To hear them tell it, members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team think they’re finally on the right track after months of internal discord and poor poll numbers
After the Republican candidate appeared at the NBC News “Commander-in-Chief Forum” last Wednesday, Trump headed straight to his campaign’s “war room” with his wife, Melania, and daughter Tiffany. According to an account of the night that a staffer gave to Yahoo News, the candidate pulled up a chair next to his rapid-response director, Steven Cheung, and “hung out” for a half hour. Melania sat across from them as Trump watched coverage of the forum and gushed about his rapid-response team.
“I love the work you guys do. You guys are so fast, so quick,” Trump said. “This is where the action is.”
As Trump left the war room, he got a standing ovation from the staff. The staffer who shared the scene described it as evidence of “energy and excitement” surrounding a campaign that is finally “in sync.” Indeed, prior to late June, Trump didn’t even seem to have a rapid-response operation, which is a standard feature of most modern political campaigns.
Yahoo News spoke with senior members of Trump’s team this week and heard the same thing from all of them: that the campaign has found a successful approach after making infrastructure upgrades and becoming “more disciplined” in messaging. And they all insisted the changes were spearheaded by Trump. Jason Miller, Trump’s senior communications adviser, said he believes Trump has now “hit his stride” following a series of campaign shakeups.
“This change in the campaign is Trump-driven. This is a candidate who is committed to winning, who has seen the campaign have a couple of earlier iterations and has now hit his stride, really hit his mark,” Miller explained.
And the polls do show Trump is improving his position. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Trump is just 2.3 points behind Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton after being down as much as 7.9 points on Aug. 8. But despite team Trump’s newfound swagger and some improved national numbers, some large voting blocs are resisting the retooled messaging. And Clinton still has a huge edge in campaign infrastructure.
Miller joined the campaign in late June. On Aug. 17, Trump named Breitbart News Executive Chairman Stephen K. Bannon as the CEO of his campaign and made pollster Kellyanne Conway his new campaign manager. Conway replaced Paul Manafort, who subsequently resigned. Manafort was Trump’s second campaign manager after Corey Lewandowski, who was fired in June following reports that he was engaged in a power struggle with Manafort.
Along with leadership changes, Miller said, Trump has changed the way he is presenting his message to voters. Lewandowski was infamously guided by the mantra, “Let Trump be Trump.” Now, Miller says the campaign has tweaked that motto.
“We’re going to let Trump be Trump; we’re going to do it smartly,” Miller explained.
Miller said Trump has tried to highlight specific policy proposals, including for education, tax reform and veterans’ services, and has attempted to reach out to African-American voters. On Tuesday night, Trump gave a speech on making childcare more affordable. Miller noted that this policy push came as Clinton spent much of late August off the campaign trail, holding private fundraisers rather than public events, as she maintained a lead in the polls.
“Hillary Clinton went on vacation, where she essentially was playing a prevent defense or she was just getting some extra rest,” Miller said. “But the fact of the matter is, she wasn’t on the campaign trail aggressively pursuing the case. Trump was. We had a whole series of five or six policy addresses and announcements.”
These policy proposals have come in speeches in which Trump draws on prepared remarks and a teleprompter, a clear departure from his earlier, more freewheeling public appearances. While many observers have called Trump’s approach more “scripted” of late, Miller said this isn’t the right characterization because Trump is personally dictating the content and setting of his speeches.
“Mr. Trump’s very smart when it comes to how to get his message across,” said Miller.
Instead of “scripted,” Miller said he would describe the campaign’s new approach as “more disciplined.”
“I think more disciplined is the right word. And the reason why I’ll say that is because this is Trump driving this,” Miller explained. “This is Trump saying: ‘Here’s the venue. Here’s what I think is the best way to communicate the message. Here’s how we make sure that it’s cutting through and it’s getting picked up. … I’m passionate about this issue for the following reasons. I want to make sure I get all these points communicated.”
