Can Donald Trump Translate Poll Numbers Into Votes?

If Donald Trump is going to win in early states like Iowa or New Hampshire, he needs a ground game that will get voters to the polls. It doesn't seem like he has much of one right now.

Donald Trump Shrug

One of the biggest questions surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign has been whether the poll numbers that he is garnering at the national level, as well as in early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, will translate into support at the polls once it’s actually time for people to start voting or heading to the caucus meetings in states like Iowa and elsewhere that still use the caucus system. Polls seem to confirm this since they have shown that a large segment of people who identify themselves as Trump supporters are people who have not historically voted in primary elections or attended caucus. Because of this, many political reporters and analysts have noted that Trump would need to have an effective ground operation in early primary states in order to get voters out to polls and caucus sites if he wants his poll numbers to end up being anything other than an ephemeral number that ends up having no real impact on the outcome of the race for the Republican nomination.

There hasn’t been very much reporting about the extent of the Trump campaign’s ground game in the early primary race, but if this report from The New York Times about Trump’s organization, or lack thereof, in the Hawkeye State is any indication, then Trump’s numbers may not be as strong as they appear:

DES MOINES — Donald J. Trump has dominated much of this political season, excited an often-ignored part of the electorate, filled huge arenas with followers and upended the rules of how modern campaigns are run.

But now he faces an urgent question: Can he actually win crucial early contest states?

Translating a personality-driven campaign to the voting booth is no easy feat, especially for a candidate who has never run before.

But here in the state with the first nominating contest, about six weeks away, Mr. Trump has put off the nuts and bolts of organizing. A loss in Iowa for Mr. Trump, where he has devoted the most resources of his campaign, could imperil his leads in the next two nominating states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where his get-out-the-vote organizations are even less robust.

A successful ground game is crucial in Iowa because of the state’s complicated method of caucus voting, but the Trump campaign has fallen behind some of its own benchmarks.

Mr. Trump’s Iowa director predicted that he would recruit a leader for each of the state’s 1,681 Republican precincts by Thanksgiving. Instead, the first major training session for precinct leaders, heavily promoted in emails and conference calls, drew only about 80 people to West Des Moines last weekend, with about 50 participating online.

Some of Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals have spent months calling and knocking on doors to identify potential supporters to draw them out to caucuses, but Mr. Trump does not appear to have invested in this crucial “voter ID” strategy until recently.

The Trump campaign hopes to attract a surge of independents and disaffected Democrats on caucus night, but the latest data from the Iowa secretary of state show no significant growth in Republican registrations.

Interviews in Iowa with Mr. Trump’s campaign workers, his volunteers and dozens of attendees at his rallies over two months, as well as observations of voter outreach, conference calls and confidential training sessions, indicate that Mr. Trump’s support in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses may fall short of his poll numbers in the state. He is now trading the lead position with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Mr. Trump’s greatest organizing asset is a database of thousands of email addresses of Iowans who have attended packed rallies. Yet it appears that organizers have only recently begun tapping that database, which a Democratic strategist in Iowa called “malpractice.”

The “magic number” of voters the Trump campaign has revealed it wants to turn out — 48,000 — is highly optimistic in the view of other Republican campaigns and independent experts.

“It’s easy for someone to sit on a phone when they get a polling call and say, ‘I like candidate X,’ ” said Steve Grubbs, the Iowa state director for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, referring to Mr. Trump’s strength in Iowa polls. “It’s far different to get that person out of a La-Z-Boy to hop in a car and avoid the black ice and head to their local firehouse.”

Mr. Trump has about 15 paid Iowa staff members, compared with 36 working for a “super PAC” supporting Ben Carson that is organizing in his behalf in Iowa. Asked where Carson supporters have canvassed in Iowa, Tina Goff, who is directing the troops, said, “Where haven’t we canvassed?”

The campaign of Mr. Cruz opened a 48-bed dormitory in Des Moines this month, nicknamed Camp Cruz, for what it says will be 500 volunteers from out of state. They will knock on doors and make calls to potential supporters, who are identified by microtargeting software.

Because of the peculiar nature of the caucuses, for which voters gather in classrooms and senior centers at an appointed hour, turnout is lower than for primaries. A representative of each candidate — a precinct captain — may give a brief speech, and then there is a secret ballot. Only about one in five active registered Republicans have historically participated, making a candidate’s get-out-the-vote organizing critical.

But Mr. Trump “so far is not running a traditional campaign reliant on the fundamentals,” said Jeff Patch, a Republican strategist in Iowa unaffiliated with a candidate. “A campaign depending on turning out low-propensity G.O.P. voters and bringing new voters into the process should be registering people in December and January.”

