This legacy influences the party’s 2016 hopefuls today. According to Democracy in Action, a website that uses Federal Election Committee data and press reports to track campaign structure and organization, Clinton has a staff of at least 90 in Iowa, with an additional 100 unpaid organizing fellows, and at least 17 field offices. Bernie Sanders’ Iowa staff has grown to more than 50, with 14 offices. In Democratic circles, an operation of that size is not considered a luxury available only to front-runners like Clinton, but a prerequisite for being taken seriously. Though gaps in reporting are likely, Democracy in Action reports that no Republican candidate has more than 10 full-time staff in any early voting state (not counting consultants and volunteer leaders).
he 2016 Republican nominee may quickly discover that what works in presidential primaries doesn’t always work in general elections. TV advertising was decisive in Mitt Romney’s 2012 primary campaign in which millions in negative ads by his super PAC targeting Newt Gingrich helped win him the Florida primary. With the vast resources now flowing into super PACs, almost exclusively for TV, 2016 is likely to be 2012 on steroids. But the effectiveness of paid media is more limited in the general election, where both candidates enter the race well-defined and only a small number of voters are truly undecided. George Washington University political scientist John Sides noted that the Obama campaign’s much-touted decision to move $60 million of its 2012 fall advertising budget to define Romney in the spring and summerfailed to generate any movement in the polls.
The Republican approach may be completely rational in a Hobbesian primary, where TV advertising can assist in defining candidates who still relatively unknown. The challenge the GOP will face is in adapting to the general election—not just message-wise, but in scaling an operation in an era of mass engagement. Many would argue that widespread mistrust of Clinton and an aversion to “Obama’s third term” should be enough to ensure a Republican victory. Such talk is political malpractice. The duty of a political campaign is to press every small advantage possible on every front, because the fundamentals of the election (the economy, or identity of the opponent) are often out of its control. Lessons forged in the parochialism of a primary may not be enough to ensure victory in the general election. Despite the obvious headwinds they may face in 2016, the two leading Democrats are at least trying to win their primary in a way that might pay dividends a year from now. Because of the primary campaigns each are running, Clinton or Sanders would be able to more easily roll over an experienced field team into a general election contest.