Conway also stressed that Trump was the driving force behind strategic shifts in the campaign.
“It’s really him. He’s the captain of the ship,” Conway said in a conversation with Yahoo News. She added: “The rest of us are just, frankly, here to support that, to create the campaign infrastructure and the opportunities to allow him to flourish in front of voters themselves.”
Of course, the idea that Trump has settled on a new, disciplined and policy-focused approach brings up several questions. Trump and Clinton are set to face off in three debates during the final weeks of the campaign. It’s not clear how Trump’s “more disciplined” strategy will translate in the debates, which are an unscripted affair. And with the many past changes to Trump’s team and tactics, it’s also worth wondering if the campaign might change course again. Conway wouldn’t answer a question about whether Trump might make yet another pivot before the race is over.
“I can’t say that. I’m not giving up our strategy,” Conway said. “I would just say we have a winning formula.”
While Trump’s aides maintain that he is, as Conway put it, “the ultimate decider” on his campaign, Miller was vague about the team’s structure. He declined to discuss the specific roles of different staffers because it could set up a negative “construct” that could affect the team’s dynamic.
“I don’t know how much I really want to get into that because I think that everyone works so well together,” Miller said. “When you go through and start … especially at the top level of a campaign … start saying certain people are good at one thing, the implication is they’re not as good at the others.”
However, Miller is willing to give some credit for Trump’s policy push to Stephen Miller, a former aide to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions who is a senior policy adviser on the campaign. The spokesman said Trump’s policy shop has “really grown” under Stephen Miller’s “guidance.” Some critics have pointed out that many of Trump’s policy rollouts seem to have been cribbed from other sources. And there has been extensive reporting from the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin showing that Trump’s policy shop in Washington D.C. fell apart amid allegations of mismanagement and unpaid staffers. However, Miller, the campaign spokesman, said the policy operation had simply been moved to New York and is doing better than ever.
“The policy shop has shifted from being a D.C.-based operation to being a New York-based operation. New York is where all the action is for the campaign as far as the national level,” Miller said. “Obviously, then you have all of the important battleground states, but the national-level campaign activity is based out of New York. The policy shop has never been more active. It’s never had so many products, so many big set pieces.”
And Miller said Trump’s recent focus on policy has resulted in a “clear shift to where we’re going on offense” after a series of negative headlines in early August, including extensive coverage of the candidate’s attack on the parents of a slain U.S. Army captain who spoke at the Democratic convention.
“We had a nice bump coming out of the Republican convention. [Clinton] had an even nicer bump coming out of the Democratic convention. She dictated the tempo for a couple of weeks,” Miller said. “There’s a few issues that got sort of highly politicized at the Democratic convention, and then we really started getting things going.”
According to Miller, there will be “two main pillars” to Trump’s upcoming policy rollouts: the economy and national security. He also suggested that Trump will continue to step up his minority outreach efforts and will counter critics who have branded him as a divisive and even racist figure.
“It’s economic freedom and security and then national security. Those are the two things that are going to be the biggest drivers. I’d say that there’s a third thing that’s really starting to pop up as a key campaign theme, and that’s that Trump’s trying to be a president for all Americans,” Miller said.
Miller cited Trump’s recent African-American outreach efforts as evidence of this push.
“When Mr. Trump goes to an African-American charter school, an African-American church, he’s asking for everybody’s vote,” said Miller, adding, “So, when he talks about being president for all Americans, I mean, Trump has had more events in the African-American community in the last two weeks than Hillary Clinton has.”
Although the Trump campaign is apparently aiming to improve his standing with minorities, the poll numbers have been particularly grim. Trump has seen single-digit support among African-Americans in many polls, and Clinton is leading him among Hispanics in key battleground states.
