Katie Walsh, the Republican National Committee’s chief of staff, was just a few hours from meeting with Donald Trump’s new political director this week when the television outside her office blared the latest news breaking out of the Trump orbit. “Christie defends Trump: He’s not a racist,” the CNN headline declared.
The scene illustrates the tricky task facing the party, which is serving as the main engine behind Trump’s presidential bid: How do you a run a disciplined campaign for a candidate who is anything but?
“He’s the nominee, and he’s going to make sure his views are known,” Walsh said carefully during an interview. “He’s made that pretty clear. We will leave it to Mr. Trump to speak for Mr. Trump . . . and we will keep hitting Hillary and raising money to be ready for November.”
Trump’s failure to build a truly national campaign has left it to the GOP to run one on his behalf, while also trying to extinguish the regular political brush fires set off by the unpredictable candidate. The arrangement has intensified the burden on the Republican National Committee, forcing it to absorb core campaign tasks and testing whether it has improved the field and data capabilities on which it fell short in 2012.
The real estate mogul’s operation has centered on his ability to gobble up news time with a stream of tweets, rallies and television hits, while largely outsourcing basic political functions such as fundraising and rapid-response efforts. He is leaning on the RNC even more as the race moves into the general-election phase, which requires intensive work to identify, persuade and mobilize voters.
The Trump campaign has yet to build out its headquarters or national staff, ending the primaries with 70 employees, compared with 732 on the payroll for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. His backstop is the party: The RNC has deployed 461 field staffers to 16 states — more than it has ever had on the ground at this point in an election — while spending $100 million on its data and digital operations since the last presidential campaign. The investments were pushed by Chairman Reince Priebus after the Democrats outgunned the GOP in 2012.
“It creates an opportunity for the party to, for lack of a better term, show off what it’s been working on for the last three and a half years and provide the campaign with the infrastructure they don’t have the time to build right now,” Walsh said.
“We are kind of the infantry coming up behind the campaign saying, ‘We’re here. How can we be helpful?’ And the Trump campaign has embraced that,” she added.
For the RNC to successfully take over many of the campaign’s traditional tasks requires trust, coordination and a unified strategy — all difficult to achieve under normal circumstances. But this year is anything but normal.
Priebus ended up deeply immersed in a behind-the-scenes effort this week to persuade Trump to walk back his accusations that a Latino federal judge was biased against him because of the judge’s ethnicity, even making editing suggestions for the statement that the candidate eventually released, according to people familiar with his role.
“The team they have in place is very good,” said GOP strategist Mike DuHaime, who served as RNC political director during George W. Bush’s second term and helped guide the 2008 turnout effort. “I think what ultimately is missing is that it needs to mesh with the nominee’s. . . . No matter what the RNC does, it’s still up to the campaign to set the direction.”
That direction has been coming from Trump, who serves as his own strategist. He personally responds to nearly every critique, including that his operation is too meager. “I am getting bad marks from certain pundits because I have a small campaign staff,” Trump tweeted this week. “But small is good, flexible, save money and number one!”
Senior RNC officials are offering daily advice and resources to their less-experienced campaign counterparts. Communications strategist Sean Spicer is in constant contact with Trump press secretary Hope Hicks, while chief digital officer Gerrit Lansing is coordinating with Trump’s small digital staff.
“It’s a collaborative effort,” said campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “They are working hand-in-glove with us. We are working with their team; they are working with our team. Everyone is happy.”
Party officials have been making the case that the campaign needs to expand its footprint, but persuading Trump has been a slow process. The candidate scrutinizes proposed budgets, sending them back with skeptical queries, according to people familiar with the discussions. His main argument: I spent only $56 million in the primary, and I beat 16 opponents — why do I need all this?
“It’s not so much, ‘We don’t trust you’; it’s, ‘Help me understand why I need this,’ ” Walsh said of the campaign’s reaction. “There’s a dialogue that maybe wouldn’t exist with a more traditional candidate that had used more traditional methods in his primary campaign.”
Lewandowski said the campaign will soon expand its political, communications and fundraising teams. “We will keep growing, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. Among the additions: political director Jim Murphy, a longtime GOP consultant who was tapped after predecessor Rick Wiley was abruptly dismissed.
Because of his unrivaled ability to reach millions of voters through social media, many party officials think that Trump will be able to forgo some of the expenses that have bloated presidential campaigns in the past.
“Look, Donald Trump has thrown out the rule book and rewritten it and run the most nontraditional, unorthodox campaign in my lifetime, and it’s worked so far,” said Steve Duprey, an RNC committeeman from New Hampshire.
Still, even round-the-clock media domination will not be enough to secure an Election Day victory, GOP strategists warned.
“People can talk all they want to about how this race will be determined on the big-picture message and Hillary’s approval numbers and how horrible they are,” said Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “It always comes down to good, old-fashioned blocking and tackling. We turn out our voters, we win. They do a better job, they win.”
And the underfunded state parties alone cannot carry the weight of a fall turnout operation, which typically is buttressed by hundreds of presidential campaign staffers.
Getting the right voters to the polls to support Trump and the rest of the GOP ticket falls to Chris Carr, a garrulous Louisiana native who serves as the RNC’s political director. From his third-floor office at RNC headquarters, Carr has spent the past 16 months remaking the party’s field program. In doing so, he has looked at the RNC’s vaunted turnout apparatus in 2004 for lessons, increasing the emphasis on volunteer training and metrics.
He also has studied the methods used by President Obama’s team, which he saw up close as the Nevada state director for Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012. Romney’s main field office in the state that year was in Summerlin, down the street from a small Obama for America office.
“Any time of the day you could go and pull on that door, it was locked,” Carr recalled. “We were like, what is this guy doing? . . . He was in his turf, working. He was organizing.”
Carr has sought to bring that model to the RNC. Rather than assign staff to battleground states based on population, the terrain has been carved up into small “turfs” that each contain 8,000 to 10,000 low-propensity or swing voters. The party deployed an early wave of staffers last fall to key states to focus on voter registration. Volunteers have been cultivated with one-on-one coffee meetings and monthly house parties.
Beginning last Friday, each state team was required to begin a daily door-knocking regimen — an effort that will feed fresh voter data into the national database through Nov. 8. Augmenting the party’s voter file has been one of the top priorities of the RNC, which hopes to weaponize personal information about voters this year the way Obama’s team did in 2012.
“We’ve spent over $100 million between data and digital over the last four years, investing in that voter file, making sure we have that ability to know everything we can about every voter out there — not only from a knowledge perspective, but how do you talk to them?” Walsh said. “Do they respond to email? What time of day? What issues do they respond to?”
In June 2012, the RNC had 170 field staffers on the ground; now there are more than double that, with the largest contingents in Florida (59), Wisconsin (49), Pennsylvania (54) and Ohio (53). That remains short of what the RNC had promised state parties if a nominee had been selected back in March, worrying local officials who had hoped for a bigger ground force by now. National Republican officials said they are on track to hit their staffing goals by July 31.
To do so, the RNC needs the infusion of cash that usually comes with the selection of a presidential nominee. But fundraising has been slow to ramp up, in part because Trump largely self-financed his primary bid and had no structure to solicit donors.
In the meantime, the party is seeking to draw on a major resource the Trump campaign can provide: enthusiasm.
This week, the campaign emailed supporters urging them to take part in a national day of action that the RNC is holding Saturday to register new voters. Before the Trump appeal went out, several hundred volunteers in Virginia had committed to attend. By Thursday morning, that number had soared to 1,000.