Republicans have their nominee, but Democrats are winning the ground game battle — and that's what matters

The GOP remains fractured as Democrats continue to master grassroots operations

By Sean Illing
May 27, 2016 6:29PM (UTC)
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Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Pundits have made quite a bit of noise lately about Donald Trump's surge in the national polls. In the last week, we saw Trump overtake Clinton in The Washington Post/ABC News poll and nearly close the gap in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The trend lines are interesting, but otherwise these numbers are useless; it's fodder for talking heads. Until both parties have settled on their nominee, national polls are insignificant.

What should concern Republicans, however, is their national infrastructure problem. In many ways, the Senate races and the down-ballot contests are more important than the presidential election. Republicans are highly unlikely to win the White House in November. Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate, but, as I noted a few weeks ago, the GOP has an Electoral College problem that is difficult to overcome. If the Democrats carry Florida and the 19 states that voted blue in the last six presidential elections, Clinton wins. Given his unpopularity among minorities, women, and moderate voters, Trump will have a hard time winning swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.


This makes down-ballot races all the more significant. To remain a robust opposition party, Republicans will need to preserve their majorities in the House and Senate, and that means voter-turnout operations are essential. They're likely safe on the House side, thanks largely to gerrymandered districts, but the Senate majority is another story. And part of the problem is the infrastructure gap between Republicans and Democrats.

Donald Trump has won a lot of primary votes. What he hasn't done is unify the donor and establishment wings of the party. Worse still, he has no ground game operations in key battleground states. In Florida and Ohio, for example, Clinton has massively out-organized Trump and is better prepared to turnout the base in November. As a consequence, the organizational and fundraising burden falls squarely on the RNC, and so far they're not up to the challenge.

According to a Politico report, the RNC is struggling to assuage state officials who are worried they're being “outgunned” by Democrats in the fall. From the report: “The source of the problem is a fundraising shortfall months in the making, as an usually lengthy primary kept big donors focused on preferred candidates rather than organized around the nominee. And, going forward, things might not get easier: With many of the party's financiers cool on Trump, how much money the party will raise is an open question. Now the situation, state GOP officials say, is critical.”


The RNC released a memo announcing plans to rapidly expand its staff in key regions, but that's not particularly encouraging for Republican operatives. At this stage, they're likely too far behind to catch up. In North Carolina, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Colorado and several other states, Republicans are lacking the field workers and resources needed to compete. Meanwhile, as Politico points out, Democrats are “expanding on their infrastructure advantage,” leaving Republicans with a massive “uphill climb.”

Although the Democratic primary battle isn't officially over, the institutional support for Clinton has been overwhelming from the start. They've built an enormous machine, which could be a deciding factor in November. Every election amounts to a voter-turnout contest, and that's where grassroots operations matter most. The Democrats are clearly winning on this front. The Republicans, despite settling on a nominee, remain fractured and disorganized.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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