The afternoon heat at the Ted Cruz rally was nothing to an old pro like Ben White. The 17-year-old is a veteran of numerous political campaigns, local and statewide. On this sweltering Thursday afternoon, he handed out stickers, engaged people with a ready grin and asked them to support Cruz.

"I've been politically active for six years," said the home-schooled high school senior, who also attends dual-enrollment classes at LeTourneau University. "I've volunteered for Bryan Hughes, Larry Smith, Ted Cruz during his Senate campaign, Jason Ellis."

He works for candidates he believes in, he explained, and he'll do whatever needs to be done - "We'll hand out flyers, make phone calls, write post cards, work events, exit polling, stand outside polling places - we want to see candidates with good values get into office. And we'll work hard to help make that happen."

 

ORGANIZING

In politics, it's called the "ground game" - the workaday world of volunteer coordinators, phone bank organizers and sneaker-clad block walkers. It's the busy moms who bring seven-layer dip to debate-watching parties and the college kids who help register new voters between classes.

And more and more, it's also social media-savvy millennials armed with apps, helping their candidates connect with voters.

A solid ground game can translate into political success. And that's why it's important - at this stage in the GOP primary - to pay attention not to media coverage, but to the organizations at the state and county levels.

Put simply, Donald Trump is getting airtime. Sen. Ted Cruz is getting organized.

"The ground game is the retail campaigning that's so necessary," said JoAnn Fleming, who serves as Cruz's grassroots coordinator in Texas. "It's one-on-one, talking to people at doors. Winning an election isn't just about showing up at fish fries and county fairs. You can't just spend money and hope. Your ground game is the real people on the ground, working for a candidate they believe in."

Mrs. Fleming is also a veteran of many campaigns. She knows what works, and what doesn't.

"I believe in the ground game because I've seen the ground campaign overcome money and establishment politics - Ted Cruz is the best example of that, when he beat [former Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst for his Senate seat in 2012," she said.

Big money and name recognition only go so far, Mrs. Fleming contends.

"Take a television ad," she said. "A television ad costs the same whether you pay for it with money from three donors or 500 donors. But those donors who gave you $10 instead of $10,000 are committed to you. They'll work on your behalf. They'll talk to their friends and families. They will use their influence on your behalf."

Donald Trump is dominating much of the political coverage of the GOP race so far, but Mrs. Fleming says that not what's important at this stage.

"Mr. Trump is on television all the time, but what matters on Election Day is the people who go out and vote," she said.

In fact, Donald Trump has almost no campaign organization at all. He has fewer than 25 paid staff members, according to the Associated Press. They're all in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina. There is no "Donald J. Trump for President" office in Texas.

In fact, in the top tier of candidates - Trump, Cruz, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush - Cruz is the only candidate with a Texas presence.

Bush - though he's the father of rising Republican star and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush - has little statewide presence in Texas. His focus seems to be on the earlier primaries, which offer the perception of legitimacy, if not more than a handful of delegates. On his official website, he lists only four state organizations - Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Ben Carson, a political outside like Trump, is also light on the ground. He has campaign chairs for each of those four early states, but no Texas office, though he has a national field director, G. Michael Brown, with Texas ties.

"I don't know of any Republican presidential candidate with an office in Texas - apart from Cruz," said Tim McCormick, chairman of the Smith County Republican Party. "I have definitely seen an active effort by people supporting Ben Carson - nothing official, but they're working. I know people supporting Mike Huckabee are busy, but again, nothing official."

 

THE PRIZE

Here's why organizing in Texas is important. There's a total of 2,470 GOP delegates nationwide. To win the nomination, a GOP candidate will need 1,236 (50 percent plus one). Delegates are awarded in primaries, state-by-state. Some states are winner-take-all, some allocate delegates proportionately.

The early primaries - the ones candidates often focus so many resources on - don't award many delegates. Iowa, for example, hands out a total of 30 delegates. New Hampshire awards only 23. South Carolina is a bit bigger, with 50 delegates, and Nevada has 30. But Texas has more than all four of those combined, with 155 delegates.

