The story of this election in Ohio can be told by two places: a spot above Ray’s Barber Salon in suburban Cincinnati, and a well-lit office in Walnut Hills.
Above the barbershop in Colerain Township, Donald Trump and Mike Pence smile down from a billboard — a billboard financed not by the Trump campaign, but by volunteers so enthusiastic they raised the money themselves. And not just for one billboard, but for 10.
“The Trump folks, the supporters locally, came to us and said ‘how can we do we this?’ ” said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. “That’s what happened. It started with them.”
A few miles away in Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills neighborhood, the Hillary Clinton campaign office features arrows taped to the floor to route door-to-door canvassers to stations of volunteers with assignments and packets. A "staging location director" named Chad Gilbert — a productivity consultant in his normal life — makes sure volunteers leave ready to go.
Presidential campaigns are always a mix of enthusiasm and organization, and both campaigns would tell you they have a winning mix of both. The Trump campaign touts the numbers of knocked doors and new voter registrations. The Clinton campaign touts its constellation of field offices and hours of volunteer training. But the differences between the two campaigns this year remain stark.
Trump’s barebones campaign started late and is still defined by disorganization and eager volunteers conducting freelance campaigning. Self-directed supporters have posted “Trump/Pence” on an RV and driven it around Cincinnati, set up their own semi-official campaign office in Butler County in August, and paid for a large Trump billboard in Clark County. But enthusiasm may not fully make up for a catch-up campaign.
The Hillary Clinton campaign machine got rolling early and is well-funded and well-staffed. But it has an underlying enthusiasm deficit with some supporters.
Mary Jo Truman, 73, is a retired social worker from Boardman volunteering for the Clinton campaign. She said Clinton’s supporters are starting to get revved up but she worried about complacency as the polls showed her ahead nationally.
“With Obama, it was dynamic,” she said.
At this point, it’s hard to say which approach works best, although analysts tend to give the edge to Clinton’s well-oiled ground game. Clinton holds a respectable lead in national polling with just days to go. But Ohio remains close. Trump is ahead by a razor-thin margin in a rolling average of state polls.
As both candidates make their closing arguments, their campaigns on the ground are making their final pushes in their own way. The contrast between the campaigns could mean winning or losing Ohio, the quintessential swing state and a crucial part of Trump’s road to the White House.
In the Cincinnati neighborhood of Walnut Hills, one of the first Hillary Clinton campaign field offices to open in the county back in July has been converted into an efficient clearinghouse for volunteers.
The office stands ready for the final get-out-the-vote push in this predominantly African-American neighborhood — a crucial constituency in the county, a one-time Republican stronghold that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. One problem. There are no canvassers lined up for the canvass kickoff scheduled for noon.
Near the staging office’s final stop is a stack of cards to give out to potential voters. Flip one open, and there’s an insert with a card prominently featuring Clinton in the Oval Office with President Obama.
“Protect His Legacy,” it reads, highlighting Clinton’s pledges on Obamacare, the economy and an “out of balance” criminal justice system.
On this Sunday, Gilbert is a volunteer sitting at one table in the office. He is a “Staging Location Director.” He laughs off the title, but there’s no doubt he’s brought quite a skill set to a low-level volunteer gig.
Arrows. Voter targeting. People like Gilbert. This is the Clinton campaign. No rabid Clinton fans are asking Gilbert to help them erect billboards for the candidates. If they did come in the office, Gilbert would have plenty for them to do.
Mahoning County, in northeast Ohio, holds a prize for both candidates — many blue-collar voters who usually vote Democrat but could be swayed by Trump’s hard-line protectionist message and his insistence he’ll bring back manufacturing jobs.
Clinton’s campaign goal is to lock these voters down. Trump’s campaign aims to win these voters over and make sure they get out to vote. The campaign also has one paid staffer in the county, according to local GOP officials. But, there’s enthusiasm.
“We went from 14,000 or 15,000 Republicans to probably 36,000 Republicans, driven primarily by interest in the Trump candidacy,” said Mark Munroe, Mahoning County Republican Party chairman.
Dave Betras, Munroe’s counterpart at the county’s Democratic Party, calls its ground game “very robust” compared to the Trump campaign, “who have really no ground game.”
“We’re going to win Mahoning County. Hillary Clinton is going to win Mahoning County. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said. “We’ve got way better ground game than they have. We’ve registered way more voters than they have.”
He said the Democratic ground game has more paid staffers, volunteers filling all the needed slots and is pushing with micro-targeting of voters and get-out-the-vote efforts.
He disputes the idea that the Trump campaign has a corner on enthusiasm in this election.
“I disagree with you. Don’t confuse volume with quality of enthusiasm,” he said, about the difference between the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “They might be louder. But the volume of our enthusiasm is much larger.”
Tracey Winbush can show you plenty of enthusiasm. She wears three hats: Ohio Republican Party treasurer, vice chair of the Mahoning County Republican Party and as of September, director of the Trump campaign in Mahoning County. On a Friday evening, Winbush sits in the county party headquarters and points to hand-painted signs around the room: “Women for Trump” and “Blue lives matter.”
“People are … they’re making their own signs. They’re making their own slogans. They are creating their own campaign for Trump-Pence,” she said. “Totally independent. They come in here, they organize and they go out and flash mob the corners.”
Asked about door-knocking efforts in the county, Winbush turns to the county’s one paid Trump campaign coordinator, Caitlin Kennedy, who is in a nearby room.
“Caitlin how many doors have you knocked so far?”
From inside the room, Kennedy answers: “I have no idea … I don’t think I can tell the media that.”
“You’re not allowed to know,” Winbush told The Enquirer with a big chuckle. “But a lot, you’re talking thousands of doors.”
The Trump campaign started late in Ohio, and struggled to integrate with the existing ground operation of the Republican National Committee and the Ohio Republican Party, which had backed Gov. John Kasich against Trump in the Republican primary.
In mid-October, the Trump Ohio campaign chair rebuked Ohio GOP chair Matt Borges over his failure to endorse Trump. Borges has since said he’s backing the candidate.