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New Rules of Play May Shake Up N.H.'s GOP Primary Ground Game

Allegra Boverman for NHPR
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks with voters at the Hollis Pharmacy on December 21st.

All political campaigns boil down to one question: How do you get more people to vote for your candidate than for any other?

The outcome of this year's New Hampshire Republican presidential primary could hinge on how well campaigns manage this so-called ground game.

And in an age where big data and electronic communication have given campaigns more ways than ever to contact and persuade voters, some classic methods persist.

"Long and short, Rodman Street. We have a map but there are so many numbers on it that you can’t read it."

That's Doris Hohensee, a volunteer for Rand Paul.

It’s a Saturday morning, and Hohensee and fellow Rand Paul supporter Kathy Peterson are going door to door in Nashua. They’ve got checklists, clipboards, and their "walkbooks" -- itineraries designed by the Paul campaign to target conservative Republicans.

“This is useless," Hohensee says. "It is useless.”

Despite their exasperation – an occupational hazard of door to door work -- Hohensee and Peterson do reach some of the voters on their list, like Janet Heitmiller. Heitmiller tells the volunteers she won't be voting for Paul.

“I know," Hohensee responds. "I think you like Ben Carson.”

“I do like Ben Carson," Heitmiller says. "But frankly, more and more I like Donald.”

Credit Josh Rogers for NHPR

Ideally every voter contact --- good, bad, indifferent -- is memorialized so the campaign can refine its targeting. Running a tight ship on this front could make a big difference this year.

With 13 Republican candidates still in the race, and about half of them running hard in New Hampshire, even a slim organizational edge could mean the difference between second and fifth place in the state's primary.

On this day in Nashua, Carson and Trump come up often. So does Ted Cruz, which is consistent with the subset of voters Rand Paul is courting, conservative and anti-establishment. Not all Republicans, though, are fishing for voters who fit that profile.

Sara Plourde

Charles Russell is a Jeb Bush field organizer, working the far West Side of Manchester. Right now he’s at the door of Roland Bovaird, who plans to vote in the Republican primary, but hasn’t yet made up his mind.

“Bush, Christie, I  don’t know," he says. "I just hope somebody knocks Trump off the pedestal that he’s on.”

Once the conversation stops, Russell reaches for his smartphone. An app connected to the campaign's data headquarters in Miami directed us to Bovaird, and Russell shoots back what he’s learned.

“He was undecided, favorable towards Jeb and to keep him updated with the schedule that we have ahead," Russell reports.

And in this primary, it’s not just the campaigns that are working to target and turn out voters. Grant Shaffer is state director for New Day for America, a political action committee, distinct from the John Kasich campaign yet dedicated to electing the Ohio governor.

"There’s obviously a lot of digital information, a lot of consumer data, and there is also a lot of more esoteric stuff our data people have been able to get into," Shaffer says, "whether it's high school yearbooks, club memberships, just a lot of things that wouldn’t traditionally be included in social modeling."

New Day thinks such data will find the best messengers to help them sell Kasich to voters. In its reliance on data mining and computer modeling, this approach is novel. At the same time, it's rather old-fashioned: Get someone popular to like your candidate and their support will  multiply.

Spend any time around the campaign of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and you can see this logic in action.

"There folks are going to be helpful," Christie said last month in Concord. "I appreciate their help, their advice, and their direction on how to move and where to go."

That was Christie announcing a group of backers who work in New Hampshire law enforcement. Christie has spent more time here than any candidate in the race and has been dogged in personally courting even the most minor of public officials. By the traditional way of thinking, this should pay off come election day.

But what is traditional might not apply this year. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for instance, has spent a lot less time in New Hampshire, but is doing fine according to the polls. Chris Wolfe is one of Rubio’s state co-chairman.

“Well, you have people who are running state campaigns, and people who are running national campaigns," Wolfe says. "And people who are running national campaigns, let's face it, you have to be in six states right now. You’ve got to have the ability to carry on.”

Yet carrying on tends to require a strong result in one of the early voting states. Securing that is less of gamble if your campaign’s done the spade work to ID voters so you can herd them to the polls. But to top backers of the candidate who's led the GOP race here for months, Donald Trump, the herd metaphor is off base.

State Rep. Al Baldasaro insists the Trump campaign expects a  stampede of voters other campaigns won’t reach.   

“Donald Trump is bringing out people that have stopped voting, Republicans who walked away, disgusted with the GOP," Baldasaro says. "More and more people are stepping up to register.”

But organizational approaches aside, what happens on primary day also depends – a lot – on the most important member of any campaign team: the candidate himself. Here’s how Chris Christie pointed it last month:

“In the end, the candidate’s got to close the sale with the voters and that’s exactly what I’m going to be trying to do," he said.

He and everyone else running for president.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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