Republicans

'Self-recruited' Trump volunteers break mold for how campaigns are run

Alaska resident Mike Robbins putting up a sign in Anchorage, Alaska.

Alaska resident Mike Robbins putting up a sign in Anchorage, Alaska.  (Courtesy: Mike Robbins)

Alaska can be an afterthought in presidential elections, a frigid electoral landscape that often sees the race decided before its polls even close.

But this time, volunteers from the deep-red state with its three Electoral College votes started campaigning for Donald Trump long before the campaign kicked in staff members – and without the help of the state or national Republican Party.  

“I woke up one day and said, ‘I have to do something.’ I was losing sleep over it,” said Mike Robbins of Anchorage, who owns several radio stations.

That was back in January. Robbins went on to hold fundraisers to buy shirts and signs, enlist hundreds of volunteers and wage a social media blitz on Trump’s behalf. He became an alternate delegate for the national convention, blanketed Anchorage with Trump signs and bumper stickers and welcomed the campaign’s Alaska director in August with a highly organized machine already in place.

This scenario has played out in states across the country.

Despite tensions between Republican leaders and Trump – and concerns that the GOP nominee’s campaign lags Hillary Clinton’s in raw organizational strength – one factor Trump has going for him is an army of volunteers who began boosting his ground game, in some cases, before the professionals got heavily involved.

FoxNews.com talked to volunteers in five western states who were among Trump’s main source of on-the-ground support at a time when neither the Trump campaign nor the RNC had dedicated staff.

This is in marked contrast to Clinton, who had early support from the Democratic National Committee and a huge volunteer network already in place due to highly organized state Democratic committees.

​"We have 80 offices throughout the state that we activated last fall, all with volunteers ready to go," said Michael Soller, communications director for the California Democratic Committee. ​

Five days before Election Day, Clinton still maintains the clear advantage in most assessments of the electoral map. A Democratic National Committee spokesman said field organizers are updating their robust voter file, an important election tool. “We don’t take any vote for granted. We have a robust ground game focused on making sure all of our voters get to the polls, not just for Hillary Clinton but for Democrats up-and-down the ticket,” the spokesman said. 

But voter enthusiasm is a factor – and the Trump campaign points to the energy of its supporters.  

“We recognize that we’re running a grassroots movement,” said Jessica Ditto, Trump’s deputy communications director. “People are fired up about it. They feel like they are enlisted in the campaign.”

For the most part, Trump’s campaign did not assign a paid staff member to organize volunteers in individual states until March or later. By then, many supporters were hosting their own fundraisers, call centers and speeches.

“When I was first hired in April and word got out, within 24 hours I had 1,000 emails -- how these folks found me and got to me, I don’t know,” said Tim Clark, California director of the Trump campaign. “The next day it was another 1,000 [emails] and it’s been that way ever since. I’m not recruiting volunteers because our volunteers are self-recruited.”

Clark says he was thankful to have a relatively easy job: pockets of Trump supporters already existed across the state, formed through Meetup and Facebook groups. He just stitched them together into a bigger statewide group.

“They were already talking to each other online, putting up their own signs and training each other,” he said.

Across the West

Over in southern Texas, Miriam Cepeda has been a one-woman Trump operation since March. Back then, everywhere she went people were supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump only really had a presence in Austin, Houston and Dallas.

“I appointed myself to take care of Rio Grande area,” said Cepeda. “No one was speaking on behalf of his campaign or encouraging people [in south Texas]. I took the bull by the horns and ran with it.”

A 25-year-old graduate student, Cepeda crisscrossed cities across the Rio Grande Valley, marketing Trump until the campaign noticed her and made her an official part of its network. 

“I posted signs, started a list of volunteers, sent out emails, located donors, started Facebook and Instagram pages,” she said.

In New Mexico, Cecilia DeBaca, 63, decided she wanted to support Trump when she heard him talk last year about the restrictions of political correctness.

“You can’t say Merry Christmas, can’t sing Christmas carols,” DeBaca said. “You can’t say anything anymore.”

So she started talking to everyone she could about Trump – at Walmart, gas stations, grocery stores and the pharmacy. DeBaca also went to the Trump website and found out how to start making phone calls for the campaign. Then she contacted her local Republican Women chapter and led efforts to set up booths at public events to lead voter drives and engage bigger audiences.

Undeterred that her state has been blue since President Obama took office, DeBaca said she has had almost a perfect record convincing strangers to vote Trump.

She and her husband both became state and national delegates.

Up the West Coast in the northern Seattle area, business strategy consultant Luis Valdes has “put up signs, held fundraisers -- anything to help Mr. Trump.”

He started campaigning after the national convention. Back then, Valdes didn’t see any Trump presence in the historically blue state. Valdes said he started going to festivals, events and job sites where he could talk to large groups of Hispanic voters. A refugee from Cuba, Valdes is now an American citizen and understands oppression.

“I explain, ‘Don’t try to make this country into the one you just left,’” Valdes said.

Trump has been to Washington state three times, more than any other GOP candidate in recent history. While the state is still considered to favor Clinton heavily, Trump backers may have made some inroads. During a recent drive from Portland to Seattle, Trump signs dotted the freeway, Valdes recalled.

“Right now I’m driving up I-5 and I just passed an overpass with about 15 people who were holding Trump Pence signs and waving flags,” he said. “Along the whole way I only saw a few Hillary signs.”