Trump’s interest in hyper-local intelligence gathering stands in sharp contrast to his campaign’s public positioning. Publicly, the GOP nominee feuds with his party’s biggest national stars and dismisses the standard strategic and tactical approaches utilized by his top-of-the-ticket predecessors. What organization and outreach he has is provided by the Republican National Committee and state parties.
But several GOP leaders on the ground told POLITICO that in private, Trump has shown an animated and personal interest in what makes their hometowns tick and a bottom-line focus on what it would take to win there. They recounted brief but intense backstage conversations once they’re introduced to him as the leader of the county he’s visiting.
“He looked me right in the eye and said you need to tell me what does it take to win in this county,” Deborah Tamargo, the chairwoman of Florida’s Hillsborough County GOP, recalled of a June conversation she had with Trump at the Tampa Convention Center.
25 battleground counties to watch
While declining to go into specifics, Tamargo insisted she provided Trump with the crown jewels he’d need for winning what’s widely seen as one of Florida’s most important swing counties. “In political terms, that’s like an hour,” she said of her three-minute conversation with the then-presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
In Virginia, local GOP leaders say Trump’s recent visits to some of the state’s most critical battlegrounds have also included a heavy dose of the candidate’s personal fact-finding inquiries. "He just stopped and said, 'We’ve got to win Loudoun. How do we win Loudoun?’" Will Estrada, the chairman for the Northern Virginia exurb, said of the encounter he had last week with Trump on the sidelines of a campaign rally.
Visiting Richmond, Virginia, in June for a rally and private fundraiser, Trump likewise pumped suburban Henrico County GOP chairman Eddie Whitlock for information.
"He immediately started firing off questions to me about what are the significant issues in Henrico. He knew it was important," Whitlock said, adding that he told Trump to stay laser-focused on jobs and security issues.
To win the White House, Trump is going to need all the local knowledge he can get from the 25 counties POLITICO identified as the general election’s true battlegrounds. That’s because the GOP nominee failed to win almost half of them during the primaries and caucuses earlier this year. Those losses include both Henrico and Loudoun counties in Virginia (to Marco Rubio); Ohio’s Hamilton, Lake and Stark counties (all went for home-state Gov. John Kasich); Wisconsin’s Brown and Racine counties (both voted for Ted Cruz) and Iowa’s Scott and Polk counties (Rubio), among others. In Colorado, Republicans did not hold a presidential preference poll this year, but at the state’s convention in April, it was Cruz, not Trump, who swept all of the delegates.
During the Democratic primary, Clinton also fell short in eight of the battleground counties against Bernie Sanders — including suburban Denver’s Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, Green Bay’s Brown County and Reno’s Washoe County in Nevada. But she appears to have a far firmer grip in these counties. Many of the nearly two dozen Democratic chairs that POLITICO interviewed predicted Clinton will make up for any lackluster primary performances thanks to a polished data-savvy campaign infrastructure, personal visits from the candidate and her surrogates and deep roots with local community leaders dating back years to her husband’s administration.
In Colorado, there are still small pockets of activists and voters who backed Sanders and won’t get behind Clinton, according to the Democratic chairs from Jefferson and Arapahoe, two of the five most populous counties in the state. But they maintained that large numbers of the Vermont senator’s supporters were also unifying around the nominee at a rapid pace since the party’s convention last month in Philadelphia.
“The majority of the people we had involved that were big Bernie supporters are still very much involved, and are very much involved in electing Secretary Clinton,” said Cheryl Cheney, the Democratic chair of Jefferson County.
As for their personal conversations with the Clintons, many laughed at Trump’s approach of seeking out county GOP leaders for direct help on what it takes to win in their counties.
“They expect us to know this,” Terrie Rizzo, the Democratic chair of Florida’s Palm Beach County, said of the Clintons.
