A few days before thousands lined up for a Donald Trump rally at a college arena in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a solitary piece of Ted Cruz campaign literature hung from the door knob of a home on a lonely dirt road 90 miles away.
The home owner, Republican consultant Walter Whetsell, was stunned Cruz’s campaign found his wooded neighborhood in Gilbert, population 600. It was a signal that despite Trump’s celebrity, which has dominated the Republican presidential race so far, Cruz’s team was building the type of on-the-ground campaign that traditionally wins the American South’s premier presidential primary.
“The Cruz people have some fire there,” Whetsell, who is so far unaffiliated with any candidate, said in an interview. “I’m not convinced that the Trump campaign has that sort of realness to it, at this point.”
With Trump and Cruz atop the polls in South Carolina, the race in this influential primary is shaping up to be a question of which candidate can drive more voters to the polls. Will it be Trump’s unique blend of brashness and fame already attracting thousands to his rallies, or Cruz’s tactical, more traditional political operation that could help him catch fire throughout the South?
Interviews with more than a dozen political strategists in South Carolina during the past two weeks indicate that Cruz currently has the best operation in the state of any Republican candidate—a small army of campaign and super-PAC staffers laying groundwork to deliver voters on Election Day. Cruz’s campaign and affiliated Keep the Promise super-PACs have more than 10 staffers alone in York County, said Paul Anderko, who has worked for the campaign and the political action committee. York had just the seventh largest Republican turnout in the state in 2012.
Dan Tripp, the state director for Cruz’s Keep the Promise I super-PAC, said the committee has three regional directors, 10 county organizers, and “dozens” of paid and volunteer canvassers in the 10 most populated counties in the state.
The committee is using voting history and consumer data to identify like-minded voters, interview them, and then upload the results back to the national operation. In a state where 603,800 voters participated in the 2012 Republican primary, Tripp's team has contacted voters in 20,000 households during the past two months, he said.
“This is also a persuasion operation,” Tripp said in an interview. “There’s a bigger undecided population than is being reported. And when we know what their top issue is, and that they’re undecided, that allows us to have a conversation with them about why to vote for Ted Cruz.”
When South Carolina strategists were asked which campaigns have built the best ground operation in the state, Cruz was frequently the top of the list, even privately among staff for rival campaigns. And when Cruz's team wasn’t listed first, it was almost always second or third.
“If I had to spitball it, most of the Tea Party, right-wing activists, the small majority would be with Cruz,” U.S. Representative Mick Mulvaney, who is backing U.S. Senator Rand Paul's campaign, told reporters before Trump's rally in his district on Friday. “But how much ground game do you need when there's celebrity?”
That celebrity is Trump, who may have the tightest grip on the imagination of his party’s disaffected base thanks to a campaign launched through the airwaves, instead of on the ground.
While Cruz has spent almost nothing on advertising—only about $2 million so far—compared to the rest of the Republican field, Trump has spent even less. But Trump, who hosted a reality TV show for 14 seasons, has seized the news spotlight with an estimated $23.4 million in free media, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Cable networks regularly broadcast his campaign rallies, and he’s been on the network news more than all the other candidates combined.
“The people that are committed to him will come out and vote,” Glenn McCall, South Carolina’s Republican national committeeman, said about Trump in an interview. “No matter how we spin it, or how people want to think this isn’t real, it’s for real.”
The spotlight will move to South Carolina on Thursday when the candidates gather in North Charleston for their sixth debate of the primary. Several candidates will hold events around the debate. Cruz has three days of campaign activities planned in South Carolina, including the South Carolina Tea Party Convention on Saturday in Myrtle Beach, where he and Trump will be among six presidential candidates in attendance.
A victory in South Carolina on Feb. 20 offers the winner crucial momentum before the Nevada caucuses three days later, and then into March, when more than 30 states and territories hold nominating contests. The single biggest day of voting in the Republican primary is March 1, when southern states hold six of the 13 primaries and caucuses that day.
The results in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union in 1860 and the site—150 years later—of one of the initial congressional victories for the conservative Tea Party movement, may indicate how their neighbors in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee are leaning.
South Carolina, if current polls prove predictive, may also be a tie-breaker of sorts between Trump and Cruz.
