an assistant professor of political communication in the Manship School of Mass Communication and Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University.