There Is No Trump Campaign

The presumptive Republican nominee has little staff, hardly any state organizations, tiny fundraising, and fantasy plans to win in New York.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

As Donald Trump’s various fantasy goals go, winning New York in November doesn’t even top the list—it lags behind building an enormous, Mexico-paid wall on the border, deporting more than 11 million people, and winning California in the general. Still, the idea of an Empire State win is outlandish.

New York hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential contender since 1984, but then again every state save one went GOP that year. Democrats have a more than 3-million-person lead in voter registration, 5.8 million to 2.7 million. President Obama won more than 63 percent of the vote in 2012, besting his 2008 total. Hillary Clinton leads Trump by around 20 points in polling, although it’s very early.

But not only has Trump set his sights on winning his home state, he’s also hired a pollster to assist him. Not just any pollster: He’s reportedly hired John McLaughlin, infamous for working on Eric Cantor’s primary campaign in 2014, when the then-House majority leader lost to upstart Dave Brat. McLaughlin’s internal polling heading into the race showed Cantor leading by 34 points. National Republicans warned other candidates away from using McLaughlin.

Even better, Trump was introduced to McLaughlin by Dick Morris, the one-time Clinton consigliere-turned-professional crank. (Morris recently became chief political correspondent for the Trump-aligned tabloid National Enquirer, leading The Hill to finally drop his column. New York reports that the Trump campaign is in talks to hire Morris, which would fit with its focus on ’90s Clinton scandals, though the Trump team denies it.) Trump’s New York co-chair is baseball-bat-brandishing Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, who tells CNN, “Upstate will give us a wave in this election, and my instruction from HQ is really simple. It's one word: Win.” If anyone knows about winning statewide elections in New York, it’s Paladino, who lost the 2010 gubernatorial race to Andrew Cuomo by 29.5 points.

The point here is not to harp on New York specifically. (Though if that’s what you’re into, Philip Bump has you covered.) Trump really does seem to badly want to win his home state, but every presidential campaign builds infrastructure in states it won’t win—there’s always the possibility of an October surprise, and besides, you want to make your opponent work for a win, spending money and energy they would otherwise use in swing states.

What is concerning for Trump backers and Republicans (the Venn diagram of overlap between those groups seems to be in perpetual flux) is that it appears to be distracting from the rest of the crucial work of building a presidential campaign. For most intents and purposes, there appears to be no Trump campaign.

CNN has a blockbuster report Thursday digging into this. For example, Trump has no state-level campaign director in Ohio or Colorado, two top-shelf swing states. Across the map, Republican officials say they’re just waiting to hear on what to do from either Trump or the Republican National Committee, but so far they’re hearing very little. “I'll say that as far as building the infrastructure of a campaign, the RNC has been doing it for many years,” Trump said at a press conference in May.

As my colleague Molly Ball points out in an insightful tweetstorm (not a contradiction in terms!), there’s some confusion, or at least opaque wording, in the CNN piece, revolving around the difference between having state-level organization and putting together a ground game. In 2012, Mitt Romney most certainly had state offices, but he also largely left ground game to the RNC.

“The Romney campaign doesn't do the ground game,” then-RNC Political Director Rick Wiley told Ball in 2012. “They have essentially ceded that responsibility to the RNC. They understand this is our role.” (You may recall Wiley as the guy Trump recently hired, then unceremoniously fired a few weeks later.)

Perhaps the Romney 2012 campaign isn’t an example that Republicans would want to emulate, but that’s different from suggesting that what Trump is doing is unprecedented. The RNC offers a degree of continuity that a presidential campaign can’t, and disagreements between state party committees and campaigns can make for tension, as the Democrats ably showed after the 2012 campaign. Moreover, the RNC has been focused on building its ground-game capacities since the post-2012 autopsy report. To be clear: None of this means that the RNC is especially great at building a ground game. It just means Trump isn’t crazy to cede the ground to it, especially given how weak his campaign was at things like voter turnout during the primaries.

Insofar as the lack of state organization goes, is this simply a symptom of a rookie campaign? Growing pains that began after Trump clinched the nomination? Not really. Back in April, with Trump’s campaign faltering, he laid off scads of staffers in early states, whereas Clinton has maintained her organization, laying groundwork for the general. Then in May, Politico reported on the increasing heartburn of state-level Republican operatives who’d been promised cavalry from the RNC and were getting increasingly anxious about the silence from Washington.

A related and intertwined problem is Trump’s lack of fundraising. Although he once said he’d raise $1 billion, his new fundraising team—mostly constituted by the RNC, of course—is working to depress expectations, saying there’s little chance he’ll raise that much. In fact, many members told The Wall Street Journal they haven’t even done any work yet. There’s a vicious cycle at work here, which is that as donors see the Trump campaign in chaos, they’re unwilling to fork over their hard-earned cash. Why back a candidate who’s rending the Republican Party apart, doesn’t follow conservative orthodoxy, and seems to have no idea what he’s doing with the money?

Trump, naturally, says he’s unperturbed.

“There’s no reason to raise [$1 billion],” Trump told Bloomberg. “I just don’t think I need nearly as much money as other people need because I get so much publicity. I get so many invitations to be on television. I get so many interviews, if I want them.” In an interview with The New York Times, he cited social media as a replacement: “He noted that he is nearing the ability to reach 20 million people by himself through his personal Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, providing an alternative way to reach the public, even if it’s largely a one-way conversation.”

That seems to represent a basic misunderstanding of what campaigns do. It’s hard to imagine that Trump could replace media buys, from television to web advertising, through his simple star power and social media; using a single national portal for his message skips over the opportunity to hammer home locally important messages. And it leaves out all the other stuff that campaigns spend on, like going out and identifying prospective voters, winning them over, getting them to register, and then convincing them to vote. Let’s see a Twitter account do that!

Why does Trump think he can do this? He’s surely been encouraged by his success in the primary. It’s also the model he has used during his business career. The Trump Organization has a famously small staff for a company of its (reported) size. Trump has made his name by being extremely available to the media, and by franchising essential operations out of house: He sells the rights to use his name to a developer, and then they do all the work. That’s more or less what he’s proposing to do with the campaign. He’ll syndicate his name to the RNC, and the party will run his campaign.

Interestingly, Trump tweeted a defense of his undersized campaign this week, then deleted it an hour later: “I am getting bad marks from certain pundits because.I have a small campaign staff. But small is good, flexible, save money and number one!”

Winning campaigns tend to win by innovating, improving the process of running for president, or at least convincing reporters they did after the fact. But what Trump is attempting to pull off here isn’t refining or improving best practices for what we know can win a campaign today. It’s throwing it all out the window. Since Trump is trying something so different, it’s hard to completely reject it as foolhardy. Maybe he can really pull this off. But by all of the known metrics, it makes no sense.

The flap over Trump’s racist attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel has kept the attention away from how little Trump is doing to build up state teams and raise money, and so has his focus on places like California and New York. But he doesn’t seem to be using the time he’s bought to build up anything resembling a real presidential campaign.