John Cordisco, the Democratic chairman of suburban Philadelphia’s Bucks County, referenced his own long-standing connections to the Clintons, recalling details of a visit Bill Clinton made to the area in 2006 and the campaigning Vice President Joe Biden did with Arlen Specter when the Republican-turned Democratic senator from Pennsylvania switched parties. Earlier this year, Cordisco said he visited Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters for a sit-down with an aide overseeing Pennsylvania who sketched out the campaign’s thinking on his county.
“The Clinton campaign is fairly active, we have a lot of interaction going on,” he said. “There is constant follow-up. They have people calling people every day, calling more people. It’s quite an active situation we have in the county at this point.”
Both Clinton and Trump in recent weeks appear to have gotten the memo about the importance of committing to the trench warfare necessary in the battleground counties.
Clinton starts her week Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla., a visit that will draw crowds and media coverage from the neighboring battleground of Hillsborough County. Prior to that, along with her running mate Tim Kaine, Clinton traveled to Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County on their post-convention bus tour. Last week, she made stops in the Denver and Las Vegas media markets.
As for Trump, since the Republican National Convention ended last month, he and running mate Mike Pence have been to 10 of the counties identified by POLITICO as among the most critical for winning the election. That includes stops just in the last week to Loudoun County in Virginia, Duval County in Florida, Iowa’s Polk County, Wisconsin’s Brown County and New Hampshire’s Rockingham County.
And even when the Republican isn’t making a direct visit to a battleground county he’s also benefiting from a spillover effect, according to many local GOP officials. His prolific social media presence and the proliferation of live television feeds every time he speaks serves to amplify his reach — something that wasn’t true of previous GOP nominees. Plus, many of the crowds at his rallies are traveling from the more critical parts of the swing states, and his events are also in areas that share media markets with prime electoral terrain.
Polk County GOP Chairman Will Rogers, for example, said Trump’s visit to Des Moines — Iowa’s biggest media market — last Friday would likely earn the Republican media attention all weekend across much of the state, competing pretty much just with the start of the Summer Olympics. Likewise, Trump’s visit Monday to speak to the Detroit Economic Club, while not open to the public, will pick up eyeballs from the two nearby suburban counties of Macomb and Oakland that are seen as critical if a Republican presidential candidate is going to win Michigan for the first time since 1988.
There is other promising news for Trump at the county level. Many of the local GOP leaders who’d rather be working now on a general election campaign for Cruz or Rubio or Ben Carson said they’ve rallied behind the Trump ticket — if for no other reason than to do their duty for the party and the rest of the ticket that’s to some degree reliant on his performance.
“The folks who understand the game…they’re engaged, they’re part of the team,” said Don Ytterberg, the GOP chairman for Colorado’s Jefferson County, explaining that dissatisfaction for Trump had largely fallen away since the Republican National Convention once it became clear Cruz wasn’t going to snare the nomination.
“A lot of people had a favorite candidate, including myself,” said Dave Majernik, a one-time Cruz backer who serves as vice chairman of the Allegheny County GOP in western Pennsylvania. “Now we’ve chosen the candidate, we want to unite behind that person so we can win.”
Trump still has fences to mend on the local level, especially as he takes on prominent state leaders. Brian Murphy, the chairman of the Rockingham County GOP in New Hampshire, for example, said Trump continued to hurt his cause locally by taking on the state’s GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who’s engaged in a tough re-election campaign. “I don’t think it’s cut well for him,” he said, just prior to Trump’s announcement Friday that he would indeed endorse Ayotte for re-election, along with Arizona Sen. John McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Hard feelings also remain among some Republicans in North Carolina’s Wake County, a wealthy, well-educated community that includes part of the Research Triangle. Cruz trounced Trump in this once-competitive but increasingly Democratic county in the primary, and the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign still hasn’t reached out to the local GOP chair in what is the second-most populous county in the state.
“He’s doing his own thing,” John Bryant, the Republican chairman, said in an interview of Trump.
But Bryant said he’ll still back Trump because he’s the party nominee. “I’m a team player,” he said. “Our organization here in Wake County is a team also. We’re going to support the team.”