Marco Rubio’s deputy campaign manager rejects the premise of field campaigns




It isn’t exactly a secret that Democrats, in general, make a bigger investment in ground-level field organizing than Republicans. Just like it isn’t a secret that congressional districts are drawn in a way that, in the aggregate, favor Republicans over Democrats.

Like the GOP’s congressional district advantage, Democrats’ edge in the ground game is one part organic — and for the same reason: Democrats are, by and large, an urban party. Democrats live close to each other. Not only does this mean that even party-neutral district maps will still result in more “wasted” Democratic votes than Republican ones, it also means that it’s easier to get Democrats to knock on each others’ doors. There’s simply less walking involved, making the work more efficient.

But, like the GOP’s advantage in district maps, their deficit in the ground game is mostly by choice. There may be a “natural” gerrymander in the House, but it is exacerbated by conscious decisions that partisan state legislatures make to turn already-unfair districts into political absurdities. And while it may be more difficult to canvass a rural, Republican area, it’d be a lot easier if field organizing ever registered on a typical Republican campaign’s priority list. To the contrary, it’s actively ridiculed.

Which is why the following passage stuck out of a Washington Post profile of Marco Rubio’s ascendant presidential campaign:

Marco Rubio, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Marco Rubio, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The Rubio campaign declined to provide a state-by-state breakdown of staff and offices after initially suggesting it might do so. It said it has an office in each of the early states, with “multiple” offices in some. It said that about half of its 54 full-time staffers are in the four early states, divided fairly evenly among them.

“One of the biggest mistakes you can make in a presidential primary like this is to mistake action for progress,” said Rubio deputy campaign manager Rich Beeson. He later added: “The days of having to have 50 field staffers and 25 offices are done. We can have a field office and staff set up in a Starbucks with wireless and get just as much done as we can in a brick-and-mortar office with land lines.”

Beeson’s dismissal of field work is a tacit admission that Republican field campaigns exist primarily so that their campaign managers can say they exist. They aren’t expected to do any actual field organizing, and aren’t expected to move the needle in any measurable way. When someone asks Beeson if Rubio’s campaign is struggling, he can say that they have massive grassroots support because look at all these field staffers when in fact they’re doing a whole lot of nothing on the trail.

This sentiment is echoed throughout the rest of the Republican field. Jeb Bush’s ground game, for instance, is considered “strong” by Republican standards because it cracks the double digits in some early-state headcounts. From Politico last week:

Danny Diaz, Bush’s campaign manager, issued a lengthy, data-packed memo Thursday that announced the fundraising numbers and pointed to early state media reports showcasing the strength of the campaign’s ground game: 10 staffers and two offices in Iowa; 12 staffers and one office in New Hampshire; seven staffers and two offices in South Carolina; 8 staffers and two offices in Nevada.

Diaz can say that’s a strong ground game as many times as he wants, but that doesn’t make it so. To put Bush’s field campaign in perspective, as of August 20th, Hillary Clinton had 47 organizers across ten offices in Iowa alone. I worked on a congressional race in 2010 that had a larger field staff than Bush’s early-state operations. At the end of the day, campaigns in one party are making investments in ground-level organizing, and campaigns in the other party simply aren’t. Rich Beeson can downplay that all he wants, but in the last presidential election the disparate investment led Obama’s ground game to be at least twice as effective in persuading and turning out voters as Mitt Romney’s.

Allow me to take this opportunity to say I told them so.

This matters because, as much as Republican campaigns may be loath to admit it, ground-level organizing matters, especially in close races. (And if either Bush or Rubio expect to win the Republican nomination, they should expect it to be close. The more than 50 percent of Republicans currently preferring either Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Ted Cruz aren’t all going to wake up on the other side of the bed one day and decide to vote for an establishmentarian.) If done right, your field campaign is what turns a tied race into a one or two-point win on Election Day.

And in 2016, this is massively important! American politics is polarized right now such that each party has a low ceiling and a high floor for support; I can say with great confidence that, unless the Republicans nominate Donald Trump or Ben Carson, both major party nominees with receive between 53 and 47 percent of the popular vote. And since the race is almost certainly going to be close, the ground game is going to be a factor. That one party understands this and the other one doesn’t likely tells us more about who is going to win next November than any other measure of campaign performance could.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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