Last week, there was an ugly and violent scene outside a Donald Trump event in San Jose, with anti-Trump activists aggressively confronting – and in some cases, attacking – some of the Republican candidate’s supporters. The entire mess was plainly inexcusable.
But from a purely strategic perspective, it did offer the presumptive GOP nominee an opportunity. I assumed that Trump would seize on the violence, paint his supporters as victims of liberal intolerance, launch a fundraising appeal, and use this to go on the offensive against Democrats. But that’s not what happened – because the candidate largely ignored the San Jose tumult, choosing instead to push the story aside by attacking U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel in overtly racist ways.
Watching this unfold, it was hard not to wonder how Trump’s operation could be so tactically incompetent. The answer, it turns out, is that Trump’s operation doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way.
NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin, Katy Tur, and Ali Vitali reported this morning that the presumptive Republican nominee “is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem.”
Republicans working to elect Trump describe a bare-bones effort debilitated by infighting, a lack of staff to carry out basic functions, minimal coordination with allies and a message that’s prisoner to Trump’s momentary whims. […]Veteran operatives are shocked by the campaign’s failure to fill key roles. There is no communications team to deal with the hundreds of media outlets covering the race, no rapid response director to quickly rebut attacks and launch new ones, and a limited cast of surrogates who lack a cohesive message.
Team Trump doesn’t have opposition researchers. It doesn’t have a rapid-response team. It doesn’t have a surrogate operation. It doesn’t believe in investing in data analytics.
One source close to the campaign said that even when aides are hired, it doesn’t much matter because Trump “does what he wants.” Worse, when the team tries to expand, staffers are caught up in the civil war pitting campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who are reportedly “determined to block Trump from voices that might undermine their control.”
All of this helps explain why Team Trump seemed completely unprepared for the “Trump University” scandal. And what to tell supporters about the candidate’s racist harangues. And how to respond to Hillary Clinton’s stinging rebuke in San Diego. And why he attacked New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) for no apparent reason, only to reverse course soon after.
I suppose the obvious question is why anyone outside of political media and campaign professionals should care. So, Trump is an amateur surrounded by dysfunction; does that really make a difference?
The answer is, yes, it does. First, successful modern presidential campaigns rely on competent and professional operations, not just for the nuts and bolts of campaign mechanics – targeting donors and possible supporters, disseminating a compelling message, organizing a field operation, etc. – but also for persuading the public that their candidate has a worthwhile vision that deserves mainstream support.
Trump has gotten by so far with a small, divided team, but a celebrity candidate winning Republican primaries through racially charged appeals is in no way similar to winning a general election. The latter requires an effective national operation, which Trump has not so far decided to build.
Second, this entire dynamic speaks volumes about Trump’s management style. Remember, one of the principal, day-to-day responsibilities of the president is overseeing the executive branch of a global superpower. If a candidate can’t lead a functioning campaign team, it tells the public something important about his or her ability to oversee a White House.
For Trump supporters, this isn’t a problem: after all, the Republican has managed a business empire for many years. But there are key, qualitative differences between running a real-estate operation and successful political leadership. The campaign is Trump’s opportunity to show he’s well equipped to do both. He’s failing spectacularly.
Indeed, the New York Times reported two weeks ago that Team Trump is beset by “paranoia” and “confusion,” fueled by the candidate “setting up competition and infusing tension between his subordinates” on purpose.
There are some elements that give the Republican candidate a decent chance of winning the presidency: Democrats and progressive voters are far from unified; Hillary Clinton isn’t exactly the nation’s most popular politician; the U.S. job market may be cooling; and history shows how very difficult it is for a major party to win three presidential elections in a row.
But to capitalize on these advantages, the GOP will need a capable candidate with a campaign that knows what it’s doing. At least for now, Republicans have the opposite.