Elections

Trump’s well-oiled campaign has everything planned — except Trump

President Donald Trump fiddled for months with a 2020 election message that would be ready for primetime. His top two campaign aides — Jared Kushner and Brad Parscale — sought a message that would resonate with the president’s core political base and also reach skeptical independents.

Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and most trusted adviser devising the campaign’s strategy, and Parscale, his campaign manager, turned to Larry Weitzner, a top political advertising consultant behind many of Trump’s 2016 ads.

Weitzner produced a spot with a new slogan: “He’s no Mr. Nice Guy.”

Trump loved it. He called Parscale and told him to air it during the World Series.

One year away from a referendum on his presidency, Trump and his campaign are embracing elements of his political identity that have sharply divided the nation. The same instinctive, mercurial president remains at the helm. But this time he sits atop a campaign infrastructure fueled by an unprecedented war chest, a sophisticated digital operation and a disciplined staff.

“We’re going to be attacked. We don’t care. But we’re not going to be nice about it,” said Katrina Pierson, a senior advisor to Trump’s reelection campaign, about the slogan her bosses loved so much.

But Trump’s senior aides have a slogan of their own that reminds them of their task: Only Trump can beat Trump. The race, in their minds, is his to lose.

Trump’s allies worry those same political instincts that won him the presidency also led to the impeachment inquiry — a strategy to collect opposition research on a political opponent gone too far, involving foreign powers, that might have circumvented the official campaign.

Some aides fear that Trump’s effort to compel Ukraine, and possibly China, to investigate and release information on former Vice President Joe Biden and his family is just one example of his unpredictability.

Indeed, it is the first time in modern political history that a president has been subject to an impeachment inquiry during his first term.

“On issue after issue the president has accomplished the things that he ran on despite the most devastating headwinds that any president has ever faced with a Democrat Party doing everything they can to nullify the election of 2016 since day one,” said Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who participates in daily calls with Kushner and Parscale on strategy.

Matt Schlapp, American Conservative Union chairman and a White House ally, said the president is favored to win — if he can stay focused on his agenda and good news on the economy while fighting the impeachment inquiry.

“Are you asking me if I wish the president would stay on message? My answer would be one word: Yes,” he said.

‘A GRADUAL RAMPING UP’

Trump’s team likes to say his campaign never ended. Field offices have been kept open in critical battleground states since 2015. The reelection bid started in earnest in February 2018, when Kushner tapped Parscale as campaign manager.

Kushner believes that early start laid a foundation for the fundraising and data advantages the campaign enjoys, as a dozen Democratic candidates expend resources battling over their party’s nomination.

Trump has kept a focus on his reelection throughout the entirety of his presidency, and Kushner has served as an intermediary between the White House and the campaign on daily operational matters. Thematic political choices go through the president, but issues related to budgeting, vendor choices, digital projects and major campaign hires go through his son-in-law.

While Kushner sits in the West Wing, Trump’s full-time campaign staff has settled into their headquarters in northern Virginia.

Trump is taking full advantage of incumbency, refueling for a race campaign aides believe will be framed on the front end of the general election — the period immediately after the national conventions — when the two nominees will seek to define each other.

That’s where the money comes in.

Stuart Stevens, former chief strategist to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign who has been sharply critical of Trump, told McClatchy the eventual Democratic nominee will “probably have $3 million in the bank running against somebody who’s going to have a billion in the bank.”

Based on his current fundraising pace, Stevens said, Trump may be on air spending tens of millions of dollars a week on advertisements in key markets from the conventions through Election Day. That’s a daunting prospect for a Democratic opponent, who will have to raise nearly $6 million a day starting in June to reach parity. “It is the No. 1 reason why Trump is favored,” Stevens said.

Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director, told McClatchy that their fundraising haul has dual purposes: to bury the Democratic nominee early and force the party to spend in states where Democrats have previously held an advantage.

“It’s a gradual ramping up,” Murtaugh said of their spending strategy. “We peak some time near the end of next summer, and then it’s a sprint to the finish.”

Their digital campaigning serves to activate voters and surveil them at the same time — both initiatives welcomed by the Trump campaign, which has openly expressed interest in data mining votes in critical battleground states.

Parscale’s team has found that Trump rallies provide the campaign with valuable data on enthusiasm and potential voters — how often they have voted in the past, their party registration and their ethnicity — encouraging the campaign to schedule at least one rally every two weeks up until the conventions.

Trump held his first rally in February of 2017 — mere weeks after he took office — and has held 65 rallies since, including one in Lexington, Kentucky, on Monday evening.

The campaign sees the president’s “Make American Great Again” or “Keep America Great” rallies as a way to reach new supporters because to request tickets, prospective attendees must provide the campaign with a phone number that can be compared with existing voter files.

