“Pay no attention to the polls!” Hillary Clinton exhorts the crowd at Broward College-North Campus, warning against complacency at a time when most polls showed her solidly ahead in Florida. “We've got to turn people out!”
Young campaign workers with clipboards circulate, asking as many of the 1,750 rally-goers as they can to sign up to do phone-banking and door-knocking. Volunteers, mainly older women wearing Madam President T-shirts, watch from the edges, having finished their task of making sure no one brings in forbidden items – such as handmade signs.
Two days earlier, at a rally in southwest Florida, Mr. Trump also warned against believing the polls – for a different reason: because they’re “rigged,” he says. But his ultimate message was the same: get out and vote!
It’s the home stretch to Election Day, and in-person early voting in Florida has started – that frenzied period when campaigns try to lock in as many votes in advance as possible. (Vote-by-mail started here early this month, and is more popular than ever.) Once a vote is cast in Florida, it can’t be rescinded, and so early voters are those who are certain of their choice. Anyone who might be swayed by the news Friday that the FBI had discovered new Clinton emails, potentially containing classified information, probably hasn’t voted yet.
Here in the largest battleground state in the country, the stakes could not be higher.
But at the Trump rally, there wasn’t a clipboard to be seen among the thousands of people in attendance Sunday at the Collier County Fairgrounds near Naples, Fla. Trump is doing things his way, counting on his voters to turn out based on the inspiration of his message, as conveyed over social media, email, television, and live events – not because they’ve been badgered by volunteers to vote.
The contrast between the two campaigns has set up what some observers call a real-time political science experiment, two dramatically different models that may reveal how important the usual elements of modern campaigning really are.
Mrs. Clinton is following the standard playbook – raising hundreds of millions of dollars, organizing a massive staff and ground game, going big on paid TV.
Trump’s campaign has taken a different approach. And it has outsourced ground operations to the Republican Party – which some Florida Republicans complain has left the party with an under-resourced, less-than-robust operation here. But welcome to the most unorthodox Republican presidential nominee of modern times.
'Trump the Vote'
At Trump’s event in Naples, the only people apparently working on GOTV - “get out the vote” - are outside groups. One bunch wears orange T-shirts with the words “Trump the Vote – Vote Early!” printed atop a silhouette of Florida. Another group, the nonpartisan Lift the Vote, aims to inspire evangelical Christians – a cohort that leans heavily Republican – to turn out.
“We’re told 30 million Christians didn’t vote four years ago,” says Rick Williams, handing out Lift the Vote stickers at the Naples event. “People need to compare the Scripture with the platforms of all the candidates that are running, and then decide who they want to vote for.”
But the apparent lack of a visible, party-led effort on the ground for Trump at this one event doesn’t mean “his” voters aren’t voting early in Florida. In fact, by Friday morning, slightly more Republicans than Democrats had voted early – both in person and by mail – out of nearly 3 million votes cast so far in the state.
Those votes haven’t been tallied yet; all that’s known is their likely partisan cast, based on campaign analytics. A truer picture of the early-vote race in Florida will begin to emerge on Monday, after the first weekend of in-person early voting. That includes “Souls to the Polls,” the practice in African-American churches of busing congregants to vote after church.
“The poll numbers are very close here, and there’s nothing in the early-vote numbers to contradict that,” says Michael McDonald, an expert on voter turnout at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
Professor McDonald notes that the nature of the Republican vs. Democratic electorates points to different types of GOTV efforts. Democrats tend to live in urban areas, and therefore are easier to mobilize. Republicans dominate in rural areas, where voters are harder to reach in person, he says.
The Trump Show
This cycle, the Republicans also don’t have the financial resources the Democrats do, as Trump has not done as much party fundraising as Clinton has. At least that’s the assessment of former GOP and Trump officials, a point disputed by current operatives.
In addition, the Republican National Committee maintains that the party has plenty of people here, more than 1,000 paid staff and trained organizers, working on behalf of candidates up and down the ballot.
“We have 12 times the staff on the ground in Florida than we did in 2012,” says RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.
But at Trump’s event in Naples – one of seven he did in Florida over three days this week – the party did not appear to have a presence. It was the Trump Show, in all its glory. As regal music blared over the loudspeakers, he swooped in on his helicopter, and took the stage before thousands of rally-goers, some of whom had arrived as early as 8 a.m. for a 6 p.m. event.
Mason Marelia, a 25-year-old first-time voter, drove over from Miami-Dade County to attend his fifth Trump event.
“A big reason why a lot of people don’t like Republicans is because they think Republicans are too war-happy,” says Mr. Marelia, wearing a “Hillary for Prison 2016” T-shirt. “We spent trillions rebuilding Iraq; we need to rebuild our own country. Trump will do that.”
Who's your pick? Afraid to say.
Marelia believes a lot of Trump’s support isn’t reflected in the polls – a point that other rally-goers bring up unbidden. On Friday, a Politico poll of GOP insiders from 11 battleground states echoed that view: Seventy-one percent said they think the polls understate Trump’s support because some voters don’t want to admit they’re backing him.
Christine Stoll, a nursing professor at Florida SouthWestern State College, says the more Trump buttons she wears, the more she’s “denigrated” by Clinton supporters.
“How can you vote for him? How can you do this?” Ms. Stoll says, mimicking her detractors. “I vote with my heart, and I vote with my children’s future in mind. And I think we need a change.”
Two days later, at Broward College-North Campus in Coconut Creek, Fla., women turn out in droves to see the woman who may soon be America’s first female president.
Val Sabotinsky of Weston, Fla., let her 11-year-old daughter, Zoe, skip school so she could “see history.” But it’s not something Zoe is advertising.
“The thing is, it’s so divided, she’s afraid to tell her friends that she’s coming here,” says Ms. Sabotinsky. “She doesn’t know how their families will think.”
Both campaigns pulling out all the stops
As in-person early voting kicked off in Florida this week, both campaigns pulled out all the stops. Trump and Clinton each did multiple events; former President Bill Clinton did a bus tour across the state; Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine was here; President Obama appeared in Orlando on Friday; Trump’s daughters, Ivanka and Tiffany, visited a charter school in Riviera Beach, Fla., on Thursday.
On Saturday, singer Jennifer Lopez will do a free Get Out the Vote concert in Miami in support of Hillary Clinton, who will join her on stage.
Because it’s Florida, the biggest battleground state. And as anyone from either party over a certain age remembers, after the Florida recount of 2000, turnout matters.