Trump might already be out of time – Politico
Donald Trump and his new team think they have 73 days to turn this campaign around. They’re wrong.
The Republican nominee — three months after clinching the nomination — has begun frantically trying to reposition himself in the last week, installing a new campaign manager and controversial CEO to help him escape the straitjacket that his 14 months of incendiary comments and hard-edged policy positions have him in.
Story Continued Below
His task, GOP insiders readily concede, seems close to impossible. In an interview Wednesday night, Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, recognized how long it may take to improve the public’s negative perceptions of the GOP nominee, likening her turnaround project to turning a tanker.
Trump may not have that kind of time. Early voting begins in 28 days in Minnesota and in 32 other states soon after that. And already as summer inches to its end, 90 percent of Americans say they’ve decided. For all the televised daily drama this race has provided, the final outcome itself is shaping up to be less dramatic than any presidential election since 1984.
“Kellyanne is good at this, but she’s got a very damaged candidate and it’s very late in the game,” said Tony Fratto, a GOP operative in Washington and former deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush. “I think it’s too late, in fact. I don’t believe he can change. All of this is trying to trick voters into thinking there is a better Donald Trump out there. There is no better Donald Trump.”
Although Trump has been seemingly slow to realize it, the more than $2 billion in free media he rode to the GOP nomination was simultaneously hardening the broader country’s negative view of Trump just as it was endearing him to the conservative base. The cascade of Trump-created controversies following the conventions that precipitated Conway’s hiring appear to have irrevocably damaged his credibility as a plausible commander in chief and could prove to be the turning point in the general election itself.
“It was a terribly damaging period,” said Steve Schmidt, the GOP strategist who guided John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “It hit on his trust numbers, his fitness for office — and at a time when [Hillary Clinton]’s had some hard news cycles. In any normal cycle, she’s the de-facto incumbent and these stories would have her on defense; and she’s not on defense, so there’s an opportunity cost to all this.”
More than 60 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, leaving Clinton, with a 54 percent unfavorable rating, as only the second most unpopular presidential candidate in history. Both candidates, in fact, have held unfavorable ratings above 50 percent since launching their respective campaigns, with Trump hovering around the 60 percent mark, only a few points above Clinton. Asked about a smell they might associate with this election, the participants in a focus group conducted by Peter Hart in Wisconsin this week gave the following responses: “sulfur,” “rotten eggs,” “garbage,” “manure” and a “skunk’s fart.”
Barring any unforeseen revelations about Clinton, the next 70 days likely aren’t going to change people’s view of either presidential contender. According to a national survey released Thursday by Quinnipiac University, 90 percent of likely voters have already made up their mind about the presidential race and are unlikely to change.
“We are starting to hear the faint rumblings of a Hillary Clinton landslide as her 10-point lead is further proof that Donald Trump is in a downward spiral as the clock ticks,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “Trump’s missteps, stumbles and gaffes seem to outweigh Clinton’s shaky trust status and perceived shady dealings.”
With the electoral map tipping so sharply in Clinton’s favor in the weeks following the two party conventions (her lead has widened beyond the margin of error in seven of 11 swing states), Trump’s new team is scrambling to stay afloat even with his robust campaign regimen that has him doing four times as many events as Clinton. Recent efforts to muddle the GOP nominee’s hardline positions on immigration — catnip for conservative primary voters but repellent to many general election swing voters — and to couch them in softer language are part of an eleventh-hour effort to broaden his narrow appeal beyond older, mostly white men. Trump’s direct overtures to Hispanic and African-American voters this week are being made with the same purpose.
Jeb Bush, whose more moderate immigration positions Trump blasted as “amnesty” during the GOP primary and now appears to be adopting himself, was blunt in an interview Thursday with Rita Cosby of WABC Radio, calling Trump’s new rhetoric “abhorrent.”
“I don’t know what to believe about a guy who doesn’t believe in things,” Bush said.
In New Hampshire on Thursday, Trump again sketched a grim portrait of America’s minority communities before asking African-American and Hispanic voters to support him. “What the hell do you have to lose?” he asked.
But with Trump pulling in just 1 percent of African-American voters in Pennsylvania, many political observers view the sinking candidate — and his Hail Mary attempt — as the one with little left to lose.
“Minority outreach is an example of a campaign addressing a fake issue and not a real issue, which is Donald Trump’s character,” said Drew Cline, a GOP operative in Bedford. “It’s not about policy or that people like Hillary, because they don’t. It’s that people aren’t comfortable with the idea of him having that much power.
“He could have the exact same policies that he has and be doing much better and be giving Hillary a more competitive challenge if he just came across as a reasonable person that you would trust with the levers of power. There’s no salvaging this campaign because there’s no changing Donald Trump.”
Conway’s attempted Trump makeover isn’t limited to her candidate’s rhetoric and policy positions. She’s also taking another look at a difficult electoral map.
Conway canceled several previously scheduled events this week, hinting that she and campaign CEO Steve Bannon are still trying to rework the schedule they inherited and that resources, including the candidate himself, will likely be reallocated to where they’re needed most.
Figuring out how to triage a presidential campaign when you’re bleeding in every swing state, all of which seem vital, is a difficult enough equation — and that’s without Trump spending time and resources this week in places that aren’t swing states at all. Trump sandwiched one rally in Tampa between appearances in Texas and Mississippi, both solidly red states he’s unlikely to lose. And on Friday, his campaign announced a rally to be held next Tuesday outside Seattle in Everett, Wash., home to a Boeing plant that ships planes overseas — a location that’s well suited for Trump to rail against global trade deals but makes no sense electorally.
On Saturday, Trump campaigned in Iowa, one of the few swing states where his standing has not diminished over the last month. The preponderance of white voters and the relative unity of the GOP establishment behind Trump — Gov. Terry Branstad’s son, Eric, is running the nominee’s campaign in the state and local party officials are also supportive — may offset the relative lack of a ground operation to match Clinton’s. But winning the state’s six electoral votes is no guarantee.
“There’s so many places where they’re pedaling harder than we are, improving on Obama’s machine and that could put them over the top in the end,” said David Kochel, a GOP operative in Des Moines and a former senior staffer to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
Trump is struggling to capture support among the “Ankeny vote” targeted by Marco Rubio during the Iowa caucuses — that growing subset of younger, more cosmopolitan family-oriented conservatives in the Des Moines suburbs. But his shift on immigration, something aimed squarely at those voters, could threaten his standing in western Iowa, home to congressman and immigration firebrand Steve King, who said this week that any softening of Trump’s position on amnesty would amount to a “mistake.”
“It will be interesting to see if he can hold margins he needs in western Iowa,” Kochel said. “He really has same problem here he does everywhere, which is in suburbs with more educated, moderate women.”
Indeed, even if Iowa presents fewer demographic challenges for Trump, it is still a microcosm of a changing national electorate and the Sisyphean task of recasting Trump’s narrow brand of populist nationalism into something marketable to a broader audience.