Op-ed by Steve Berman
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last two weeks’ worth of polling in Iowa, it’s this: The ground game matters.
Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 campaign slogan was “make America great again,” would agree.
The latest CBS News YouGov poll results show Ted Cruz widening his lead over Donald Trump in Iowa to 9 points, and now all polls since Dec. 4 show Cruz ahead of Trump. While N.H. is still safely in Donald Trump’s camp, Cruz is narrowing the billionaire’s lead in S.C., gaining from Ben Carson’s lost momentum.
In the first primaries, it’s beginning to look like a two-horse race, where Trump’s assets of unmatched star power begin to fade against Cruz’s formidable ground game. And to be sure, Cruz is counting on the ground game to win him the nomination.
Trump fashions himself as Reagan incarnate for the 21st century—a fusion of businessman Ross Perot’s doomed Reform Party and commonsense conservatism that defined The Gipper. Trump even trademarked Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan as his own just six days after Mitt Romney lost to President Obama in 2012, the Daily Beast reported Sunday.
The consummate self-promoter, Trump has been planning his run for the presidency for a very long time. But planning a race and executing it are two very different things. And Reagan had one skill sorely lacking in the Trump campaign: long experience in party politics and getting out the vote.
Decades ago, Reagan made a short film about the importance of what campaigns call “GOTV”—get out the vote. In the video, he talks about the importance of a “victory squad,” a ground game that can go house to house and get voters to the polls. Reagan spent many years refining his campaign skills and organization, running his first campaign for governor of California in 1966, 14 years before he won the Republican nomination and the presidency.
In 1968, Reagan made his first run at the GOP nomination, and in fact received 20,000 more total primary votes than Richard Nixon, although Nixon won more primary states. States count, and ground games win states. In 1976, Reagan tried again, and carried 23 states, finishing close behind nominee President Gerald Ford. By 1980, Reagan had refined his ground game to a science, and steamrolled his way through the primaries with almost 60 percent of the popular vote and 97 percent of delegates at the convention.
What does this have to do with Trump and Cruz?
Although Trump has been flirting with a run for office for years, and has spent decades building his personal brand, his only weakness on the campaign trail may be the one thing Reagan spent a few decades perfecting. Cruz has run one successful Senate campaign, and has been on the ground in campaigns most of his adult life. It’s a small advantage, but it could be telling at the polls.
As of mid-October, NBC reported that Trump had 12 paid staffers in Iowa, calling that a “formidable Iowa ground game.” But Iowa is a caucus state, and that means votes are cast publicly, and getting people to the caucuses—“GOTV”—is everything. Cruz’s widening lead in the opinion polls will almost certainly translate into a delegate win in Iowa unless he self-destructs in the next 40 days. Barring that unlikely event, Cruz will be well set up to sweep the south after an expected loss in N.H.
As of November, the Cruz campaign announced it had organized county chairs in all 171 counties for Iowa, N.H., S.C. and Nevada—the first 4 early states. They also announced an additional 500-plus team leaders in 19 states and one territory, including 340 county chairs.
To put this in perspective, Cruz has been having weekly conference call meetings in Georgia for over a month, and can raise up an organic team of volunteers on short notice in any city in the state. When Trump recently came to Macon, Georgia, his state director, Brandon Phillips, had to recruit volunteers from other GOP candidates to man his 6,000-attendee rally. Granted, no other candidate likely could have filled the Macon Coliseum with less than a week’s notice. But filling arenas and getting voters to the polls (and to cast their vote for you) are two very different things.
The pundits and election history show that star power alone does not win elections. Reagan found that out in 1968, and again in 1976, before finally winning in 1980. Trump may prove the pundits wrong and overturn history, or he may learn a very painful lesson. Cruz, with meticulous attention to his ground game, is betting that the pundits—and a century of political history—prove correct.
Watch Reagan’s video below: