When you look back at why so many people thought Hillary Clinton was a lock late in the 2016 campaign despite tightening polls, two reasons stand out. The first is that in the month before the election, half the Republicans in captivity distanced themselves from their nominee (with many denouncing him as a disgusting pig) following the release of the Access Hollywood tape. The other was the belief that Hillary Clinton’s massive field operation gave her a thumb on the scales in the event that things really did get iffy.
In the postelection mythology of 2016, there was a tendency to go far in the other direction and argue that HRC’s “ground game” somehow lost the election for her. Nate Silver responded to that strange claim in his series on “the real story of 2016”:
[W]hat went wrong with Clinton’s vaunted ground game? There are certainly some things to criticize. There’s been good reporting on how Clinton’s headquarters in Brooklyn ignored warning signs on the ground and rejected the advice of local operatives in states such as Michigan. And as I wrote in a previous installment of this series, Clinton did not allocate her time and resources between states in the way we would have recommended. In particular, she should have spent more time playing defense in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado and less time trying to turn North Carolina into a blue state or salvage Iowa from turning red.
Here’s the thing, though: The evidence suggests those decisions didn’t matter very much …
For one thing, winning Wisconsin and Michigan — states that Clinton is rightly accused of ignoring — would not have sufficed to win her the Electoral College. She’d also have needed Pennsylvania, Florida or another state where she campaigned extensively.
Another part of the counter-mythology of 2016 held that the Clinton campaign was playing conventional checkers with its ground game, while Team Trump was playing some sort of three-dimensional social media chess with all those Facebook ads and maybe a little outside help from people who happen to drink a lot of vodka. Unsurprisingly, one person responsible for promoting this view of the election has been 2016 Trump digital director Brad Parscale:
In an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, Brad Parscale said Facebook “was the method” for President Donald Trump’s stunning rise to the White House. Parscale, who spearheaded the small Trump campaign team’s digital and fundraising efforts, contended that the team took advantage of Facebook in a way Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not.
“Facebook now lets you get to places and places possibly that you would never go with TV ads,” Parscale, web director at San Antonio-based marketing and design firm Giles Parscale, told CBS. “Now, I can find, you know, 15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for. And, we took opportunities that I think the other side didn’t.”
Parscale has since been named as Trump’s overall 2020 campaign manager, and has continued to make noise suggesting he’s some sort of political Zen master who has transcended polls and other timeworn tools of the trade. But Team Trump is also rolling in the kind of money that its 2016 predecessor could barely imagine. So how are they planning to spend it? Pretty much like Hillary Clinton did in 2016, or so it sounds in this account from Brian Bennett, which emphasizes the blue states Trump is targeting but also indicates a very personnel-heavy field operation:
Trump’s campaign is betting it can win in New Mexico. Flush with cash, the campaign is planning to announce a state director and additional ground staff there in the coming weeks, a campaign official tells TIME. Internal campaign data has convinced Trump’s political advisors they can energize a slice of the state’s Hispanic voters to vote for Trump in 2020 by emphasizing Trump’s handling of the economy, border security and his trade confrontation with China. According to U.S. Census data, 49.1 percent of New Mexico’s residents identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino …
The move is part of a series of bets Trump is making to win states that went for Clinton in 2016. Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner says that voter data has convinced the reelection effort to fund robust field operations in a much larger number of states than in 2016. “I can see us very aggressively playing in 18 swing states,” Jared Kushner tells TIME, adding that in his view, the 2016 Trump campaign “seriously played” in about 11 swing states.
It sure sounds like Team Trump disparaged the kind of ground game Hillary Clinton had in 2016 up until, but not beyond, the moment it could afford one of its own. Who knows, maybe we’ll hear the president’s flacks and conservative media arguing next year that prognosticators should put a thumb on the scales for him if things get close. It’s not like they feel any compunction toward consistency.