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Trump Campaign Looks To Bring New Level Of Sophistication To Its 2020 Operation


President Trump's reelection rallies look a lot like the events he held in 2015 and 2016. But as NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports, the president is running a very different campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was the night before President Trump officially kicked off his reelection campaign in Orlando last week. At a Brazilian restaurant in a strip mall, volunteers gathered in a banquet room for a training session. Campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany rallied the troops.

KAYLEIGH MCENANY: You guys are the key to victory on November 3 in 2020. I mean that sincerely. I mean that with all of my heart.

KEITH: This was one of more than a thousand trainings all over the country put on last week alone by the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign as part of their joint effort to build an army of volunteers. It's something the Trump campaign didn't really have until after he won the nomination in 2016.

ELLIOTT ECHOLS: He is the headliner. He's the blockbuster. But there's something that I really want to talk about that is just as important.

KEITH: Elliott Echols, the national field director for the RNC, led the training in Orlando. And what he was talking about is organizing. It's a buzzword campaigns have been using for years to describe on-the-ground campaign work - building relationships with volunteers, learning about what drives supporters and registering people to vote.

ECHOLS: There are not just Republicans that come to these rallies, guys. There are not just registered voters that come to these rallies. We see it in the data for the people that signed up. Obviously, we had over 100,000 people signed up. There are a lot of people that are signed up that we don't have any voter registration information on them because they're not registered.

KEITH: Each one of those more than 100,000 people who tried to get tickets for the rally had to give the campaign their email addresses and cell numbers, meaning the campaign and RNC now have up-to-date contact information for likely Trump voters. Rick Gorka is with the RNC.

RICK GORKA: And then we can cross-reference that information with our data and voter rolls to see who these individuals are. And it's a way for us to gain - you know, if you may be a registered Democrat showing up to Donald Trump rally, there's a good chance that we're going to get you to come over to our team for 2020. So now you're in our system.

KEITH: As part of the training, the volunteers were given a peek under the hood to see how organizing and data gathering fit into the bigger picture. Adele Amico drove 4 1/2 hours to attend the training and the rally.

ADELE AMICO: They're realizing that you have a captive audience of thousands of people, and they're standing there. Let's capture the information. So that is very cool.

KEITH: And capture the information they did.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #1: We're here to help you. Is anybody here not registered to vote?

KEITH: Some 60 volunteers in neon green shirts fanned out into the crowd of people waiting to get into the rally.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #2: This is a petition to help Governor DeSantis with his signing of the sanctuary cities and support President Trump.

KEITH: Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign with an emphasis on organizing, says that what the Trump campaign and Republican Party are doing isn't new. It goes back to George W. Bush, Obama and Hillary Clinton. But it may be more important than ever in 2020 because Mook expects this campaign will be more about turning out the base than winning the middle.

ROBBY MOOK: In that strategic setting, it's really, really important to understand who your base is and understand the kinds of people that are excited and how to get them even more excited.

KEITH: The Trump campaign soundtrack still includes "Tiny Dancer" and the theme from "Cats." But in terms of data and organizing, it's a completely different campaign. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FALTYDL'S "ILL BENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.