Shake Up: Three Months, Three Campaign Managers, and the New 'Trump Unleashed' Strategy

Guy Benson
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Posted: Aug 17, 2016 1:15 PM
Shake Up: Three Months, Three Campaign Managers, and the New 'Trump Unleashed' Strategy

Corey Lewandowski was in, until he was out. Too controversial. The Trump kids wanted him gone. It was time to get serious. Then Paul Manafort was in, but now he's been effectively demoted and partially shelved. The Ukraine-related headlines are ugly, and that narrative is decidedly not improving. (Requisite aside: since when is trafficking in dodgy, undisclosed foreign money disqualifying?)  And thus, as we reported earlier, a new team is being handed the controls of the Trump Train -- tasked with stemming and reversing the tide of a presidential race that is slipping down the drain.  The Wall Street Journal scored the late-night scoop:

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is bringing two new managers to the top of his campaign in a bid to recover ground he has lost in recent weeks. Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News LLC, an outspoken Trump supporter and a former Goldman Sachs banker, will assume the new position of campaign chief executive. At the same time, Trump also is promoting Kellyanne Conway, a veteran GOP pollster and strategist, to become campaign manager. Conway has been a campaign adviser for several weeks. Longtime Republican operative Paul Manafort, who joined the campaign late in the primary season, remains campaign chairman. But the reset is designed to bulk up a structure that many Republicans have complained wasn’t adequate for the rigors of the general-election campaign.

Conway is Trump's third campaign manager in as many months.  That fact alone speaks to the dysfunctional and unhealthy state of the GOP nominee's operation, which is just now getting around to beefing up its ground presence in critical states, and will supposedly run its very first on-air ads of the months-old general election contest at the end of this week.  Up until that point, Team Trump will have spent $0.00 on television ads, compared to roughly $60 million in baseline-setting, race-defining TV spending by the Clinton camp.  So what to make of the new shake-up?  On the bright side, it's a recognition that things aren't working right now, a reality that is abundantly apparent to everyone beyond the relatively narrow band of Trump's most unflinching loyalists.  Trump can brag for the cameras that his campaign has been "flawless," but the polls -- and now his own actions -- say otherwise.  A course correction is plainly necessary, and these changes may precipitate one.  Ms. Conway has decades of experience as a hybrid pollster/pundit.  In theory, she should have the wherewithal and knowledge of the electorate to nudge Trump toward more broadly-appealing themes, and to help craft a stronger overall communications strategy.  Whether she'll improve Trump's thin ground game remains to be seen; indeed, the candidate himself seems to believe that he transcends the need for both get-out-the-vote operations and traditional advertising.  Those may be reasonable lessons learned from an unusual primary season, but as his skeptics and critics have said all along, the general is a different beast. We'll see, won't we?

Mr. Bannon, meanwhile, is the controversial leader of Breitbart, a media organization founded by the late Andrew Breitbart.  His tenure at the helm has been tempestuous and marked by a steady exodus of most of the top talent attracted and recruited by his predecessor.  He's also turned the enterprise into a traffic juggernaut by appealing to the hardcore "anti-establishment" wing of the center-right coalition, including awakening and emboldening the long-dormant 'alt-right.'  Bannon is the opposite of a seasoned national campaign professional, but his appeal to Trump makes intuitive sense.  Breitbart has acted as a slavish media organ of the Trump campaign for months; Trump values adulation and personal loyalty.  And Bannon has reportedly lobbied against the much-awaited "pivot" that many Republican officials have begged their nominee to execute, instead exhorting his candidate to go Full Trump:

Bannon, in phone calls and meetings, has been urging Trump for months to not mount a fall campaign that makes Republican donors and officials comfortable, the aides said. Instead, Bannon has been telling Trump to run more fully as an outsider and an unabashed nationalist. Trump has listened intently to Bannon and agreed with him, believing that voters will ultimately want a presidential candidate who represents disruption more than a candidate with polished appeal, the aides said.

There's probably some truth to that last sentence, but capitalizing on potentially favorable prevailing public sentiment depends on how that disruptive, unpolished candidate presents himself.  If he's relentlessly focused in his criticism of ruling elites' failures, harping on national security and jobs, that strategy has a chance.  If he's constantly sidetracked by bitter feuds and foolish attacks, he looks like an erratic crank.  Trump's inability to resist routinely wandering down the latter path has fueled persistent calls for a concerted "presidential" makeover.  The nominee and his (second) campaign manager seemed to agree, reassuring the party on and off for months that a more serious turn was imminent. But as of yesterday, Trump has announced that he neither wants nor needs to pivot:

“Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, you’ve got to pivot,’” Trump added in La Crosse, Wis. “I don’t want to pivot. I don’t want to change. You have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people. No, I am who I am.” Trump said critics had inaccurately predicted the demise of his Oval Office bid several times in the GOP presidential primary. “Don’t forget, when I lost Wisconsin, it was over for Trump,” he said. “Except for one problem – I then went on a very good run. I’ve gotten here in a landslide,” the Republican presidential nominee added.

First, the revisionism: Trump's "landslide" featured the lowest percentage of the GOP vote since the primary system was overhauled in the early 1970's, and his throttling in Wisconsin was always expected to be followed by a strong northeastern run. Nobody argued "it was over for Trump."  But every campaign has its myths.  More importantly, Trump is planting his feet and declaring that Hillary Clinton's DNC speech had it right.  "There is no other Donald Trump.  This is it."  Trump believes he must be true to himself and not alter course in order to win the November election.  Skeptics note that large majorities of voters consistently say he is unqualified and temperamentally unfit to wield the power he seeks, an unsustainable status quo that requires significant changes.  Those competing theories will be tested over the next two-plus months.  One can only wonder what this man thinks of all of this.  At the very least, it's going to be quite something to behold:

Coming soon: More hot clapbacks.  Parting thought -- Does the Bannon hire mark the beginning of the Great GOP/Trump Kiss-Off?

UPDATE - Here's Trump's brand new campaign manager telling America's Newsroom that this isn't a "shake up," adding that the alleged (ahem) mega-billionaire's campaign will "never" have the sort of money Hillary has: