Much of what the American press covers in political campaigns is the daily horse race of polling and — every three months — the campaign finance numbers. Many of the people in the press who shape the coverage of American politics have never actually worked on political campaigns, run for office, held office or even worked for elected officials. There is more to politics than the polling and money.
Some of the major national polls of the Republican primary, for example, are actually of less than three hundred voters, consisting of some who have never actually voted before. Likewise, the media is fixated on how much the candidates have raised, but ignores how rapidly the candidates are spending their money and on what things the candidates are purchasing with their money.
Then there are the more fundamental numbers the media ignores. Of the 320 million people in this country, roughly 68 percent, or 218,959,000 are eligible to vote. Of those, only 146,311,000 are actually registered to vote, which is 45 percent of the total population.
Of those who are registered to vote, 126,144,000 actually voted in the 2012 presidential election, which is 86 percent of registered voters, but only 57 percent of those who are eligible to vote and only 39 percent of the total population.
Barack Obama won in 2012 with 65,915,796 votes, which amounted to 51.1 percent of the total vote cast, but was really 45 percent of the registered voter population in the nation, which was 30 percent of the voting age population, and only 20.5 percent of the total population. However, that was an extraordinary election year. The 2014 election year, by contrast, saw a lot of people sit home.
According to the Leadership Institution in Washington (though my data from them is a few years old) the average voter engagement typically amounts to 25 percent of the voting age population across races on a ballot.
If the average is 25 percent of the voting age population regularly voting, candidates need 13 percent of the voting age population to win. Yet of the 25 percent of the voting age population who normally votes, 9 percent pretty consistently vote Democrat and 8 percent pretty consistently vote Republican. That leaves candidates with 8 percent of the voters who are actually up for grabs.
2 percent of voters tend to be single-issue voters, i.e. they only vote on gays, guns, abortion, the environment, etc. That leaves 6 percent of the voters up for grabs, which means candidates actually need to target 4 percent of the voting age population.
This is where the ground game comes in. Television advertising is pretty scatter shot. Radio advertising is a bit more precise because, for example, urban radio listeners tend to be Democrats and talk radio listeners tend to be Republicans. More and more younger voters have gone to Netflix, which does not show commercials; it is difficult to place that 4 percent.
Candidates need ground operations to go door to door to meet voters. Voters who have personally interacted with a campaign at their doorstep are more likely to vote for a candidate than those who just saw a commercial or got a phone call. In the underlying campaign data, it appears that Donald Trump has yet to get a voter file — a file that shows all the voters in a state, their partisan affiliation, and most importantly, which of those voters ever show up to vote in primaries and caucuses.
It also turns out that Ted Cruz has the most cash on hand of any Republican, but along with Marco Rubio, has been diligently building ground operations to go knock on doors and meet voters. These fundamentals get ignored, but it does very little good for campaigns to fly around the country giving speeches if they do not have an operation to then capture the identities of their voters, knock on their voters’ doors, and get those voters to the polls on a snowy, winter day in Iowa or New Hampshire next year.
It is a complex topic for the media, but more than three months before any votes are cast, it is actually more important than what 298 registered voters who might never have voted tell a pollster.