Trump has held rallies in 13 states since the beginning of the year, including three states he lost 2016 — New Hampshire, New Mexico and Minnesota.

The campaign that had a shoestring operation in Minnesota — a state no Republican presidential nominee has won since 1972 — four years ago now has 20 full-time staff on the ground and a plan to ramp up to nearly 100 by Election Day and a budget in the tens of millions.

“The thing with Trump is, I don’t think you can tell him that no state is out of reach, given what happened last time. He was losing in all these key states, and he won them. He’ll never believe that he’s out of reach in any state, given what happened four years ago,” Targeted Victory executive vice president and former New Hampshire GOP spokesman Ryan Williams said.

Battleground state polls find that Trump is matching or beating some top Democratic contenders. But those polls, too, show a threat to the president, with six of the closest states carried by Trump last cycle favoring impeachment by a five-point margin, according to the New York Times and Sienna College.

That poses a challenge to the campaign, which has embraced impeachment as a political gift.

Kushner has told Trump he believes that Democratic leaders made a significant strategic mistake by initiating impeachment proceedings, allowing the incumbent to run as an outsider challenging a Washington resistant to change.

Murtaugh said the House impeachment effort had caused donations to spike, adding up to $3 million in contributions in a single day and helping the Trump campaign identify additional voters.

MONEY WHERE IT MATTERS

While the campaign insists that Trump can expand on his 2016 electoral map, America First Action, the super PAC supporting his reelection bid, has been less bullish.

In September, the group said it would focus hundreds of millions of dollars on the six states it considers essential to victory — Florida, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Particular attention is being paid to Pennsylvania and Michigan, where polls have shown Trump down against leading Democratic candidates since August.

To win the 270 votes needed in the Electoral College, Trump must win those six states — on the assumption he can hold onto GOP strongholds recently targeted by Democrats, such as Georgia and Texas, said Linda McMahon, Trump’s former administrator of the Small Business Administration now leading his bundling efforts at America First Action.

McMahon, in an interview, said that Michigan and Pennsylvania “are going to be hard states” for the president to win again. “These six states really are the states that will make or break the election,” she said.

The third-largest donor to Trump in the 2016 cycle, McMahon has been working to raise $300 million toward the president’s reelection since leaving the administration in March. Her group brought in $17.8 million in the first half of 2019.

But one source familiar with the campaign’s fundraising activities predicted that major donors are likely to wait until the summer — if not later — to begin contributing significantly. McMahon and Geoffrey Palmer, two of Trump’s largest donors from the 2016 cycle, have already contributed over $1 million each to America First Action.

“We’re going to be paying very close attention to the amount of overhead, because paying a bunch of consultants doesn’t get you elected,” said the source, describing conversations within GOP megadonor circles and requesting anonymity to speak of them frankly.

“There is some concern there,” the source continued. “There would be a hard, hard look at any administrative costs before any big contributions.”

The Trump campaign promoted a $125 million haul in the third fundraising quarter of 2019 as part of a joint effort with the RNC. Most of that money went to the national party, however, while $41 million went directly to the campaign.

The joint fundraising amount is significantly more than the $70.1 million Obama and the Democratic National Committee brought in collectively at that same point in 2011 during Obama’s reelection bid.

Trump aides are particularly optimistic about the ability to hold Florida, the campaign’s unofficial home, where the president and Parscale have recently become residents.

But they’re not taking for granted GOP strongholds like Georgia and Texas, where Democrats believe that recent demographic shifts are to their advantage.

“We’re not going to make the mistake the Democrats made of not campaigning in Michigan and Wisconsin,” Rick Gorka, communications director for the RNC, said.

However, strategists told McClatchy that the campaign faces challenges in North Carolina, particularly after a Republican competing in a September special congressional election — Dan Bishop — nearly lost a district that went heavily for Trump.

The campaign’s World Series ad — which was booed as it played on a jumbotron at the Houston Astros’ stadium — promotes Trump as a president focused on governing in the face of impeachment.

“That’s not stopping Donald Trump. He’s no Mr. Nice Guy, but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington,” a narrator says.

Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and campaign adviser, said the president’s “honest and unvarnished approach” is what his supporters like about him.

“This president doesn’t use a politician’s filter. When the president is attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder,” she told McClatchy.

Jessie Jane Duff, a Trump Campaign Advisory Board member, said the ad shows that Trump is not trying to satisfy critics or “half-hearted Republicans.”

“Instead of trying to reshape your image, why not embrace it?” she said. “Being polite is worthless. If people are offended by a tweet, they’re really not in favor of this president, regardless of what he does.”

David Catanese contributed to this report.

Corrects city where President Trump’s rally was held to Lexington, Kentucky.

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
Francesca Chambers has covered the White House for more than five years across two presidencies. In 2016, she was embedded with the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. She is a Kansas City native.
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