How Republican Rob Portman May Derail the Trump Train in Ohio

The senator works to turn out ticket-splitters with a ground game powered by high-schoolers.

Senator Rob Portman speaks during a news conference at the Oakley Kroger Marketplace store to announce the supermarket chain's decision to offer the opioid overdose reversal medicine Naloxone without a prescription on Feb. 12, 2016, in Cincinnati.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Rob Portman may have been the last of nine senators to abandon Donald Trump in the day after the revelation of his sexual-assault boast, waiting until well after dark on Saturday to rescind his endorsement. But while the delay may have indicated caution, Portman’s language did not reflect a wrenching deliberation. “I had hoped to support the candidate my party nominated in the primary process,” Ohio’s junior senator explained in an austere six-sentence statement. “While I continue to respect those who still support Donald Trump, I can no longer support him.”

If Portman’s words were relatively free of drama, it is because the public unhitching of his fortunes from Trump’s merely formalized an inevitable divergence of their objectives. Already by Labor Day, polls showed him on the precipice of a landslide against his Democratic challenger, former Governor Ted Strickland, with little sign that Trump interfered with his plans. Public polls indicate at one in seven Ohioans is on a trajectory to back both Portman and Hillary Clinton.

“You have to understand Rob and how the campaign is,” said Bob Paduchik, a longtime Republican consultant who managed Portman’s first campaign for the Senate, in 2010, and is now Trump’s state director. “If there is one more county fair that he can do, or one more voter he can talk to, if he’s going to talk to that person. He’s sort of relentless like that.”

Paduchik’s public posture is that Portman’s strength in polls would be a boon to Trump. “We see what they are doing is complementary of what we are doing,” he said in an interview in mid-September. But the underlying dynamic is rather different. Portman had long ago quietly placed a bet against his party’s presidential prospects. Over the past year and a half, he has assiduously assembled an organization that would keep him from being reliant on the Ohio Republican Party, the Republican National Committee, or its presidential nominee to identify and mobilize his supporters. As a result he finds himself today with a broader coalition, often motivated by local issues, and much less dependent on Trump’s supporters—and on the RNC’s largesse—than other Republican senators on the ballot this season. Portman had quietly grown so self-sufficient that, in an inversion of the natural order, by the time he rescinded his support, he already controlled Trump’s fate.

Even before Trump declared his candidacy, Portman was intent on building his own constituency beyond the Republican base. Strickland was certain to do well in places where no other Democrat could—his geographical base was in the Appalachian corner of southeastern Ohio—which meant that Portman would have to make up lost ground anywhere. “The goal of our targeting is to not only identify the people in the middle but to identify what issue each person cares about and then how to have a meaningful conversation with that person on that issue,” said Corry Bliss, who became Portman’s campaign manager in January 2015.

Most down-ballot candidates running in a high-priority battleground state do not focus on such personalized interactions. The Ohio Republican Party would inevitably launch a victory program, as Republicans call their coordinated campaigns: RNC money and local party volunteers advance the nominee’s strategy by mobilizing the party coalition. “We are putting our resources into that pool, and asking other people to do that, as well,” said Katie Eagan, executive director of the Ohio Republican Party, which administers the victory program.

But Portman’s path to victory would depend on support beyond the Republican coalition, from voters who might be voting for Democrats elsewhere on the ballot and would not be targets for the victory program. “Portman has a much more concerted effort at trying to hit crossover voters,” said Kevin DeWine, a former state party chair close to Portman. “He’s essentially running 35 different mayor’s races, but he’s not doing it in conjunction with the top of the ticket.”

To pull it off, Bliss set out to build out Portman’s own volunteer ranks, with supporters who would not be under the sway of the party organization. Over the first eight months of the year, Bliss and other campaign staffers set out to visit every high school within a 30-mile radius of a Portman campaign office. They asked civics teachers if it would be possible to speak to their classes, and invited students to join the campaign. About 200 high-school students signed up to be full-time volunteers, with the title of ambassador.

