2020 Election

An Election Day Upset Hangs on Donald Trump’s Formidable Ground Game

7 minute read

President Donald Trump heads into the final day of the 2020 race trailing Joe Biden by an average of 8 points in national polls, but Republicans are banking that Trump’s hard-charging campaign schedule and the GOP’s year-long investment in training millions of volunteers will pay off in votes cast for Trump on Election Day.

Trump campaign officials point to Trump’s breakneck pace of rallies — held at cavernous airport hangars and sports arenas with no social distancing during a pandemic that has claimed more than 230,000 American lives — as a major part of Trump’s strategy to drive turnout, despite being outspent by his opponent Joe Biden and polling below him at a stable rate for the entirety of the campaign. Trump has amplified his campaign by using the trappings of his office, holding rallies with Air Force One as the backdrop, accepting his party’s nomination in front of the columns of the White House, and having agencies launch an unusual publicity blitz that spotlight his immigration enforcement actions in key battleground states.

“I think we’re going to take it because we’re going to have a turnout probably on Tuesday. You know what, people like to vote, they like to vote on Tuesday,” Trump said at a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Saturday.

The ground effort run jointly by the RNC and the Trump campaign has used 2.6 million volunteers, according to figures provided by the RNC. The field effort made more than 182 million voter contacts — more than five times what they did in 2016— and volunteers registered nearly 174,000 new GOP voters.

The campaign is focusing its efforts in the final days to reach “infrequent and low propensity voters,” according to a Trump campaign official. Early voter registration figures in Florida, North Carolina and other states show that Republicans have “essentially neutralized what had been a Democrat advantage” by mobilizing new voters, John Podesta, who ran Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 bid for president, tells TIME.

Will that be enough for Trump to squeak out a win in key battleground states? To win Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes, for example, Trump will probably need an “epic performance” among white working class voters who haven’t turned out in previous presidential elections, says Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.

“That’s hard. Unlikely voters are unlikely for a reason,” Borick says. “Even for Trump and his campaign that sometimes defies political gravity, translating lots of nonvoters— is still a pretty big hurdle,” Borick says. Biden is outspending Trump on television ads in crucial media markets in Pennsylvania, Borick noted, though he adds one of Trump’s “magic pills” has been his ability to get media attention without having to buy lots of television ads.

Enter Trump’s rally blitz. In the final week of the campaign, Trump has held a blistering pace of rallies that would exhaust men decades younger: he held three rallies in three different cities in Pennsylvania on Oct. 26, and rallies in Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska within hours of each other the following day. He was up to five rallies in five different states by Sunday. But the 74-year-old president, just weeks out from his hospital stay while he battled COVID-19, was defiant. “Our rallies are bigger than they’ve ever been,” Trump crowed to a rally under a cold, steady rain in Lansing, Michigan on Oct. 27, one week before Election Day. Trump wore an overcoat and gloves and the assembled crowd was dotted by rain ponchos and winter hats. “I gotta say, I’m working my ass off here!” Trump yelled to his sodden fans. “Sleepy Joe, the guy goes to his basement.”

An RNC official says all of those events are a “treasure trove” of data. RNC teams were “outside of every single rally registering new voters and updating existing voter files to ensure accurate information,” the official says, and the RNC continued to follow up with those supporters after the rally. The local organizers then used their email addresses and phone numbers to reach out to see if they want to volunteer at the nearest Trump Victory office and remind them of important voting deadlines, the official says.

For over a year, Bill Stepien, Trump’s political director-turned-campaign-manager, has zeroed in on the President’s ability to generate crowds as a key to his re-election. The campaign has used them not only to generate enthusiasm, donations and wall-to-wall local media coverage, but also to create a database of voters to contact, register, and encourage to show up at the polls. “People sometimes poo-poo the rallies and say there’s really no campaign structural benefit to them,” says Brian Ballard, an influential lobbyist with ties to Trump. But with rallies that can draw thousands of people, “We were able to utilize not only the crowds that go, but the crowds that register to go, and sometimes that number is five times the amount of folks that actually show up,” he says.

After a rally in Lititz, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 26, for example, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said that of the 18,894 signups for the rally — just one of three rallies that day — 22.2% were not registered Republicans, and 20.8% did not vote in 2016. In Circleville, Ohio on Oct. 24, McDaniel said of the 18,949 people signed up for the rally, more than 40% of them were not Republicans, and nearly 30% had not voted in 2016.

As Republicans hustled in the field, the Biden campaign shut down its ground operation in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, and through the summer focused on building an entirely digital operation. Biden’s forces didn’t knock on a single door until October, ceding the field to Trump until late in the race.

But the Biden campaign has engaged in aggressive digital outreach: they made 58 million voter contacts Halloween weekend alone, according to the campaign, whereas the RNC made 15 million voter contacts from Oct. 23 through Oct. 29, according to the RNC. “A ground game matters,” said Stepien, who took over the campaign from Brad Parscale, who had burned through hundreds of millions of dollars to little evident effect, frittering away a sizable cash advantage and leaving the campaign outgunned in the final stretch.

Trump’s many rallies also come with a liability, however. Republican strategists have counseled Trump to stick to a clear message on how he will bring the country out of the pandemic, improve its economy, protect communities from crime, and keep confirming conservative federal judges like his third confirmed Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett. But Trump’s rambling stump speeches swamp any attempt at delivering a disciplined message. Instead he’s let loose on a host of grievances, from the false claims of wide-spread fraud in mail-in voting to downplaying the coronavirus. In the last few days, he has said after the election he’ll fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of America’s most trusted experts on the pandemic.

In very short order, Trump’s team will see if their bet on rallies pays off at the polls.

—With reporting from Charlotte Alter

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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com