MIAMI — For Donald Trump, the fight for Florida begins and ends with mass appeal: signature rallies and direct social media contact with voters who believe he can “make America great again.”
Add some 30 Florida Trump employees to about 80 Republican Party field workers deployed around the state and that pretty much covers the GOP nominee’s conventional ground game operation in the largest battleground state.
Then there’s Hillary Clinton: 51 offices, with more on the way, and 500 employees combing Florida, and an overall ground game that rivals that of the previous Democratic nominee, President Barack Obama.
Trump loyalists say they have a deliberate strategy and far-reaching footprint to counter the Clinton behemoth, even if his apparatus doesn’t measure up in campaign offices, staff and paid advertising. But the organizational disparity leaves more than a few Republicans scratching their heads. All agree Trump has no path to the required 270 electoral votes without claiming Florida’s 29.
“Everyone keeps saying you’re not doing this in a traditional way, why?” says Trump adviser Karen Giorno. “Well, we don’t have a traditional candidate.” She oversaw Trump’s Florida operation from the primary season until last week, when she moved to national duties.
Giorno points to thousands of volunteers led by unpaid chairmen in each of Florida’s 67 counties. The Republican National Committee says it has 1,000 trained volunteers to go with its employees.
Yet only after Labor Day did the Trump campaign open outposts other than the nominee’s state headquarters in Sarasota. Giorno’s replacement by Susie Wiles came just two months before Election Day.
Giorno and Wiles say their candidate is in good shape. Either Trump or his running mate Mike Pence will be in the state at least weekly until the election, Giorno said. Between visits, she added, a volunteer network, led by people in each of Florida’s 67 counties, will use more conventional methods to build the Trump coalition.
Wiles, in an interview on her first day as the new Florida boss, said judging the campaign by offices and staff “isn’t the right measure we should use,” because “you don’t meet voters sitting in an office.”
Prior to her job change, Giorno described a two-track strategy she developed with Trump’s blessing.
“Ten thousand people in an arena and thousands of people on social media are just as good as (Democrats) knocking on 10,000 doors — and we’re doing that, too,” Giorno said. “I don’t see how people say we have no ground game just because they don’t see something that operates just like they think it should.”
Scott Arceneaux, senior strategist for Clinton’s Florida campaign, calls that “ridiculous spin” in a state where marginal shifts in a diverse electorate can tilt the statewide result. Obama won Florida by fewer than 3 percentage points in 2008 and less than a percentage point four years later, with turnout exceeding 8.3 million both times. Polls for months have suggested another tight race.
Trump’s Orange County chairman, Randy Ross, said Arceneaux discounts people like him.
Ross, whose territory includes Orlando, shepherds other volunteers who run phone banks and knock on doors using voter lists produced by the Republican National Committee’s data operation, expanded after Obama’s two victories. “We happen to be using things Republicans learned” from Obama, Ross added, “but we are really a movement, just like Mr. Trump calls it.”
Brian Ballard, a Trump fundraiser and top lobbyist in the state capital of Tallahassee, said, “Counting campaign offices just doesn’t matter these days.”
Florida is slightly less white than the national electorate, but still roughly a microcosm. If the electorate largely reflects 2012, Clinton would capitalize on her standing among African-Americans and Hispanics wary of Trump. Even among Cuban-Americans, a population that has historically leaned Republican, Trump appears to be underperforming — a circumstance that would pad Clinton’s advantage.
Yet even if Clinton maintains her advantage among minorities, turnout could drop in places like Orlando and south Florida’s Broward County, yielding her fewer overall votes. That could give Trump an opening if he’s able to goose turnout among whites, particularly in Pensacola, Jacksonville and other GOP strongholds in north Florida.
Even so, said Arceneaux, “This is a 1 percent state, so if we win by 2 percent, that’s a landslide.”
Facing such a landscape, Giorno conceded Trump is late building his paid campaign infrastructure. But other Florida Republicans point to strong local parties that already were using the national party’s data and support, while running their own outreach programs.
Michael Barnett, chairman of the Palm Beach County GOP, for example, says his party has for several years built relationships within the Haitian-American community. That pocket — numbering in the tens of thousands — shows up as black voters on paper, Barnett notes, “but doesn’t have the historical connection with the Democratic Party” that American-born blacks do.
Arceneaux, the Clinton strategist, questions whether the overall Republican effort can identify and mobilize voters beyond those who identify themselves as eager supporters, given fewer employees and Trump’s late effort.
He joked: “We like to say that Mr. Trump gives us many avenues to victory.”
Chart the path Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton must take on the Road to 270 to reach the White House with AP’s Electoral College interactive map: http://elections.ap.org/content/road-270-0
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