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Ron DeSantis’ big bet on door-to-door canvassing put to the test in Iowa

A key group backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential bid bet early in his campaign that the path to the nomination lay in literally outperforming the competition on his behalf.

that’s what happened. In early voting states, the Never Back Down super PAC covered the floor with canvassers who knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors again and again (and in some cases, again and again after that), hoping to spread DeSantis’ message and better present him to the electorate.

Never Back Down, which runs much of DeSantis’ ground game, planned to spend $100 million to make it happen, and invited reporters to his gate training camp in Iowa. The group says it has reached 812,000 households in Iowa, more than half of the state’s total households. A similar share was hit in South Carolina, where the group says it has knocked on more than 968,000 doors. In New Hampshire, another 385,000. And even though there have been a series of leadership shakeups at the Super PAC, it has remained focused on its operations on the ground.

Some allies say they remain buoyed by the effort on the ground, particularly in Iowa, where the group has collected 30,000 voter pledge cards pledging to attend the caucus on behalf of DeSantis and a growing group of precinct captains willing to speak on his behalf at caucuses.

Three people who participated in the group’s initial canvassing efforts, however, see a futile effort — one in which no knock on the door can change what the polls show: Former President Donald Trump is crushing the field.

“People underestimated the basic support [for Trump]” said a Republican field operative who worked on the pro-DeSantis effort in an early state, noting that “everyone was pinning their hopes” on the door-to-door effort being able to advance the election. “And this could not be overcome.”

NBC News spoke with more than a dozen people about the state of the GOP ground game in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, where the Never Back Down strategy will face its toughest test nowadays. Only now, the competition is tougher in the door-to-door business.

It’s all in Iowa

Until last month, Nikki Haley lacked a solid on-court operation. But she was essentially given an entire army when the defense arm of Americans for Prosperity backed the former U.N. ambassador and pledged to mobilize her grassroots forces to help her on the ground.

The group says it has so far reached about 325,000 voters in early primary and Super Tuesday states, targeting people who previously supported Trump but feared he would lose in a rematch with President Joe Biden .

Drew Klein, AFP’s Iowa-based senior adviser, said the group will have 100 to 150 people on the ground at a time canvassing for Haley in the state, an effort that has been ongoing since her approval. The group has been door-knocking and phone banking since February — long before supporting Haley — looking for data on voters open to an alternative to Trump.

Then there’s Trump, who has some significant advantages over his rivals in terms of ground efforts.

His team has scaled back door-to-door canvassing in Iowa, but is continuing its substantial door-to-door and phone banking efforts in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The campaign claims to have made hundreds of thousands of contacts with voters in each of the early states.

Campaigns use door knockers – volunteers or employees who go to the polls to rally supporters to the polls and collect survey data – to gather intelligence and increase voter turnout. After the 2012 election, an academic study found that presidential campaigns increased turnout by about 7 percent in heavily polled areas.

In conversations with each of the campaigns or with the outside groups supporting their efforts on the ground, it was clear that there was a new overarching goal in Iowa: recruiting precinct caucus captains to bring neighbors to the sites caucuses on January 15 and speak about them on behalf of the candidates.

Trump’s strategy centers on a “10 for Trump” plan, recruiting 1,800 precinct caucus captains across the state and providing each with a list of 10 new caucus participants.

Nikki Haley at a campaign town hall in Atkinson, NH on December 14. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Haley’s campaign also holds regular caucus trainings, said Emily Sukup Schmitt, co-chair of “Women for Nikki” in Iowa, explaining that she focuses on both mobilizing voters and finding captains. constituency.

DeSantis’ allies are also focusing on this, with one person familiar saying the goal is to be two-on-one with precinct captains in each location, ensuring that if one person doesn’t engage properly, they have a a backup plan. With Iowa seen as a make-or-break state for DeSantis, his allies have drawn resources from elsewhere to concentrate them there. Three people familiar with the development said Never Back Down recently moved door knockers from South Carolina to Iowa. A Super PAC official said the goal is to have hit every targeted house at least five times before the Jan. 15 caucuses.

“It can’t be overstated,” the DeSantis ally said of the importance of the ground effort to their overall hopes.

