State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

A look back on Clinton and Trump's ground game in PA

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Nov 4, 2016 2:29 AM
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Trump and Clinton have both devoted significant time to Pennsylvania appearances, albeit in very different ways. (Photo by AP)

(Harrisburg) -- For the past five months, the Keystone State has been something of a ground zero in the presidential race.

Though it's gotten increasingly unfriendly to Republican presidential nominees in the past two decades, Pennsylvania is still considered a swing state. This year, it is seen as key in GOP nominee Donald Trump's path to victory, which means it's equally important for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

So what has all that meant for Pennsylvanians? It's meant rallies--and lots of them.

Since June, Team Trump has made at least 29 appearances at campaign events in Pennsylvania, according to the state GOP. Trump personally appeared at 19, with his running mate Mike Pence going solo for 10.

In contrast, records from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party show Clinton's done in-state events on just 10 occasions, and VP pick Tim Kaine has done eight rallies on his own.

However, the Clinton campaign is well ahead in total ground appearances, simply because they have more surrogates than Trump.

Bill Clinton, the couple's daughter Chelsea, the Obamas, Vice President Joe Biden, and a number of other top Democrats have all held events in the state on Clinton's behalf. That brings her campaign's count of major events up to 38, and there are still at least five more Clinton events scheduled in the commonwealth before the election.

Franklin and Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna said that difference speaks to the candidates' relationships with their respective parties.

"There isn't any doubt that Clinton has the Democratic organization pretty solidly behind her," he said. "Trump has a very divided party."

While Trump has had his children and various allies campaigning with him, they haven't held many solo events.

That's changing in the days leading up to the election, though--the Trump campaign has released a tentative schedule of speakers through Tuesday, and it deploys surrogates in far greater numbers than ever before.

It's a final sprint that Team Trump likely hopes will help close the five-point gap being shown in an average of polls in PA.

But Jack Treadway, a political science professor at Kutztown University, said he thinks it's too late to make any real changes.

"At this point, who's going to the Trump rallies? Trump supporters. Who's going to the Clinton rallies? Clinton supporters," he said.

In fact, many political experts are skeptical of the power of rallies in the first place, like Muhlenberg College professor Chris Borick.

"There's not a lot of proof empirically that a rally size, or the number of rallies necessarily translates to greater votes," he said.

Treadway said what's more important is institutional presence in the state. That, he said, is where Trump is really lacking.

"His ground game is just not good," he said. "[Clinton] is running the traditional kind of campaign in conjunction with the party organization, and my goodness they've got how many different headquarters around the state? He's got not much of anything."

So what good do rallies do?

According to Borick, there are two main purposes:

"One is always to get your base charged up--to have excited rallies with energetic crowds," he said. The other is "heading to swing areas, like suburban Philadelphia."

Borick said if you want to get a good sense of a candidate's strategy, just watch where and how they hold their events.

Trump's approach has skewed toward catering to his base--about half of his 28 campaign events have been outside of major cities, in the rural counties where he polls well.

He's spent proportionally less time in the swing areas, visiting the Philadelphia region eight times.

Madonna said his strategy hinges on turning out higher-than-average numbers of rural conservatives who traditionally don't vote, or vote infrequently.

It's "the 'populist revolt' so to speak," he said.

Team Clinton's path around the state has looked remarkably different from Trump's--she's largely playing defense.

Because Democrats have held the state for so long, Clinton doesn't have to worry too much about winning over new populations--she can focus on stocking up votes in important areas like the Philly suburbs, and cementing decisive victories in the two big cities

That's more or less exactly what her camp did--13 of the campaign's 38 major events have been held in and around Philadelphia, and nine more were in Pittsburgh.

Which way the vote ultimately swings in Pennsylvania will likely affect how it's handled in future elections.

Borick noted that before Trump, Republicans had stopped viewing the commonwealth as a must-win.

"McCain and Romney more or less wrote off Pennsylvania and walked away," he said. "They made a couple of trips here, a few ads."

But Trump decided to play in PA.

Borick said if the businessman somehow pulls off a win despite negative polling, it'll be a huge boon to the GOP.

And he said if not, Pennsylvania's days as a true swing state may be numbered.

"If he fails," Borick said, "it certainly sends up one more sign that Pennsylvania might be fool's gold for Republicans. Why waste the time and energy if it doesn't pay off?"

For now though, Trump--and Clinton--seem like they plan on campaigning on the commonwealth until the bitter end.

Published in News, State House Sound Bites

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