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Clinton May Build A Stronger Ground Game Over Trump — But Whose Strategy Pays Off?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Not much left to do now but go out and vote. And both campaigns are going into high gear to make that happen. Getting out the vote requires extensive infrastructure around the country, field offices filled with volunteers who register voters and literally pick them up on Election Day and drive them to the polls. And it's not random. Campaigns use sophisticated data analysis to target voters. It's all part of what's known in the political world as a ground game.

I'm joined now by two people who have been in that game at different times over the years, Karine Jean-Pierre, a Democratic strategist who worked on Barack Obama's campaigns in '08 and 2012; and Rob Jesmer. He spent years helping Republicans get elected to the Senate.

Thanks to both of you for being with us.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Thanks, Rachel.

ROB JESMER: Thank you.

JEAN-PIERRE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So we've been watching the polls tighten over the past couple of weeks and the last few days in particular. I'll put this to both of you - how does that change a ground game? Karine.

JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, well, happy GOTV - this is the time that we're in right now. I just wanted to first say is - having a strategic, smart, data-driven ground game field operation could actually move the needle a couple percentage points. That's what makes the ground game imperative, so important. So - this is the way that I see the last week going into this election cycle is 90 percent of the polling is wrong.

Like, you - I would tell my field team, my ground game folks - let's not pay attention to the polling. Let's focus on what we've been spending the last several months working on - and potentially over a year working on, which is identifying our voters, know who they are 'cause you start off persuading, you know. You start off persuading your voters and figure out who they are. And then by this time, the GOTV time, you know who they are, and you're pulling them out. You're doing the early voting.

And early voting, just to touch on that for a second, why that's so important for Democrats - because that's how we usually win. Obama in 2008 won with early voting. A third - it was about a third of the electorate voted early. In 2012, there was an uptick, and that's how he won. So this time around, they're expecting - Hillary Clinton campaign is expecting 40 percent of the general electorate to vote early. Republicans usually win on Election Day. We win with early voting.

MARTIN: Rob, can get-out-the-vote efforts in these last waning days and hours really move the needle?

JESMER: Of course - of course they can. I think I generally agree with everything that Karine said. Look, part of this, though, is it's not just - it's not just the get-out-the-vote efforts and the field efforts. It's also everything that goes along with it, which is the messaging from the candidate, the surrogates who are out there motivating different areas, phone banks and traveling around and getting - you know, being kind of the celebrity to draw people in. So it's a long process, and that piece I'm a little worried about on our side of things.

MARTIN: This is the Republican side of things, which - and it's been widely reported that Donald Trump has taken a different approach.

JESMER: He has. I mean, I think he won the primary by generally doing, you know, phone interviews and tweeting. And I think he's tried to carry that approach on the general election. I - you know, the RNC has done really a great job, I think, under very difficult circumstances. But there needs to be a partnership - right? - between the campaign and the RNC.

MARTIN: How do you understand the ground game on the Republican side, especially at the top of the ticket, coming from the Trump campaign?

JESMER: Well, I think - I mean, like I said, the RNC has done a great job. And if you look at some of their numbers, they're up over where they were four years ago. But part of that also is, you know, voting behavior is changing with absentee ballot, early vote. I mean, that just by - through time as more and more people are taking advantage of the opportunities on top of, obviously, they're being driven that way by the different campaigns.

But look, you have to have, like I said, kind of a - I think message and candidate is a huge part of get-out-the-vote. I mean, all the mechanics - you can do all the mechanics all day long, but if you don't have the message and candidate working in concert with that, it makes it more challenging.

MARTIN: So - yeah, Karine?

JEAN-PIERRE: No, I agree with Rob. I mean, I think - an example that I can bring is last week - there was a day last week where Hillary Clinton and her supporters were in 14 media markets while Donald Trump and Pence were in two - right? - and they were traveling together. And that - I think that's what makes a huge difference is that she has a deep bench of the president, of the vice president, of the first lady. And so that is helping her push her message out.

And they are, you know - they're saying - they are her validators - right? When you have the president, the first lady, the vice president being your validators, that truly, truly helps her, especially when you have a president with a 58, or hovering in the 50s pop - you know, favorability.

MARTIN: So as you know, Karine - you worked on that 2008 campaign. It was revolutionary - what Barack Obama's people put together in terms of a ground game, in terms of that kind of strategy. Hillary Clinton is benefiting from that kind of handover of that strategy to her. But, you know, she's got - there's an enthusiasm gap. People keep saying that. Is a ground game enough to overcome that?

JEAN-PIERRE: I think so. Looks - I think what we're talking about is the Obama coalition - right? He had that in 2008 and 2012, which consisted of millennials and African-American and Latinos. And it was - I think if you look at the early vote, which is why I kind of push back on the enthusiasm, there's a uptick with women. Latinos are voting in record numbers in Florida, Nevada. I mean, you know, you're - in North Carolina, which is unheard of.

And I think that says a lot about coming to the messaging of what we've been hearing from Donald Trump and also the down - the ground game - right? I think Latinos and women, in particular, are reacting to the candidate on the other side. But yet, the ground game is - has been really, really phenomenal in getting these voters out to go out and vote early.

MARTIN: Rob, you pay attention a lot to Senate races. There's a chance that the Senate is up for grabs right now in a big way. How have you seen the ground game or Donald Trump's lack of a ground game affect down-ballot races?

JESMER: Well, there's just been more of a - you know, the campaigns have had to do more of it on their own, you know, from a fundraising point of view and just from a people point of view. And so that's been challenging. And also - you know, a lot of these places, you're running - ideally, you're running kind of simpatico - right? - where you're running up and down the ballot. You know, you're looking for that Romney support - I mean, the Trump supporter...

MARTIN: Freudian slip, yeah.

JESMER: ...and the Ayotte supporter or whatever it may be.

And generally, there's a pretty healthy gap now between people who are supporting. Most of the Senate campaigns are going to have to run ahead of Donald Trump. And so they're looking for that sliver of people who are not Trump supporters but they believe that are available for them to go get to go vote, you know, to earn their vote. And so that's kind of following upon the campaign. Part of that's always happened, but it's certainly exasperated this cycle.

And I - just want to say one thing which Karine said which I think is true and I want to agree with wholeheartedly, which is - the rhetoric of Donald Trump, I think, has done more to drive the Democratic get-out-the-vote than anything that, you know, I think the Democrats could do on their own. I think when you, you know, continue to say things about Hispanics in the way he has and women, that's going to motivate people to go vote. And I think that's, you know, very problematic for us.

MARTIN: We'll leave it there. Political strategists Rob Jesmer and Karine Jean-Pierre. Thanks so much for coming in.

JESMER: Thank you.

JEAN-PIERRE: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.