Portman had always been an energetic campaigner, but the stolid former trade negotiator and budget maven was not exactly a magnet for youthful activism. Yet Bliss focused more on the supply of labor than the demand side. He had always seen high-school students as an “untapped resource” for campaigns. They were eager for responsibilities and easily remunerated with school credit or any formalized duty that can be rendered on a college application. Perhaps most importantly, teenagers were filled with the surplus energy necessary for walking neighborhoods without complaint, and had especially copious free time in the summer months when older volunteers are inclined to wilt.

Campaign leadership made a priority out of cultivating those volunteers. Portman called them individually to thank them for knocking on doors, and when George W. Bush came to Cincinnati for a fundraiser, the campaign scheduled the former president to meet not only with large donors but rank-and-file activists as well. “It's never easy to get volunteers to knock on doors and make calls in the off-year,” said Bliss. “How do you build a grassroots program that not only attracts thousands of volunteers but excites them, motivates them, and provides them with a meaningful experience so they will continue to be engaged in the campaign?”

Beginning in the summer of 2015, Portman’s volunteers visited voters with scripts to identify supporters and suss out the priorities of others, while raising awareness of the low-key senator among his constituents. The data they collected fed into statistical models the campaign had commissioned from i360, the data warehouse within the political network associated with Charles and David Koch. The i360 models split the electorate into 22 segments, many of them related local issues that allow Portman to disassociate from national Republican politics and peel off swing voters. One i360 statistical model pinpoints voters expected to have particular concern about local environmental threats to the Great Lakes, while another—linked to Portman’s sponsorship of a bill to increase anti-addiction funding—profiles personal sensitivity to opioid abuse. (The model predicts the likelihood an individual voter knows someone who has been affected by drugs or believes they should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one.)

When Trump became the nominee, he revealed little desire to accumulate such localized resources in battleground states—  “when you hear ‘ground game,’ you say, ‘What the hell is that?’” he mused eight months ago. So, after he won the nomination, he put himself in the hands of the Republican National Committee. Trump pledged to help the committee raise money, which would flow into state victory programs and turn out the voters he needed to win. The nominee would keep control of the mass-media side of his campaign, which seemed to be the only thing he focused on anyway: the rallies, the broadcast interviews, the Twitter blasts.

By then, Portman had developed his own robust get-out-the-vote capacity that stood apart from of the party and its fiduciary responsibility to help Trump. “The national party is designed to turn out Republicans,” said Bliss, “but our campaign is best positioned to turn out the 63,000 people in Toledo who care about eliminating harmful algae blooms from Lake Erie."

One recent Thursday afternoon, two student volunteers in matching khaki shorts and Portman lapel stickers knocked on a door in Dublin, a Columbus suburb best known for being a stop on the professional-golf tour. Alex Stanek (gray t-shirt, indoor soccer shoes) held a clipboard with a list of voters’ names, while Mason Stalder (blue polo shirt, Birkenstocks) clutched a stack of doorhangers already affixed with handwritten post-it notes.

By this summer, Portman had 500 full-time high-school students interning on his campaign, with ambassadors promoted to the rank of team leader. At 4:30 each day they are sent out from one of the campaign’s 11 offices to knock doors. (At other times, they are assigned to phone banks.)  At the same time, organizers worked to recruit college students by setting up career-fair tables and buying Snapchat filters geofenced to campuses tied to special occasions like move-in days. The presence of Stalder and Stanek, a junior planning to go to Marines officer candidate school and a recently graduated political-science major, respectively, in a yard in a posh subdivision were a testament to those tactics’ success.

“We have a few quick questions,” Stanek said to the man who opened the door.

“How quick?” said William, a 47-year-old who had padded to his door in flip-flops. When it came to civics, he was no slouch: he had voted in nearly every general election over the past two decades, including odd-numbered years when only local issues were on the ballot, and in two Republican presidential primaries.

Stanek assured him it would be only three questions, and got to work reading them off his mobile phone. The first line on the script instructed canvassers to ask whom the voter supported in the race between Portman and Strickland.

William said he backed Portman, but turned down a yard sign or bumper sticker when Stanek tried to push one on him. “I like him but I’m having a little trouble with the rest of them,” William said, an apparent reference to the presidential candidates.