Still, the Trump campaign clearly thinks the policy push and outreach efforts have set up a strong dynamic for Trump in which he is making a positive case as Clinton goes negative. Miller noted that Trump’s recent shift has come at the same time that Clinton has repeatedly attacked his temperament and highlighted elements of his base that hold white supremacist views. Clinton’s comments included a remark at a fundraiser last Friday when she said “to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” including people who have “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views. Clinton’s statement has come under attack from the Trump campaign. Miller cited the “deplorable” comment as evidence that Clinton is going negative while Trump is focusing on positive aspects of his platform.
“There’s zero positive information flow for Hillary Clinton right now, and the reason being is she doesn’t know who she wants to be as a candidate,” Miller said. “Is she going to be the vile, vicious, negative, and nasty attack dog, or is she going to run a positive campaign?”
A.J. Delgado, who joined the Trump campaign as a senior adviser earlier this month, told Yahoo News that Clinton’s “deplorables” comment created a juxtaposition that is “quite ironic.”
“We’ve heard for months, from some pockets of liberal media, that Trump’s message is dark — yet it is Hillary who, on the weekend of 9/11, in a room full of rich elites, chose to insult half of America as either bigoted trash or desperate, jobless, dead-end folks while Mr. Trump continues to take his message of hope to the masses,” Delgado said.
But the Clinton campaign seems satisfied with this dynamic. Some on Clinton’s team have even suggested they hoped to bait Trump into a conversation about elements of his base that might hold bigoted views. Matt Mittenthal, a spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, told Yahoo News the team is glad Trump’s team wants to focus on Clinton’s “deplorables” comment. Mittenthal specifically noted that Bannon, Trump’s campaign CEO, had once boasted that the conservative news site he ran prior to working on Trump’s team is “the platform” for the white supremacist alt right.
“The moral outrage from Trump’s campaign this week is rich, and the issue of hate is a fight we’re eager to have. This is the man who spent 15 months insulting nearly every group in America, who has inspired white supremacists and courted conspiracy theorists and hired the promoter of a racist movement to be his campaign CEO. This is without a doubt deplorable, and it’s what his campaign has always been about,” Mittenthal said.
The shifts in the Trump campaign haven’t been confined to leadership and messaging. Trump has also made upgrades to his infrastructure, an area where he had lagged badly behind Clinton. Besides establishing a rapid-response team, Trump’s campaign has been scrambling to open up field offices in key battleground states. However, the campaign is still well behind Clinton’s on this front. Trump also began airing his first television ads of the general election campaign last month, but he still has bought far fewer commercials and raised much less money than Clinton’s team. According to data from Advertising Analytics, when funds from outside groups that support the candidates are included, Clinton and her allies had spent six times more on television ads than Trump and his backers as of Aug. 23.
So, even though polls have tightened somewhat, it remains to be seen whether any improvements the Trump campaign has made in recent weeks are too little too late. One Clinton campaign aide who spoke to Yahoo News laughed off the idea that Trump can do anything to overcome the deficits in his infrastructure at this point, with early voting about to begin in many states. The source pointed out that Clinton has had staffers on the ground in every battleground state since at least April.
Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, acknowledged Clinton’s organizational and financial edge. However, she noted that the polls show the race still isn’t over.
“She has people over in Brooklyn who are in charge of, like, one county. So, she’s got all of the king’s horses and all of the king’s men. All of their money, all of their support, including most of the media,” Conway said of Clinton. “And yet she just can’t get it done. She just can’t put him away.”
Conway suggested that Clinton has been unable to completely pull away from Trump because he has been running a “nontraditional campaign” and delivering his message on social media and at his signature rallies rather than focusing on commercials.
“All those conventional tactics don’t work with an unconventional candidate,” Conway said.
Miller, Trump’s senior communications adviser, said he’s quite happy with the state of the race and his candidate’s momentum.
“It takes a little bit to figure out the best mediums and the best way to kind of hit your stride as a candidate,” said Miller. “And, you know what, you’d rather have them pick that up as we’re entering into the final turn than have them having shot their wad in the first quarter-mile and now be falling behind on the track.”