The latest shake-up in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is rightly described as a move to “let Trump be Trump.” In reality, the sudden changes highlight the fact that a politician whose instincts appeared so sure during the Republican primaries has lost his way as a general-election candidate. It remains questionable whether he can find the equilibrium and the discipline needed to turn his flailing campaign around.
That probably is what is behind the shifts that were formally announced in a release the Trump team emailed at 5:38 a.m. Wednesday, hours after the Wall Street Journal first reported the news. Coming 82 days before the general election, the staff changes had the distinct bouquet of desperation rather than the kind of routine and orderly “expansion” that the candidate and his senior advisers were saying.
Trump has been in a downward spiral for weeks, a descent that has come with remarkable — and to GOP leaders, alarming — swiftness. In the weeks since the Republican and Democratic conventions ended, his position has deteriorated significantly, turning what was already a difficult path to victory against Hillary Clinton into one that now would requires a major change in fortunes to succeed.
Perhaps the changes will produce such a turnaround. The recruitment of former banker Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News to become chief executive signals a kind of go-for-broke return to Trump’s antiestablishment message and posture, but not without risk. The elevation of pollster Kellyanne Conway to the role of campaign manager will provide Trump with what he has lacked for some time now, which is a seasoned hand who will travel with him on his plane and who can try to keep him focused.
Staff intrigue is catnip to political insiders, and there will be ongoing efforts to analyze how the changes announced Wednesday will affect the inner dynamics of the Trump operation. In particular, there are questions about the degree to which they diminish the role of Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman who was brought in last spring and supplanted — and ultimately helped force out — previous campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the changes already were having a positive effect. “Anecdotally,” he said, “if you’re watching cable news shows, you could make the case this was the best morning for us in weeks.”
He pointed to positive reviews for the law-and-order speech Trump delivered Tuesday in Wisconsin and the generally encouraging reception he said the staff changes had received. On top of that, he noted that Clinton is facing renewed scrutiny over her email problems, as a result of the FBI’s decision to send more documents to Capitol Hill, including the record of her interview with FBI officials that preceded the recommendation not to prosecute her.
Miller said the staff moves underscored Trump’s focus on winning. “Mr. Trump is making it clear how he wants the campaign to be run and how he wants it organized, and how much he wants to win this race and what he’s prepared to do to win this race,” he said.
Staff shake-ups, however, are no substitute for a candidate with a clear sense of himself, his message and what it takes to win a general election. By almost every indication, Trump has fallen short on all these measures. Blaming his staff does not absolve his own failures as the leader of his campaign. Letting Trump be Trump won’t instantly solve the weaknesses he has demonstrated as a general-election candidate.
For months, Trump has been pulled by campaign officials and party leaders. He has been offered advice from many directions. He has been urged to be more stable and presidential and urged to blast out his antiestablishment message with even greater intensity. He has been urged to use a teleprompter and offer more policy. He has been urged to let it rip at his rallies.
He has done a bit of each of these in recent weeks — as well as unscripted digressions that have overshadowed his better moments. As Labor Day nears, he is trailing nationally and in all the battleground states.
Trump has been resistant to advice from so-called experts because he proved them wrong when they said he couldn’t win the GOP nomination. But he began the general-election campaign with a distinct lack of understanding of the differences between it and the primaries. He appeared not to understand the dynamics, the demographics or the geography of a winning general-election contest.
He commented during an interview with The Washington Post in May that he could put California and New York in play and even said the reception he had received in Washington state during the primaries gave him a belief that he could compete there. He hasn’t acted on any of those claims, but last Saturday night, he was campaigning in Connecticut, which Republicans have lost in six straight elections, and by double digits in every election since 1996. Who thought that made sense?
Trump’s messaging and behavior have opened up demographic deficits that are crippling his candidacy. The first is among Republicans. Nationally and in key states, he is significantly underperforming among Republicans. Clinton has consolidated the Democrats, now winning 90 percent or more in most surveys. Trump is far short of that level among Republicans, now winning about 80 percent. He needs that number to move up, and if it does, the race will begin to look more competitive.
The other big problem is with college-educated voters. Trump has been bleeding in that category and it has grown worse over the summer. Republicans traditionally win whites with and without college degrees. Trump has solid support among whites without college degrees but he is significantly underperforming then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 numbers among those with college degrees. In many places, he’s losing those voters. Additionally, there is a risk that his support among white women without college degrees could deteriorate.
Trump has shown little of the confidence he displayed earlier in the year. With the polls turning against him, he doesn’t have much to brag about. And with conflicting advice on what to say and how to act, he has appeared off balance and unhappy. Where he once dominated news cycles through his accessibility to the media, particularly all the cable channels, he has become far more a creature of Fox News Channel than he was during the primaries.
The changes announced Wednesday amount to hitting a reset button for Trump and his campaign. But Trump has tried this before. The question now is whether the newly constituted team will find a way to build back his support or put him on a path that will simply harden the support he already has.