2020 Election

Why the Trump Campaign Says It’s Betting on Grassroots Organizing in 2020

6 minute read

It’s a warm September day at a quaint winery in New Mexico, but while photos of happy brides and grooms line the walls, the people gathered here today aren’t celebrating a marriage. They’re here to see Brad Parscale.

Parscale, President Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, has a message for the 60 or so Trump supporters on hand at the Sept. 17 gathering. “Volunteering is how you win,” he says. “Don’t expect just money on TV and [a] digital program is going to win this again.”

Trump’s campaign is betting big on grassroots organizing in 2020, a significant change from his unorthodox and thinly staffed 2016 campaign. They’ve created the Trump Victory Leadership Initiative, a training program for volunteers and organizers modeled on the fellowship program Barack Obama’s campaign pioneered in 2008 and 2012. According to Parscale, the Trump campaign had 700,000 trained volunteers in 2016. This time, they’re aiming for 2 million. In 2016, Trump’s team had 5,000 trained fellows, a more experienced type of volunteer, Parscale says. They’re already at 30,000 for the 2020 election.

The introduction of a new volunteer training program is the clearest sign yet that the Trump campaign is trying to evolve from its bare-bones, rally-and-TV focused 2016 roots to a professional campaign operation that marries big money, a national field program and local coordination. It carries opportunities for Trump’s campaign, which is focused on boosting turnout among the President’s core supporters, and has time and party resources on his side.

“The staff and infrastructure is only going to be larger going into this cycle,” says Chris Carr, the political director for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC). “We have a much longer runway to work now. We can actually afford to have a Cadillac operation.”

As they build their program, Parscale and others on the campaign and at the RNC have been studying the book “Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America,” a senior campaign official told TIME. It’s not the first time Republicans have turned to Obama’s historic campaign for tactical guidance. In 2016, for example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz gave copies of Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe’s book to his senior presidential campaign team, telling them to “nakedly and shamelessly emulate this.”

Some veteran Obama hands are skeptical that Team Trump can pull it off. “It’s one thing to say you read a book and that you’re going to do a training,” says Jeremy Bird, president of 270 Strategies and the former national field director for Obama’s 2012 campaign. “It’s another thing to actually embody that.”

And there’s still some stigma among Republicans about the very idea of this type of campaigning. “”Community organizing”?!” one Trump campaign official joked in a text message to TIME. “Who are we, Democrats?!”

But the campaign believes it has an opportunity to marry Obama’s organizing blueprint to the intensity of Trump’s core supporters. They’re eyeing people like Michelle Garcia Holmes, who has run for Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico and Mayor of Albuquerque. Holmes was a lifelong Democrat, she says, until she voted for Trump in 2016. She went to Trump’s rally in Rio Rancho, N.M., Monday night and to Tuesday’s event at the winery. Now she wants to get more involved. “Absolutely,” she says when asked Tuesday if she’s planning to volunteer for Trump this cycle.

Some former Obama aides worry that Republicans have caught up to Democrats when it comes to organizing. Joy Cushman, a deputy field director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, published an op-ed in the New York Times in August titled, “The Trump Campaign Knows Why Obama Won. Do Democrats?” Cushman wrote: “I fear that the wealthy elites on the left have less respect than ever before for the strategies that got Mr. Obama elected. If Democrats want to win in 2020, they must get back to investing in the power of everyday people through organizing.”

That’s why Parscale and other members of the Trump team are spending time in blue states like New Mexico, imploring people to sign up to volunteer and get trained. “Remember, winning elections is not about what I do on my computer or what we do across the country,” Parscale, the digital media director for Trump’s 2016 campaign, tells supporters in New Mexico. “It’s what you do in neighborhoods.”

The campaign’s data shows that there is a 15% lift in turnout in an area where the campaign has fully built out a neighborhood team leader model. Parscale asked the supporters at the winery to text a campaign number, send an email or sign up online, so the campaign can build its list, and tells them to “choose your weapon” of social media platform. Those who want to go the extra mile to become more skilled volunteers or organizers can participate in Trump Victory Leadership Initiative trainings. The sessions last about six weeks and teach new organizers how to do voter registration, how to use an app to mobilize volunteers, and how to go door-to-door in exercises that simulate a Super Saturday.

Obama’s team stressed this type of formal, experiential training. “The biggest difference is we really invested the staff and the resources to make a training program that took people all the way through,” says Bird, “as opposed to what I had seen before, which was trainings that were one-off sessions that were done now and again.” In the Obama fellowship program, organizers were taught policy and messaging and how to effectively manage volunteers, as well as learning tangible on-the-ground skills, according to Bird.

This type of investment in volunteers and relational organizing presents its own challenges for any campaign. Having a large network of organizers and volunteers is messier, harder to control and requires more trust in people on a local level.

But Trump’s supporters say they’re up to the challenge. Standing beside a row of grapevines after listening to Parscale, Sally Gomez, 66, is feeling inspired after the morning’s event. “I sure will,” she says when asked if she’s planning to volunteer. “I’m a senior citizen, so I do have the time, so whatever they need me to do I’ll be glad to do.”

Which is what the Trump team is counting on. Registering new voters is “going to be a big part of what we are doing,” says Carr, the campaign’s political director. “Republican operatives, the GOP, the national party, we got away from voter registration. That is not something we are going to overlook this cycle.”

—With reporting by Brian Bennett/Washington

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Write to Tessa Berenson/Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, NM at tessa.Rogers@time.com