None of the voters whom Stanek or Stalder interviewed that day appeared to be natural Trump voters. The middle-aged white women whom the canvassers visited on either side of William’s home said they were undecided in the Senate race and, when asked about the issue most important to them, one named “national defense,” the other “jobs/economy.” (Stanek flipped his phone outward so the respondent could see the multiple-choice list, which included heroin and sex trafficking, available to her.) They fit the profile of “Reluctant Republicans,” as Deep Root Analytics, a firm advising Portman on his media targeting, classified 9 percent of voters nationally. Among those 16.2 million people, the firm found, 68 percent were Republican women.

Portman would nudge William to cast a ballot, although given his history as a reliable voter it would not require much effort. If his neighbors are among the approximately 80 percent of voters whom Portman’s campaign can match to their computer browser cookies, they should begin seeing ads contrasting him and Strickland on the issues they named as most important. It was probable that Portman’s campaign would ultimately treat them all as get-out-the-vote targets. And given their demographic profile, Clinton would be likely to get as many votes out of them as Trump.

Portman has yet another advantage. In an ideal world, all the Republican candidates and campaigns would want to mobilize the same list of party regulars, and assign their common resources accordingly. A large tranche of these common resources is a $2.2 million direct-mail budget—about equal to the total amount Trump’s campaign has spent on Ohio television advertising since the July convention—now being deployed to push voters identified as get-out-the-vote targets to return their mail ballots.

But this year, there are perhaps three-quarters of a million Ohio voters who, like William, are likely to be voting for Portman but not committed to vote Republican at the top of the ticket. For the party, it’s a quandary. Questions about how to handle it are hashed out on Tuesday evenings, when emissaries from the various Republican campaigns—from president to state board of education and state Supreme Court judge—meet in the red-brick colonial headquarters of the Ohio Republican Party in downtown Columbus.

“This stuff is hard even in the best of circumstances. We were in the greatest Republican cycle ever in 2010 and there was still a lot of handwringing and gnashing of teeth abut how we deploy our resources,” said DeWine, who served as party chairman during that year when Republicans swept state offices. “It may look seamless, like a well-oiled machine, but it’s not, because every candidate and campaign has her own self-interest.”

Even before the Access Hollywood tape caused party leaders to question their investment in Trump’s candidacy, Ohio’s victory program was already built to treat Trump’s interests as a secondary concern. That may be a consequence less of Portman’s prowess than Trump’s unreliability as a fundraiser for his party. Through the end of August, Portman had transferred $1.78 million to the state party’s victory account, compared to the RNC’s $1.66 million. (At Portman fundraisers, such as one last week in Dayton with House Speaker Paul Ryan, donors who give Portman the maximum send $10,000 to the state party through a joint fundraising account.) That financial disparity, says former party chair DeWine, is “unheard of.”

“Portman's bought the right to direct Ohio's GOTV operation,” said Luke Thompson, a former director of analytics at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “In a normal year, the top of the ticket controls Victory, but they make allowances for others.”

On the Democratic side, this is looking like a normal year. Unlike President Barack Obama, who always kept state parties at a wary distance, Clinton has built a coordinated campaign designed to boost other Democrats and has funded it accordingly. Through August, DNC and Clinton’s campaign had transferred eight times more money into the state party’s coordinated account than Strickland and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. (The committee recently pulled its advertising on behalf of Strickland, a de-facto concession to Portman.) Strickland long ago made a conscious decision to rely on the party for mobilization and hoard his relatively limited resources for television ads. “Strickland’s basically just doing persuasion,” said AJ Stokes, a Democratic operative in Columbus.

As a result, there are a lot of resources from both sides mobilizing Clinton-Portman supporters, with younger right-of-center white women bombarded with get-out-the-vote reminders delivered at the doorstep and mailbox, over the phone and via text message. The working-class white men inclined to pull levers for Trump and Strickland—particularly thick in Eastern Ohio, from the Mahoning Valley along the Ohio River—will go relatively neglected. If Portman continues to grow his lead, which public polls already show in double digits, it is likely to leave his party working to turn out even more voters who won’t be voting for its presidential candidate. “We are working with the RNC to use the pro-Portman universe, because it’s the larger universe,” said Eagan.

“If Trump doesn't have a turnout operation and Portman's turnout operation is break-even,” speculated Thompson, “Trump's going to need a significant lead on Hillary—say, 2 points above the norm—if he’s sure he's going to beat her.”