Cruz, who has made his name as a chief obstructionist of both Democratic and Republican legislation in the U.S. Capitol, has a slight lead in Iowa, where organization has been key ingredient in winning the state’s byzantine caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 1. Trump, meanwhile, has enjoyed his dominance in polls of New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Feb. 9.
South Carolina could also be a chance for other candidates to “reset the race,” said U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who ended his own presidential campaign last month. The winner of the South Carolina primary has won the Republican nomination in every contest since 1980, except one. The outlier was in 2012, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia won the state before Mitt Romney ultimately secured the nomination.
“Historically, South Carolina picks the most conservative person who can win,” Graham told reporters Saturday in Columbia. “This year may be an aberration where we pick the person who makes us feel the best about our anger.”
“My goal for the South Carolina Republicans is to get back to our roots,” he added.
To be sure, it’s not quite a two-man race in South Carolina or for the Republican nomination.
A triumvirate of current and former governors—Jeb Bush of Florida, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, and John Kasich of Ohio—is hoping a strong showing in New Hampshire will coalesce the party’s traditional, pro-business wing. Bush, who has been most critical of Trump, was invited to a South Carolina diner on Friday by the owner who was appalled by Trump. The former governor drew more than 500 to an event in Hilton Head on Saturday, one of his biggest crowds of his campaign.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, also of Florida, is attempting to straddle the line between both sides of the party, betting that if he's the second choice of enough Republicans in a such a crowded field, he will find his path to the nomination.
“Marco is one of the very few candidates that can last through the first two states without winning either one,” said Neal Collins, one of the Rubio campaign’s South Carolina co-chairmen and a state lawmaker from Easley. “For Rubio, a top three finish in the first three states will be respectable and he continues on. That would show he has the broad appeal that some of the other candidates don’t have.”
While Rubio drew hundreds to a rally in Aiken on Saturday, the line of people waiting to see Trump on a Friday night last week in Rock Hill snaked partly around Winthrop Coliseum, a 6,100-seat arena. Hundreds of people were turned away after capacity was reached.
Across the street from the arena, a man sold parking spots on his front lawn for $20 per car. Inside, more than 50 people waited in another line to buy popcorn, hot dogs and other concessions before heading to their seats for Trump’s performance.
“It's nice to be in a movement,” said Steve Blankenship, a 69-year-old retiree who attended Trump's rally with his 18-grandson, Patrick Hartsock. “It's kind of like a revolution.”
Supporting doubts among South Carolina’s political class that Trump spectators will translate into Trump voters, a round of interviews at the rally revealed plenty of non-Republicans and undecided conservatives in the crowd.
Dennis Koroll, an electrical engineer in Rock Hill, said he supported “most” of Trump's plans to deport 11 million immigrants, build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and ban Muslim immigrants following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Yet he's leaning toward Rubio, who Koroll complimented, saying, “He's almost like a normal person.”
Still, voters in South Carolina, Iowa, and New Hampshire often withhold their decision until the final weeks or days of the primary contest. For example, exit polls in New Hampshire four years ago showed almost half of voters didn't make up their minds until the last week of the election, with one in five saying they waited until primary day to decide.
Trump's rally also included first-time voters and activists, like Tyler Baker, a 19-year-old college student who had wrapped himself in a Trump flag, and a Hal Kimmer, a 62-year-old computer technician, who was volunteering for a political campaign for the first time.
“I hope we can build that wall,” Baker said.
Trump has at least 12 staffers in South Carolina, campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said, and offices in Myrtle Beach, Columbia and Greenville. His team has decades of political experience in the state. Nancy Mace, Trump’s political director in South Carolina, was among a half-dozen Republicans who ran in 2014 trying to unseat Graham from the Senate. Jim Merrill, the state director, is a state legislator from Charleston who worked as political director of the state party for six years. Jeff Taillon, Trump’s political director, was Lieutenant Governor Henry McMaster’s campaign manager in 2014.
Rock Hill rally attendees received pamphlets showing the deadline for voters to register the state, the date of the primary and a state website address to find their polling place. The jumbotron in the arena flashed Trump’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Everyone who signed up for tickets to the event received a follow-up email with information about how to volunteer.
“When I looked at his website, I just lined up with him on every single issue,” Kimmer, the computer technician, said about Trump. “I don't think the Republican Party thinks he can win. But I'm voting for him.”