In Florida, it's Donald Trump's big rallies vs. Hillary Clinton's massive organizing

U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona (center, standing) campaigns for Hillary Clinton at a phone bank gathering in Ybor City. The Clinton campaign has 14 offices in Florida; Trump has one so far.
U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona (center, standing) campaigns for Hillary Clinton at a phone bank gathering in Ybor City. The Clinton campaign has 14 offices in Florida; Trump has one so far.
Published Aug. 16, 2016

How Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are approaching the job of winning America's biggest battleground state is a study in contrasts.

To Team Clinton, organizing is everything.

To the unconventional Team Trump, big rallies rule.

"We're running a unique campaign in the sense that we can draw 15,000 people together at a time," said Karen Giorno, Florida-based senior adviser on the Trump campaign. "There are over 40,000 people that we've touched in the last two weeks with just four events. . . . We have a movement. Hillary Clinton is struggling to get people moving in her direction."

As anxious party leaders await a more conventional Florida campaign apparatus by Trump — field offices, paid organizers and TV ads that Giorno says are coming soon — the Clinton campaign is methodically building a massive get-out-the-vote effort.

Clinton and her Democratic allies have spent nearly $22 million on TV ads in Florida, according to an NBC News tally. Trump allies have spent less than $1.6 million.

Clinton has opened 14 offices statewide: Ybor City, Lakeland, east Orlando, Sanford, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Port St. Lucie, Lake Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Wynwood (Miami), Miami Gardens, Fort Myers, Naples — and has her Florida headquarters in the Town 'N Country section of Tampa.

Trump so far only has a headquarters in Sarasota, though the campaign plans to open two dozen more offices in the next two or three weeks. Mail voting for the general election starts in early October.

Clinton and the Democratic National Committee have at least 200 paid campaign workers in Florida, at least twice that of Trump and the Republican National Committee.

Inside Clinton's nearly invisible warehouse office off Anderson Road in Tampa recently, at least two dozen twenty-something workers hunched over laptops and spoke on cell phones. Assorted handmade signs hang over the desks designating areas of focus: DATA. COALITIONS. ORGANIZING. TRIPS. DIGITAL. INTERNS.

"I'm an organizer and everybody in these offices is an organizer," Marlon Marshall, the Clinton campaign's director of states/political engagement, said in Tampa, having finished up visits to several Florida campaign offices.

Marshall is based at the campaign's national headquarters in Brooklyn.

"At the end of the day, whether you're the political director in Brooklyn or the political director in Florida," Marshall said, "we all need to be thinking, 'How are we supporting that organizing program every day,' because it is about building that base at the volunteer level, the organizing level, that's going to help us win a close race."

There is no more important state in this presidential election than Florida, where a Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll released Friday showed Clinton leading Trump 44 percent to 39 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent. Losing Florida's 29 electoral votes would make it virtually impossible for Trump to win the election.

Clinton spent Monday and Tuesday campaigning in Florida, and Trump spent Wednesday and Thursday.

But other than the candidate appearances, only the Clinton campaign announced other activities: last Saturday, 150 "Weekend of Action" grass roots organizing events and actor Tichina Arnold of Martin and Everybody Hates Chris; Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra of California campaigning and phone banking in Orlando with volunteers; Thursday, a panel of businesswomen talking up Clinton's economic plans in Tampa and campaign office openings in Lake Worth and Fort Lauderdale; Friday, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona working a phone bank at Clinton's Ybor City office while former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and astronaut Mark Kelly spoke about gun violence in Miami.

The Clinton campaign is coordinating closely with the Florida Democratic Party, while the level of coordination on the Republican side remains to be seen. Gov. Rick Scott is leading a pro-Trump super PAC but has little to do with the Florida Republican Party. The Florida GOP has been opening offices across the state, including one in Brandon today, but those are mainly aimed at helping Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio and other down-ballot candidates.

Officials with the Trump campaign, state GOP and Republican National Committee met Friday morning at the Bohemian Hotel Celebration to hammer out coordination efforts. Giorno has heard the questions and concerns about a lack of conventional campaign infrastructure and said it's misplaced.

"We have an army of volunteers. They just haven't been deployed yet, and they're going to get actionable items next week. It's going to be a sight to behold," said Giorno, who expects to open about two dozen offices across Florida and build up to having 200 paid workers helping tens of thousands of volunteers.

Four years ago, Mitt Romney had 23 campaign offices in Florida by the end of May.

Giorno, 48, is a former Scott aide whose extensive political experience is largely in organizing events. Her priorities reflect those of Trump, who has always been more interested in headlining big rallies than nitty-gritty voter mobilization or reliance on expensive TV ad campaigns.

Campaigning in Florida this week, Trump mocked Clinton for spending so many millions of dollars on commercials attacking him without gaining in the polls.

"I haven't spent anything," Trump said in Miami. "That's okay, we sit back and wait."

At the Clinton campaign headquarters, Marshall said organizers are focused on recruiting volunteers and registering new voters. He declined to say how many volunteers have signed up or how many voters the campaign has registered.

Clinton leaders may be counting on their ground game to help edge out Trump in Florida, but so far there is no hard evidence it is paying off.

Since January, Republican voter registration grew by 222,000 while Democratic registration grew by 156,000.

Barack Obama won Florida four years ago by less than 75,000 votes, even though the state had 536,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Since then, the Democratic registration advantage has dropped to about 259,000, as Florida GOP chairman Blaise Ingoglia has stressed voter registration drives.

Contact Adam Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes.