Trump Must Now Convince Republicans Vowing Not to Back Him

With just 15 contests left over the next seven weeks, the question is whether the front-runner's makeover can succeed where his initial campaign failed.

Trump, Clinton in a New York State of Mind After Big Wins

Ten months ago, Donald Trump spoke for about 45 minutes in the lobby of his flagship Manhattan skyscraper to lay the foundation of what would become the most successful insurgent presidential primary campaign in decades. He singled out undocumented immigrants as rapists, vowed to force Mexico to pay for a border wall, and described the nation's leaders as morally corrupt losers. 

Standing in the same room of the same building on Tuesday evening was a new, more restrained candidate. His victory speech lasted just seven minutes, packed with bright hopes for a future with him as president rather than anger at Washington's past and present misdeeds.

“With all the things that have happened today, tonight and over the week, I’ll tell you what, this has been an amazing week,” Trump said. “You’re going to be very proud of this country very soon.”

Andre Tartar/Bloomberg

Earlier in the night, the billionaire real estate developer who once published a video of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton barking, released an overwhelmingly optimistic video that focused surprisingly on taxes, Social Security, and other serious issues.

The shift in tone and emphasis on policy echoed a larger effort by Trump to transform an unorthodox, divisive juggernaut into a campaign that can unite the party and clinch the Republican nomination. But with just 15 contests left over the next seven weeks, the question is whether Trump's makeover can succeed where his initial campaign failed.

“He's in a real bind,” said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster opposed to Trump. “As he tries to pull back, the intensity of the voters he's bringing to the polls is going to come down. But if he doesn't make that transition, the number of Republicans who say they're not going to vote for him is just going to harden.”

Paul Manafort speaks with the press during an election night event in New York on April 19, 2016.
Paul Manafort speaks with the press during an election night event in New York on April 19, 2016.
Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Trump's changes—including a newly empowered advising role for Paul Manafort, a veteran Republican political strategist, and the hiring of Rick Wiley, who managed Scott Walker's presidential campaign—helped deliver his biggest win yet. He won his home state by one of the widest margins in the Republican presidential nomination fight, collecting nearly every delegate available. In the 10 states with the biggest delegates hauls so far, the former reality TV host has won eight.

But while he extended his lead over Texas Senator Ted Cruz, there's no sign that's he's closing gap with some of his biggest critics in the party.

“His language has stirred up emotions that you can't walk away from. And if you look behind the curtain, there's no there there,” Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said in an interview. “Under no circumstances would I vote for him.”

Trump has stirred so much trouble within the party that House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was moved on Tuesday to urge Republicans to attend the party's national convention in July. “This is our convention making our nominee, so I think everybody should participate,” Ryan said in an interview with CNN.

Trump isn't on pace to gather enough delegates to win the nomination before the convention. While enjoying a commanding lead, he needs to win more than half of the 674 delegates available in the final 15 contests. Trump had won just 46 percent of the delegates heading into the primary on Tuesday.

Hoping to unite the party behind his campaign, Manafort visited both sides of the Capitol on Tuesday to build support. “Manafort's serious,” said Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Trump's sole Senate endorser. “He has experience in managing at a high level these kind of campaigns.”

But for some, Trump has irreparably damaged himself.

Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns, said Trump missed a window to win over party leaders. Instead, he's sidelined them with broadsides aimed at the Republican National Committee and the nominating process. Trump has been outmaneuvered by Cruz's superior ground operation in many states that allocate delegates through party functions, such as local conventions, instead of elections at polling places.

“In many ways, the attacks he launched on party leaders and folks at the RNC has been counter-productive,” Madden said. “The party was split between two camps: Those who were resigned to him, and those ready to offer resistance to him. But he's alienated all those people one he started attacking the party's leaders and its process.”

“He had a chance to put this thing away,” Madden said. “But he's now locked in a hand-to-hand competition over delegates as a result of his miscalculations and it shows his operation isn't up to par.”

But other than Trump's own forced errors, the only success in stopping Trump has been Cruz's campaign in the state delegate contests. On Saturday, Cruz won all the delegates in Wyoming, following similar success he had in recent weeks in North Dakota and Colorado.

In the meantime, the effort led by Republican donors to slow Trump has adjusted, too. After spending $6 million on television ads in Florida, Ohio, and Illinois—and losing to Trump in two of the three—the American Future Fund has shifted to lower-profile, less expensive activities, Stuart Roy, a spokesman for the group said, declining to elaborate. He said the group may return to TV advertising, but no decision has been made. 

Our Principles PAC spent $7.5 million on TV to defeat Trump in races with contests on March 15—without much success. The group plans to target Republican primary voters in Indiana and California, two of 15 states yet to hold Republican primary contests.

“We fully intend to take this to the convention floor,” said Katie Packer Gage, a co-founder of Our Principles. “I don't care how many state he wins. It's a delegate count.”

In order to prove Packer Gage wrong, Trump will have to capitalize on his New York victory with solid wins in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states voting on April 26. Polls show him leading in state after state, though the next set of races in the Midwest in May are tougher.

“The narrative is going to shift in his favor for sure,” said Peter Wehner, a veteran of the last three Republican presidential administrations. “But the fundamental dynamic doesn't change, and that's whether or not he can get the 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination.”

Wehner, who vowed in January that he'd never vote for Trump, said his position hasn't changed. “He's radioactive with virtually every demographic,” he said. “And I don't imagine that's going to change just because his people make some tactical adjustments or figure out how to keep him in a box.”

With assistance from Steven T. Dennis in Washington and Ben Brody in New York.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE