From Virginia Beach to the Gulf Coast of Texas, Republican presidential candidates skipped across the South this weekend, spending mere hours on the ground in some states before hopping charter flights to the next, underscoring Super Tuesday’s different electoral game board and time clock.
Campaigns that showed up in one theater—Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—for months-long visits now have to compete simultaneously in 11 states. Seven of those states are located in the South, where candidates have been dispatching staff, recruiting leadership teams and juggling dizzying ground games.
“We worked for weeks and months to have a one-week campaign,” says David Holt, an Oklahoma legislator and Marco Rubio’s state chair, noting that attention in his state on the presidential race did not ramp up until last week.
Trump is expected to dominate Tuesday’s voting when Republicans award 595 delegates, roughly a quarter of the total at stake in the party’s entire nominating contest. But delegates are awarded on a proportional basis in every Super Tuesday state, giving all the candidates the potential to share some of the bounty whether or not they win a plurality of votes.
Ultimately, Tuesday's contests may test the classic political presumption that a strong ground game determines success.
“Trump has gone wholesale,” says Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who is not affiliated with any campaign. “Trump doesn’t need a ground game because he mobilizes angry voters through his rhetoric.” Propelled by celebrity, Trump has outmaneuvered rivals in the early primaries who outspent him, aired more ads, and set up local political networks.
Last weekend in North Fulton County, Georgia, one of the densest Republican areas in the state, Mark Rountree, a Republican strategist attended his local delegate conference and saw only one candidate’s advocates trying to sway a crowd that in the past rippled with proxies for multiple nominees. At this meeting, only one candidate—Ohio Governor John Kasich—seemed to show up.
“I've been going to these things for 30 years and I've never seen that,” Rountree said, noting that ground games in Georgia are increasingly going digital. “I think it's all moved heavily to Facebook and Twitter.”
Brandon Phillips, head of Trump’s campaign in Georgia, which has 76 delegates at stake on Tuesday, said Trump had “hundreds” of unpaid volunteers and five paid staff in the state, plus organizers in every county. During the week between Christmas and New Years, he said, the campaign made 2,500 calls to voters. “People who don’t think we have a ground game will be surprised,” Phillips said in an e-mail.
While Trump has paid staff in other March 1 states, as well, his main focus has been on big events that get national coverage. Still, he has kept some strategic targets in mind. While most of the candidates are holding the bulk of their Georgia events in metro Atlanta, Trump will be in Valdosta, near the Florida border, on Monday.
Rountree, principal of a Republican political consulting firm in the suburbs of Atlanta, said the venue sends a clear signal that Trump is planting a flag against any Rubio support coming across the state line. “If you want to stop a Florida tide,” he said, “that's a good place to do it.”
On Sunday, at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, Trump was endorsed by Jeff Sessions, the first sitting U.S. senator to back his campaign.
That news was a major blow to Senator Ted Cruz, who, after a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina, is under pressure to do well in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and other locales rich in evangelical voters. In Alabama, Cruz has “a couple of thousand” volunteers in the state, including many who traveled to Iowa and South Carolina to work for the senator there, according to Birmingham surgeon Chad Mathis, a co-chairman of Cruz's campaign in the state.
Cruz has no paid staff in Georgia, a reflection of a healthy volunteer organization, said Kay Godwin, head of the candidate's grassroots effort in the state. The Cruz campaign, which has been organizing in Georgia since May, has six phone banks in the state, chairs in every congressional district (and in almost all 159 counties), plus a volunteer army of more than 10,000 donors and door-knockers.
But Rountree said more traditional ground game tools, like door-knocking and phone banks, only work well in metro Atlanta, which makes up about 40 percent of the state electorate, because the rest of the state is so rural.
There is no state Cruz must win more than his home Texas, which awards March 1’s biggest prize of 155 delegates. Recent polling has Cruz with a slight lead over Trump in the state, where Cruz has secured the endorsements of former Governor Rick Perry and current Governor Greg Abbott, among others. According to the Texas Tribune, Cruz has more than 27,000 volunteers and 57 congressional district co-chairs in all 36 districts in the Lone Star State. The senator is expected to spend all day Monday in Texas, with events in San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas.
Carson stopped in Texas and Georgia this weekend, but on Monday he’ll be in Kentucky—a non-Super Tuesday state—and on Tuesday he’s holding his election night party in his hometown of Baltimore, which is also not holding a primary this week.
The Rubio campaign, meanwhile, has shifted its ground forces to the South over the past two weeks, and now has paid staff and field organizers in all March 1 states.
Rubio’s strong endorsement game, however, has been underway for much longer. Rubio now leads Cruz in endorsements from state legislators in states like Georgia, Arkansas, and Oklahoma—a network of local political organizations the campaign says will help, at the very least, pick off a sizable share of delegates from every state in play.
“The whole name of the game is getting delegates one way or another,” said Jeremy Adler, regional spokesman for the campaign, noting that winner-take-all states voting on March 15 are more important places to win. “That’s what we’ve said from day one, that’s what we’re saying now.”
Holt, Rubio’s Oklahoma state chair, said the campaign has 20 legislators backing Rubio in the Sooner State, a network he’s tapping to distribute signs around the state and to place op-eds in local newspapers in every community. “I think the Rubio campaign has already put more in Oklahoma than Oklahomans have ever seen,” Holt said.
While there are still doubts about whether Rubio can win any Super Tuesday states, the Florida senator seems particularly focused on Arkansas and Tennessee, where he just got endorsements from the governors, as well as Virginia, where he will hold four events on Monday.
Kasich’s strategy is to do well enough on Super Tuesday to move on to the nominating contests on March 8, where he will seek a strong showing in Michigan, and on March 15, when he has vowed to win his home state and all of its 66 delegates or drop out. Kasich's hope is that Rubio also loses his home state of Florida on that day, and then "we're going to have a whole new race,'' Kasich said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union.
The Ohio governor has been focusing his recent campaign visits on Massachusetts and Vermont, neighboring states to New Hampshire, where he placed second to Trump in the Feb. 9 primary, and Tennessee. Kasich scheduled visits to those three states in the three days before Tuesday’s voting.
But as Trump heads into the Super Tuesday contests with a 4-to-1 delegate lead, questions remain about how effective any of these candidate strategies will be, regardless of the number of endorsements, door-knockers or yard signs. In a race where the front-runner has mastered the art of free media, would the most organized ground game in history even matter?
“Individually, what any of them are doing is unimportant if Trump is on track to get a majority of the delegates,” said Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington. “The case for Trump not getting the nomination is getting harder and harder to make.’’