Chuck Laudner, Mr. Trump’s Iowa state director, declined repeated requests to discuss the details of his field effort. In a brief interview after a Trump rally, he disputed the notion that Mr. Trump could not turn out a huge wave of first-time caucusgoers.

“The media says the conventional wisdom is new people don’t come out and vote,” he said. In the 1980s, he added, “when I cut my teeth, Pat Robertson turned out the entire religious right that had never mobilized before.”

The demographics of Trump supporters reveal his challenges: They are younger, lack a college degree and are less likely to be evangelical Christians, according to polling. The profile of past caucusgoers is the opposite: most are 45 and up, college educated and evangelical.

What the Trump campaign has going for it is the enthusiasm the candidate inspires at his rallies, which are the largest of any Republican.

“I take Trump’s caucus prospects very seriously,” said an operative supporting another candidate, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly assess a rival. “It’s true that new candidates think they can change history. It’s true that they never do. It’s true we’ve never had a new candidate like Trump.”

In Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere, this is the central question facing Donald Trump’s campaign as we head into the new year. Even if he maintains his overwhelming lead in the polls, which seems likely at least in the short term, it will all be for naught if his supporters do not show up at the polls when they need to do so. The fact that many of his supporters come from demographic groups that have been historically unlikely to vote in primaries and participate in caucuses has led many to suspect that his numbers are largely a Potemkin Village, and that his support will collapse once he’s unable to translate poll numbers into votes while better organized candidates are able to get their supporters to the polls and the caucus meetings and pull of “surprise” results that turn the race for the Republican nomination upside down as we’ve seen many times in the past in both parties. There have been times in the past, of course, that candidates have built support among groups with a history of not being frequent primary participants of course, most notably Barack Obama in 2008. The difference between Obama’s 2008 campaign and Trump today, though, is that the Obama campaign had an aggressive ground game in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that were in operation long before this point in the 2008 cycle and, as a result, they were largely able to translate poll numbers into results. If this report is accurate, and if it’s a reflection of the state of Trump’s ground game in other states, then it could be the case that Trump’s strong poll numbers mean a lot less than they appear to.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, meanwhile, presents a counterargument to the idea that Trump’s support is being overstated:

The argument that the polls are overstating Trump’s support isn’t necessarily true, however: there are at least two counterarguments being made to suggest that the polls might actually be understating Trump’s lead.

The first one relies on the fact that, in some states, voters in the G.O.P. contests don’t need to have registered previously as Republicans. In Iowa, for example, they can register on the night of the caucus. In the New Hampshire primary, voters who aren’t registered as Republicans or Democrats are eligible to vote. The Trump campaign, in appealing to people who didn’t previously vote, or who aren’t registered with either party, might be expanding the G.O.P. electorate in a manner that some of the polls aren’t fully picking up.

Arguably, that is what President Barack Obama did in Iowa in 2008, when turnout in the Democratic caucus was considerably higher than expected, and he beat Hillary Clinton by eight points. “Eight years later, Republicans may have their own version of the Obama campaign in the form of Donald Trump,” Jordan Gehrke, a Republican political strategist, wrote in a piece for National Review. “He’s the only candidate with anything like Obama’s celebrity appeal—and knack for reaching voters who don’t normally go to the polls.” Gehrke suggested that if Trump invests in a proper ground operation to get these new voters to the polls, he could well pull off a win in Iowa or New Hampshire, despite the opposition of the Republican establishment. And, he wrote, “Coming off a victory in one of the first two states, Trump could be unbeatable precisely because he will have won by turning out a new coalition loyal only to him.”

The other factor to consider is that some Republicans may be reluctant to tell pollsters that they are supporting Trump. The thinking here—often referred to as the “shy Tory” theory, because it appears to have applied in recent years to the Conservative Party in Britain—is that voters may be too embarrassed to acknowledge their support for candidates or parties that are considered controversial or hard-hearted. But when these voters get into the privacy of the voting booth, they express their true preferences. Citing an American example of how this process can work, Gehrke pointed to former Senator Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, who “was left for dead more than once by pollsters and won anyway.”

These are valid arguments, of course, and it’s entirely possible that the numbers we’re seeing for Trump, if they continue, will indeed translate themselves into votes in primaries and support in caucuses that will continue to keep Donald Trump as a top contender, if not they presumptive leader of the race for the Republican nomination well into February and beyond. For that to be true, though, we still get back to the fact that these people will have to actually vote if they are going to have any impact on the race, and one of the most important parts of any political campaign is the ‘get out the vote’ operation that takes place not just on Election Day or Caucus Night, but in the months and weeks leading up to it. Traditionally, that operation includes voter contact via direct mail, phone calls, door knocking, and even arranging for voters to get to the polls via volunteer transportation. In many states, campaigns with the resources to do so have been known to mail applications for an absentee ballot, along with reminders of when Election Day is, to voters weeks before any such application is due for those people who can’t get to the polls or who may be out of state on Election Day. (Absentee voting doesn’t apply in Caucus states, of course, since one must be present in the caucus meeting to participate.) The test for the Trump campaign, then, is going to be whether it can put together the ground operation it needs to in order to win. If it doesn’t, then the Trump phenomenon may not last very long into 2016.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If it doesn’t, then the Trump phenomenon may not last very long into 2016.

