polo shirts for toddlers How Rob Portman may derail the Trump train in Ohio
Sen. Rob Portman, R Cincinnati, 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, Oct. 8, to rescind his endorsement. But while the delay may have indicated caution, Portman’slanguage 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 Ohio Gov. 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 Roband how the campaign is,” saidBob 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 publicposture 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,” hesaid 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.
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,” saidCorry 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,” saidKatie 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,” saidKevin DeWine, a former state party chair close to Portman. “He’s essentiallyrunning 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 amagnet 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 whenGeorge 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,” saidBliss. “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,” saidBliss, “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 11offices 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.