Texas goes to the polls earlier than usual this election cycle - March 1. It's part of the "SEC Primary," the group (named after the college football conference) of mostly Southern states that will vote on that day. The other states are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. None of those states has even half the number of delegates Texas has.

"Texas will definitely have a big effect," says McCormick, the county GOP chair.

But there's a caveat.

"We're not a winner-take-all state," he said. "By voting as early as we are, we'll still see a lot of the candidates on the ballot. The wheat hasn't been separated from the chaff, so to speak. And if a bunch of candidates get 5 percent or 10 percent, that will dilute our impact. But if Texas Republicans get unified, get behind one candidate, we will have a big say."

Texas could also be influential in determining who won't be the GOP nominee for president. McCormick points out that while it's likely no one candidate will "win" Texas on March 1, candidates with a poor showing in the Lone Star State will most definitely lose.

"We won't necessarily determine who gets the nomination, but we'll help narrow the field," McCormick predicted. "We'll determine who won't get the nomination."

 

RUDY FAILS

If there's a textbook case of a candidate not getting the ground game aspect of an election, it's former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In his 2008 run for the GOP presidential nomination, he had both the name recognition and the funding to succeed. In October 2007, he led the field of candidates, with 27 percent supporting him in the polls. His nearest competitor at the time, then-Sen. Fred Thompson (who shared many of his advantages), polled as high as 23 percent.

"Since Giuliani entered the race in February, he had led the field in virtually every national poll, riding his celebrity as ‘America's Mayor' and his brassy reputation as a hero of 9/11," wrote Mark Halperin in his book "Game Change." "With his hawkish profile on national security and moderation on social issues, Giuliani was chasing many of the same voters as McCain."

Yet Giuliani failed - largely because he had no ground game.

"With no working strategy in his presidential campaign, no primary victories and dwindling resources, the mayor's third-place finish in Florida spelled the end of his run, even if his crestfallen supporters couldn't believe it," the Associated Press reported at the time.

"Rudy Giuliani thought his celebrity was going to take him all the way," said Smith County's McCormick. "It didn't."

 

WORKERS

Technology has changed the world, and political campaigns are no exception.

"There's new technology we use in canvassing voters, and what used to be the rule of thumb was that your effectiveness was driven by budget and the number of volunteers you have," explained Mrs. Fleming. "That's changing; there are handy programs now, on smart phones and tablets, so you don't have to mess around with paper maps. You know who the next person is on your list, the most efficient way to work a neighborhood."

Apps allow campaign workers to target voters who will likely respond positively to a campaign's message.

"We're focusing on the ‘hard-Rs,' the people who have voted in the last three or four Republican primaries," Mrs. Fleming said. "We can also find those who have voted in any of the last three or four primaries."

But some things don't change - that personal contact is what sways voters. That's why the ground game is so crucial to a candidate's success.

Workers like 17-year-old Ben White make victories happen.

"I like working doors, meeting people is fun," he said. "Making phone calls is great, you can do it with a group of friends, and you get some great responses. Not everyone is going to agree with you, but that's okay."

Lots of home-schooled youths, like White, are eager and experienced campaign workers. They're a ready source of volunteers for candidates - if they're won over first.

"The candidates we like to support are conservative and liberty-living mold," White said. "We don't support a party - we support candidates. We work to get more real conservatives in office."

Mrs. Fleming has often tapped into the home-school movement for workers.

"It's an excellent base of young people," she said. "And they know the issues. You don't have to sit them in a room and teach them basic civics. They know government and they know the issues. They're looking for the candidates who they can believe in."

Such workers - particularly dedicated volunteers who enthusiastically support a candidate - are vital to electoral success.

"Those in the political class - and I'm in that class - like to think what we do is of utmost important," says the Smith County GOP's McCormick. "And it is. But really, the only thing that matters is getting your voters out."

That's the ground game.

 

Twitter: @tmt_roy

 
 

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