Florida is a good place to see just how dissimilar the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are -- in this race pitting the reality show star against the ultimate Washington insider, their campaigns here reflect the nominees’ personal style and philosophy.
Trump’s campaign is all about a big show on the road -- with rallies attracting thousands but scant evidence of extensive ground organizing. His campaign headquarters here in Sarasota, Florida is clean and fancy, but there’s little activity. Outside, the office is marked by three grandiose black TRUMP awnings, and inside, there are neat call stations for volunteers, and an organized snack table with folded napkins and bags of cookies that appeared untouched. Where is everybody? Karen Giorno, who is the campaign’s chief Florida strategist is on the road, talking to voters.
Last week the Trump campaign launched three RVs that it will use as mobile field offices around the state. Giorno says that these units will be used to put voter registration into “hyperdrive.”
Yet, at the heart of Giorno’s theory of the race is the conviction that Trump can clean up in the Sunshine State by sweeping up votes at his rallies of 10,000 to 15,000 strong. As she sees it, those rallies are the equivalent of traditional canvassing.
“When we look at the last two weeks here, we had four different rallies, we had over 40,000 participants. That is the same as 40,000 door-knocks,” explained Giorno. She touts the fact that 80 percent of Trump rally attendees are “repeat attenders” who will proselytize for Trump across the state.
It’s hard to tell how infectious the energy of the loud Trump supporters is, but to win Florida’s 29 electoral votes, those tens of thousands will have to convince more than a handful friends. In 2012, 8,491,920 voters turned out to vote in the general elections, and in 2008, 8,456,329 went to the polls in Florida.
Eight volunteers were answering and making calls from the sole brick-and-mortar Trump campaign office in Florida recently. Seventy-year-old A.J. Janson is answering phones. One caller is complaining to her about how CNN is treating Trump. “The frustration level is huge, but we have to be his soldiers,” she tells the woman, with tears in her eyes. “Next time you want to vent, give us a call back again,” AJ says to the caller, who happens to be Canadian and won’t actually be voting in November.
The goal for Trump volunteers on their calls is to try to get Floridians to volunteer, too. Less than 60 miles away, in Ybor City, Clinton’s campaign office is buzzing with two dozen volunteers. The Clinton volunteers working the phones focus first on asking Floridians to vote early by requesting mail-in ballots.
“It is a big priority of our campaign,” said Simone Ward, the Clinton campaign state director in Florida. “We are already voting here in Florida. It is not just about November 8th, it is about everything in between.”
Other Clinton campaign volunteers fan out and knock on doors. And while Trump has one office in Florida, Clinton has 34. Both campaigns plan to expand, though -- Clinton expects to have 50 offices open by the end of the week, while the Trump campaign says 25 offices will be open here by Labor Day.
Clinton’s Ybor city office differs from Trump’s in other ways, too. Campaign Clinton works behind tinted windows, in a flurry of typical but highly organized campaign activity. Jars of peanut butter and Costco-sized bags of nuts sit on plastic tables. The staffers work in groups like digital, trips, coalition-building. A six-foot hammerhead shark decorates one wall. Underneath it reads, “Where is Simone Ward? – All staff, all the time.” The quote plays out in real time as staffers constantly step into Ward’s office to grab a few minutes with her.
The Clinton team is integrated with the Democratic party -- they’ve opened all of their offices with the Florida Democratic party — half a dozen of them are housed in local Democratic county offices. Steve Schale, who ran Florida for Mr. Obama in 2008 and was a senior adviser for his re-election campaign, praised the Clinton team’s efforts.
“They are focused on working together. They cheer each other on and they have created an environment that people want to be a part of,” said Schale.
Though Clinton has outpaced Trump on the ground in Florida at this point, she’s far from filling President Obama’s footprint in the state of 75 offices in 2008 and 100 in 2012, though Obama volunteers are being folded into Clinton’s ground force.
“After that I was so exhausted,” says 66-year old Jackie Gavrian as she recalls volunteering for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012. “I said I am going to leave it to someone else next time. But here we are again,” she said, adding, “There is so much at stake.”
The campaign’s Florida team, Trump enthusiasts and the state Republican party don’t always seem to be coordinating their efforts. In one instance, in late August, the Trump campaign encouraged a Saturday of flash mobs all over Florida -- on that same day the RNC had scheduled its national training day. There was no coordination to ramp up registration efforts. It was a lost opportunity -- Trump thanked the flash-mobbers on Facebook and the post received over 55,000 likes. Nonetheless, Giorno said Trump campaign regional directors are working with RNC counterparts.
Veteran Florida Republicans are growing concerned that the general election effort is falling short. “There are people who ask questions about how committed Trump is to running a ground game effort which, in swing states like Florida, is critical,” said Brett Doster, a political consultant who was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s Florida campaign in 2012.
The Romney campaign used the summer months of 2012 to cement its infrastructure here with about 45 offices. By fall it had folded in RNC and Florida GOP staffers into the team, reaching about 150 paid staff in the state.
Doster believes Team Trump has time to “get their act together,” but there’s no sign Giorno is worried. She is proud of the primary win that her small team pulled off. “For the entire primary campaign we only had two offices, let me just say that,” said Giorno. “We did more with less.”
Though Mr. Obama won Florida in 2008 and 2012, Ward isn’t taking the state for granted. “President Obama won Florida by less than 74,000 votes (in 2012). We expect that it will be a tough race and we are going to do everything we can to be successful here,” Ward told CBS. “If you really want something, you have to put in the work.”