Allies of likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton already are launching a series of sustained and targeted attacks on GOP nominee Donald Trump in key swing states — including Florida — in an early attempt to cripple his general election prospects, and there are questions about whether Trump can effectively fight back.
Democrats are using the same playbook that worked in 2012, when they successfully branded GOP nominee Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch and uncaring plutocrat in the early summer before the height of campaign season.
Romney never recovered.
Trump is a much different candidate who has proven immune to many attacks so far and is able to control the media narrative in ways Romney never could, but he also may be more vulnerable in some ways.
The Democrats’ strategy has played out in Florida over the last two weeks, first when a political action committee started airing $2.5 million worth of ads in the Tampa and Orlando media markets criticizing Trump’s past statements on women. Even as those ads continue to air, the Clinton team rolled out another round of targeted swing state attacks last week featuring surrogates such as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn blasting Trump for welcoming the real estate downturn that led to the Great Recession.
“I sort of hope that happens because then, people like me would go in and buy,” Trump said shortly before the collapse, according to audio recordings unearthed last week.
Buckhorn called the comments “shameful” and “disqualifying” in a conference call with reporters. Clinton also released a web ad jabbing Trump for the housing remarks.
Trump responded that night by slamming Clinton during a rally and with a statement saying: “Frankly, this is the kind of thinking our country needs, understanding how to get a good result out of a very bad and sad situation.”
Operating very differently
The exchange highlights how the two campaigns are operating in very different ways right now.
Clinton and her allies are focusing on paid advertising and generating both national press coverage and local coverage in swing states. Their attacks are well coordinated and driven home by community leaders, showing a high level of campaign organization.
Trump is responding personally through the national media. There has been no effort to launch a state-specific counter offensive in Florida or elsewhere, and no television advertising. Instead, Trump is trying to drive the national conversation in other directions by talking about past Clinton scandals during rallies and media interviews.
Trump is not ready to fight a targeted swing-state campaign yet.
In Florida, Trump still has an office in downtown Sarasota that serves as the state headquarters and a handful of paid employees who worked on the primary. But there is little else. A second office in Volusia County was closed after the primary to save money in the short term.
The campaign is still working to build a robust team of paid staffers, prominent surrogates and big money donors in the state and plot a general election strategy.
Few high-profile Florida Republicans endorsed Trump before the primary. The state’s GOP establishment is starting to come around to the candidate, but it remains unclear how many Republican leaders will actively support Trump and campaign for him.
Karen Giorno, who is leading Trump’s campaign in Florida and throughout the Southeast, said she plans to roll out a general election leadership team in the state by the end of June that includes supporters of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and other rivals from the primary season. She shrugged off the early attacks from Clinton’s allies in Florida, pointing to recent polls showing the race is essentially tied in the state.
“We haven’t started on Hillary Clinton yet and we’re already neck and neck,” she said. “There have been ads up against our candidate for months and they haven’t made a dent.”
Sarasota GOP activist Christian Ziegler, a Republican state committeeman and delegate to the Republican National Convention, said Trump’s unorthodox campaign defied conventional attacks during the primary. He expects that to continue.
“With Donald Trump — he commands such a large media attention that he’s able to offset any of those tactics,” Ziegler said.
Clinton is expected to have a financial and organization advantage in Florida and other swing states, something Giorno seemed to acknowledge in saying the Trump campaign can do more with less.
“It’s not about quantity it’s about the quality,” Giorno said, adding that “instead of just adding bodies because it looks better” the campaign is “looking at this in a different way.”
“It’s going to be thoughtful,” she added. “He’s going to hire some very talented people. He only hires the best.”
The Trump campaign is expected to lean heavily on outside support from the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Florida to boost its ground game.
“We’re finalizing that collaboration now,” Giorno said.
It’s a strategy some have questioned. Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele recently told MSNBC that Trump can’t rely too much on forces outside his campaign.
Building a ground game
Building a ground game requires money.
Trump received some good news on that front last week when a number of prominent GOP donors from Florida and elsewhere signed on to help him. The candidate also has retained a passionate network of volunteers from the Florida primary.
Sarasota resident Paul Cajka has spent a few days each week since February making phone calls to potential Trump voters. Last week Cajka was calling New Jersey. He has made more than 4,000 calls for Trump.
“Usually a primary campaign is like the circus,” said Cajka, a customer service representative for a major grocery chain. “It comes to town, sets up tents and the next morning it’s a big empty field and you hear about the circus in the next town. This campaign tries to keep people interested.”
Cajka is among a few dozen Trump volunteers in the Sarasota region who remain active after the primary.
“We have the best volunteers,” Giorno said. “These volunteers are on fire for Donald Trump.”
Whether that grassroots passion can help counteract the organizational advantages Clinton has in the state, her near universal support from Florida’s Democratic elites and the early advertising onslaught is a big question.
Former Democratic state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald said Clinton and Trump are a contrast in political styles, with Trump’s campaign revolving around his personality and command of the media and Clinton sticking with the data-driven approach pioneered by President Barack Obama that involves more targeted campaigning in key swing states.
The irony is that Clinton’s campaign is more traditional and conservative, Fitzgerald noted. There are risks to such an approach.
“It does run the risk of looking a little stodgy compared to this flamboyant guy who is blowing up all the rules,” Fitzgerald said.
But, he added, “I’d much rather be where she is than where he is.
“At the end of the day you win presidential elections by turning people out in the right states.”