    It will be a YOOOOOOOOGE disappointment. I fully expect a YOOOOOGE outcry over rigged voting machines too.

  2. Grumpy Realist says:

    And if Trump doesn’t have a very good showing because of this lack of planning, bet the Trumpenproletariat to set up a huge cry and claim We Wuz Robbed.

    Has Trump accomplished anything in his life that demanded more than being a huge blowhard?

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    I have wondered about this too. Trump seems to have little knowledge or interest in the retail politics necessary for the primary season. In addition the Republican establishment will be putting up covert roadblocks to try to stop him because they realize that a Trump candidacy will jeopardize not only a bid to retake the WH but the Senate majority as well.

  4. CSK says:

    Just as I thought. I checked one of my favorite Trump-boosting sites,, and yep, you guessed it, the Trump Fan Club thinks killing journalists is a good thing.

  5. Guarneri says:

    “Has Trump accomplished anything in his life that demanded more than being a huge blowhard?”

    More than Barack Obama had at a similar point in his first presidential campaign. Check that. At least Obama had previously managed to perform admirably as Emil Jones bag man, and get the divorce records of his Senate political opponent “mysteriously” unsealed.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Guarneri: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…… 10,000 unemployed comedians and here you are giving it away for free.

  7. Jen says:

    As a NH resident, I’m really interested to see how this is all going to play out. Trump’s campaign manager knows NH very well, he’s a NH resident. I see way more Trump yard signs than any of the other Republican candidates. But…I haven’t seen or heard much in the way of an ID/GOTV effort for his campaign.

    His supporters are very vocal, I’m just not sure how that’s going to play out on primary day. Will they vote?

  8. CSK says:


    I’ve heard similar comments from other New Hampshire residents.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Guarneri: Um, reread the article above. Barack Obama put together an extremely active GOTV organization in Iowa. Trump has done zilch.

    And why are you comparing Obama to Trump, pray tell? Unless they’ve changed the Constitution while I wasn’t looking, Barack Obama can’t run for POTUS again.

    What we are discussing is whether the “YUUUGE support” that Trump supposedly has will actually convert into the same individuals getting their butts off their Barcaloungers and going to vote in the primaries. Because of the lack of a GOTV organization for Trump, we are expressing skepticism.

    If you have any evidence that such skepticism isn’t warranted, please show us.

  10. Tony W says:

    @Jen: That’s interesting about the yard signs – kinda puts my mind at ease after Doug’s post today

  11. MarkedMan says:

    Another question: How much does the ground game matter? It’s pretty significant in Iowa but Iowa is meaningless, little more than an excuse for the grifters to fleece the candidates and their supporters. NH, on the other hand, actually looks a little like the rest of the US…

  12. Kylopod says:


    but Iowa is meaningless, little more than an excuse for the grifters to fleece the candidates and their supporters.

    That’s not altogether clear. Sure it seems that way from the last two cycles, but in 1996 and 2000 Iowa was won by the eventual nominee (Dole and W.), while NH was won by a relative fringe candidate who hardly got any support afterward (Pat Buchanan in ’96, John McCain in ’00). Furthermore, in 2012, while Santorum was the technical winner in Iowa, it was a virtual tie with Romney, the eventual nominee.

    Moreover, “victory” in one of those states is a relative concept and can be as much about beating expectations as it is about coming in first place. (Hence Clinton’s double-digit loss to Paul Tsongas in NH in 1992 was spun by the media as a victory, because he did better than expected after the slew of reports about his bedroom habits.)

    The bottom line is that doing well (however so defined) in one of those early states does not guarantee that you’ll be a formidable candidate later on, but other things being equal it does give your campaign a boost.

  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Kylopod: I should have been clearer. I’m not saying that Iowa not being ‘real world’ is because the caucus electorate doesn’t resemble the general, although that is arguably true. Rather it seems that organizing and campaigning to win a caucus is not anything like organizing to win a regular primary. You devote tons of time and resources for at best a weeks worth of a small bump, while running the risk that despite all your best efforts someone like Santorum might catch the fancy of a couple of thousand extra caucussers and blow you away.