With its color-coded floor plan and handmade signs hanging from the ceiling, Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters sprawls across a maze of cubicles and shared desks filling two floors of a Brooklyn office tower. Defined by youth, ambition and smarts, the largely millennial crew here is the most advanced digital, policy, analytics and communications operation since Barack Obama mounted a $1 billion-effort in 2012.
But in a season that has upended all the rules, such strength can also be a weakness. Overwhelming force can turn unwieldy, and Clinton’s aides have struggled for a year to battle insurgent foes Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who operate out of makeshift offices built less around corporate flow plans than a never-ending focus on letting the candidates do exactly what they want.
Consider the challenge of a tweet: Clinton’s communications staff alone—at least 35 people—is easily larger than the Trump campaign’s entire headquarters staff. When Hillary Clinton tweets, a handful of departments, and the candidate herself, needs to sign off. “It’s like the post office,” said one top Obama veteran.
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Trump, for better and worse, has none of these worries. He just dictates his online missives to an aide. If it’s late at night, he will pound them out himself from a smartphone in his bedroom. His staff sometimes finds out about his latest viral rocket with the rest of the country.
In contrast to Clinton’s machine, the Trump campaign is run from folding tables and wall collages that fill a few rooms in an unfinished commercial space at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, some of the priciest real estate in the world. Everything about the place, hidden behind a plain white door off the brass-and-marble atrium in Trump Tower, appears at odds with the candidate’s all-luxury, all-the-time public persona. There is dust, exposed ceilings, clutter and about two dozen staffers and volunteers on any given day. Young aides, their ties firmly cinched with Windsor knots, move between piles of bumper stickers and campaign signs, and work amid stacks of unopened mail and cheeky cardboard cutouts of the man himself. For relief, they take turns riding on a gold hoverboard.
The raffish office is a point of pride for Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who pledged to the candidate when he was hired in late 2014 that he’d spend Trump’s vast fortune like it was his own. That ethos still infects every part of the campaign. Eschewing most traditional tactics like television ads, field organizing and large data operations, Trump has steadfastly resisted calls to expand his operation, or its real estate, for the general election.
Trump campaign strategist Paul Manafort pushed to professionalize the team by bringing on a host of veteran operatives at a new office outside Washington, that plan was quashed by Lewandowski. A let Donald Trump be Donald Trump quote placard sits near his desk—a gift from the New York staffers.
Some GOP officials think this may come back to haunt Trump down the stretch. His plan to rely heavily on the Republican National Committee to do the heavy lifting of campaign mechanics has never been tried before. “Regardless of whom a candidate is trying to appeal to, they need to have the fundamentals,” says former RNC chief of staff Mike Shields, referring to the field and outreach programs Trump hasn’t developed. “Donald Trump is going to have to rely on the RNC for the vast majority of his mechanics more than any candidate in recent history.”
Far from the hustle and fury of Brooklyn and Manhattan, Bernie Sanders has run his campaign out of an office on a cobblestone street not far from his home in Burlington, Vt., where bagels are delivered once a week. Though his campaign is by some counts the most free-spending of any this cycle, most of that money has gone directly to field organizing and television advertising, leaving the headquarters with the feel of a small-town dentist’s office. Since Sanders’ big February victory in New Hampshire, most of his senior aides, meanwhile, have been telecommuting or making use of a separate row-house space in Washington, D.C., near Sanders’ Senate office.
Campaign headquarters have never won or lost a presidential campaign. But floor plans and their contents can be telling representations of the candidates themselves, windows into how they would likely govern if they won the White House. For Clinton, the Brooklyn stack is a reminder of the deliberate process that would no doubt rule her Administration as it has her campaign. Trump has set up his command post in one of his own buildings, which tells a lot about his preferences. And for Sanders, the most important piece of real estate would be not behind a door but on the yellow legal pads where he jots down his thoughts every day.
Zeke Miller is a political reporter for TIME. You can follow him on Twitter @ZekeJMiller.
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