Trump Goes All In With Risky Base Strategy
Donald Trump's surprise move to hand the reins of his campaign to a right-wing firebrand was seen Wednesday as a formalized revival of his bare-knuckled, anti-establishment strategy and a rebuke to prominent Republican strategists who doubt its power to win the White House.
The hire of Stephen K. Bannon, who runs a conservative site that often attacks top Republicans, also crushed longstanding hopes within the party that their nominee would tone down his rhetoric, a shift that now-sidelined campaign chairman Paul Manafort had promised for months.
If Corey Lewandowski, the first person to run Trump's campaign, symbolized the campaign's ragtag early days, and Paul Manafort, the second, represented its professionalization, the Bannon hire suggests a return to the original "let Trump be Trump" ethos, along with a reaffirmation of the nationalist and nativist undertones that powered his success in the GOP primary.
"I agree with the outsider strategy. It was Trump's primary strategy. It’s his best general election strategy," said Roger Stone, a Republican operative and longtime Trump confidant. "Donald Trump has to hit certain marks among white voters, but don’t assume he can’t get some Democratic voters, union voters especially."
Bannon's Breitbart News has aggressively promoted Trump and his vision since his June 2015 presidential launch, most notably the anti-immigration views that powered the billionaire's rise among GOP voters. Bannon's organization has waged war not only on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but has mobilized conservative voters to help oust former House Speaker John Boehner and regularly pressure his successor, Paul Ryan, as a feckless pawn of the elite.
Republican strategist and lobbyist John Feehery, a former top House aide who supports Trump, said the Bannon hire was "not helpful."
Bringing Bannon abroad "reinforces the outsider image Trump has cultivated with voters," said Ron Bonjean, a former Republican congressional leadership aide. "What really matters is if the strategy and direction change to bring results through rising poll numbers in order for Trump to win."
The reaffirmation of a base-mobilization strategy, as opposed to reaching out to new constituencies, means Trump has "learned all the wrong lessons from the last few months," said Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for Senate Republican leaders.
"The numbers speak for themselves—he’s losing women, including many Republican women, and minorities by unprecedented margins because they’re turned off by his awful rhetoric," Walsh said in an e-mail. "Yet instead of listening to what his family and other close advisors have been telling him about pivoting to the general, he’s doubling-down on a failed strategy."
Newly installed Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Wednesday the "race isn't over because it's August and not October." She said Trump will take his case for change "right to Hillary Clinton: Hey, you've been in public office for decades. Why are the facts and figures as they are—why is the poverty? The homelessness? The unemployment? The crime? How can you with a straight face tell America we're not going to have more of that?"
For Trump, there's an operational upside to Bannon's experience leading Breitbart, a site that reported it reached 31 million unique visitors last month. Not only does he have a unique understanding of the economic and racial grievances that fueled Trump's ascent, he brings digital media chops to a campaign that has been frustrated with its inability to react quickly to bad news cycles and influence narratives unfurling on cable television and social media.
In recent surveys, Trump trails Clinton by daunting margins. Even if he wins every toss-up state tracked by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, he would still lose the election, according to a new analysis this week. Polls say Trump's strengths with older, white, and non-college-educated voters are offset by poor showings among blacks, Hispanics, women, and college-educated voters in key battleground states.
In a Bloomberg Politics national poll of likely voters conducted this month, Clinton won 55 percent of women and 66 percent of non-whites in a two-way contest against Trump. Trump's strongest demographic groups included white men with no college degree (76 percent), evangelicals (59 percent), the non-college educated (52 percent), married people (50 percent), those in the South (50 percent), and men (48 percent).
"There is no new Donald Trump," Clinton said Wednesday at a rally in Cleveland. "This is it."
Anti-Trump Republicans saw the move as a vindication of their opposition to him.
"Yes, it's a mistake," said GOP strategist Rory Cooper. "He's got another 'let Trump be Trump' guy around, which may make the plane rides more pleasant, but they won't help build an organization or campaign to reach out to persuadable voters that is desperately, desperately needed 75 days out."
Charlie Sykes, a Wisconsin-based conservative radio host who supported Ted Cruz in the GOP primary and continues to oppose Trump, was less charitable.
"Trump's campaign has now entered the Hospice Phase," he wrote on Twitter. "He knows he's dying and wants to surround himself with his loved ones."
—With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs, Kevin Cirilli, and John McCormick.