Never Back Down strongly pushed back against claims that its efforts were insufficient, misguided or futile, pointing out that it had more than 100 full-time paid canvassers working in early states.

” Governor. DeSantis’ opponents will stop at nothing to undermine the fact that we have built the largest and most advanced grassroots and political operation in the history of presidential politics,” said Never Back Down spokesperson, Jess Szymanski. “Our canvassers have knocked on nearly 3 million doors across the country, far surpassing any other political operation, and are building support for DeSantis house by house in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

Trump’s ‘tremendous advantage’

Trump continues to hold two big advantages over his opponents – the first being that he has a much larger volunteer base.

“It gives us a huge advantage,” said Alex Latcham, Trump’s first state director. “Our supporters are people who will stand in line to attend a rally to see President Trump for over eight hours. You know they’re going to come out and knock on the door, right?

The second concerns what should happen in interactions with voters. For Trump, this is a strict get-out-the-vote model, forcing current Trump supporters to show up to the polls. For DeSantis and Haley, they must not only make turnout efforts, but also convince voters to move away from the former president.

“It’s a very different experience for Trump supporters who are knocking on doors and doing all this great work to make sure people show up to the caucus on Jan. 15,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to his campaign. “Whereas all of our opponents are in this delicate situation of trying to get people to change their vote and go in a different direction, which is a much bigger task.”

The dichotomy is visible in AFP Action’s door-to-door scenario, which was provided to NBC News. When a voter tells an AFP gate that they support Trump, pollsters are tasked with presenting a response that reads: “We have to beat Biden, but I fear that with all of Trump’s baggage, Trump neither energizes Democrats nor repels independents. He will lose the swing states in November, and we will end up with four more years of Biden, or even worse, Kamala Harris. Don’t you think it’s time to appoint a new leader who can beat Joe Biden?

Only if they say yes does the canvasser then start sharing a message about how Haley is well-positioned to beat Biden.

Donald Trump at a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, on December 19. Scott Morgan/Reuters

Candace Carroll, state director of AFP Action in South Carolina, said her group was encouraged by what it was hearing at targeted doorsteps during interactions with Trump supporters or voters who had previously supported Trump.

“Most proactively tell us they support Governor Haley or are open to the idea of ​​supporting her,” she said. “It’s very rare that we find someone who is stubborn and not willing to discuss or consider other candidates. »

“I don’t think anyone will ever do that again.”

The hopes of DeSantis’ allies are tied to their engagement with voters in places where ground games have not typically taken place — often in harder-to-poll rural areas, with residences farther apart. In Adair County, GOP Chairman Ryan Frederick, who supported DeSantis, said the Florida governor was “the first guy to see a guy come to my door.”

“I live in a town of 400 people in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “And he’s the first guy to run for president that has a guy show up at my door and ask me if I’m interested in voting for him. And not only did they show up once; they showed up twice.

Others, however, see this strategy as part of the candidate’s downfall. One person who once worked on an early door-to-door effort on behalf of DeSantis said Never Back Down “wasted tens of millions of dollars, essentially chasing rural voters who had no interest in Ron DeSantis “.

However, this person said the original door-to-door plan — introducing DeSantis to a wide swath of voters in their homes — made a lot of sense if executed correctly. They just didn’t think that was the case.

“The problem was the super PAC and the goal was not defined and executed properly,” this person said. “I don’t think anyone will ever do that again.”

The effectiveness of Republican canvassing efforts continues to be scrutinized. A wide-ranging investigation by NBC News this year found that large-scale conservative canvassing efforts have been plagued by problems such as fraudulent and unreliable data entry. But Republicans have insisted it can be useful when done well, and major donors have been willing to open their wallets to finance these efforts.

These issues exploded earlier this year when a paid door knocker from Never Back Down was filmed at a home in South Carolina telling his friend over loudspeaker that he was “a little stoned” and that he didn’t care if an owner confronted him for breaking. a “no solicitation” policy.

Regardless, with Trump’s double-digit growth nationally and in early states, even committed pollsters are wondering if anything could hurt his advantage.

“A few months is a lifetime in politics, but they have been waiting for months and months for things to change on the ground and with people’s feelings,” said one of the former canvassers aligned with Never Back Down. “But that’s just not the case.”

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