Donald Trump reshuffled his presidential campaign late Tuesday, appointing two new leaders: Stephen Bannon, the former banker who runs the conservative outlet Breitbart News, and Kellyanne Conway, the veteran Republican pollster Trump initially hired to fix his image with women.
“I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years,” Trump said in a statement. “They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win.”
Conway’s campaign ascent has been rapid. She became a senior adviser to Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on July 1. Now she’s co-steering the whole ship.
She built much of her nearly three-decade career around a persistently difficult task: helping conservative men win over female voters. No Republican presidential candidate has achieved that feat since George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988.
Last month, I spoke to Conway over lunch after she wrapped an interview with Katie Couric about how Trump will appeal to female voters — a demographic that national polls show generally and dramatically dislikes him. (All year long, at least 65 percent of women surveyed in The Washington Post-ABC polls have reported an “unfavorable” view of Trump.)
The interview revealed how, exactly, Conway counsels Trump. She described a delicate dance: You can’t just tell Trump what to do, she said. Commands could insult him.
Here’s more of what I learned, excerpted from my profile of her last month:
Conway trained under Ronald Reagan’s pollster:
Conway grew up in Atco, N.J., 43 miles northwest of Atlantic City. Her mother, grandmother and aunts raised her. The half-Irish, half-Italian women put prints of the pope and the "Last Supper" on the walls. They prayed before meals. They celebrated faith and grinding work.
She found her professional niche in 1988, working for Dick Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s pollster, in the summer before she graduated from George Washington University Law School. Her first assignment was to demystify the gender voting gap: How could the GOP attract more women?
In 1995, Conway founded The Polling Company/WomanTrend, a consulting firm that specializes in market research. A decade later, she co-authored a book titled “What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live.”
She met Trump when she lived in one of his buildings — and initially resisted joining his campaign:
Conway met Trump in 2006, when she served on the condominium board at Trump World Tower in Manhattan. She said Trump seemed surprisingly hands-on, showing up at meetings to hear the residents’ concerns. She thought then he was much kinder than his public persona suggested.
He called her over the years, following a familiar prompt: I saw you on Hannity. I saw you on CNN. What do you think of this?
In March 2015, Conway said, they met to discuss his presidential bid. She declined to work for him, thinking: I’m not sure if this guy would ever care about polling. She worried about how the public would perceive their partnership. “Like, ‘What are you doing there?’ ” she said. “Riding on a plane? Whispering in his ear about what he should say to women?”
She linked up instead with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and ran his super PAC, Keep the Promise. When Cruz's campaign collapsed, Trump called again. Conway realized he was a serious contender.
Her previous clients weren't exactly popular with women, either.
Conway likes a challenge. Her past clients included Newt Gingrich, Cruz and Trump’s pick for vice president, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who lost women by five points in his 2012 race. None has been popular with the demographic.
“With all due respect, Kellyanne is very good at understanding Republican women. But working with candidates like that and trying to not make them look like cave men — that’s a tough job,” said Katie Packer, a Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney's campaign. “She has created a niche where candidates can check a box and say, well, they've got a woman advising them.”
“There’s a deeper problem that goes beyond any single individual in Republican politics,” added Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative think tank in Washington. (Conway sits on the board.) “Republicans for many years simply didn’t take gender differences seriously. ‘We can ignore certain issues, and that’s fine.’ But it’s been politically tremendously damaging.”
She isn’t a fan of Trump’s insult-hurling.
Trump has called comedian Rosie O’Donnell “disgusting” with a “fat pig face” and Arianna Huffington “ugly inside and out.” He asserted supermodel Heidi Klum is “no longer a 10.” He said Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” He threatened to “spill the beans” on former rival Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, while retweeting an unflattering picture of her. Last week, he attacked the sanity of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, widely hailed as a feminist icon, claiming her “mind is shot.”
Conway doesn’t like the name-calling. “Maybe,” she said, “it’s just the mother in me.”
She also said she wants Trump to avoid criticizing people's looks and mental capacity.
She has a sense of humor.
Sometimes, spontaneously, she goes off message. Before a recent NBC appearance, a hair stylist brushed her blond locks and talked about a certain someone going bald. “That’s okay!” Conway said. “Women in my focus groups, they say a bald man is trustworthy. He has nothing to hide.”