Trump Time Capsule #15: The Candidate Has No Campaign

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Tweet on the morning of June 6, 2016, apparently in response to articles saying that Donald Trump has no campaign organization.

Time Capsule #15, June 6, 2016, Donald Trump Has No Campaign

As with item #13 in this series, “Crickets,” this one is about something that didn’t happen rather than something that did.

It’s now been nearly five weeks since Donald Trump appeared to clinch the Republican nomination, with his win in the supposed Ted Cruz stronghold of Indiana. While the Democrats have continued to scrap since then, Trump has enjoyed a long period in which his attention, organization, message, and drive could shift toward the general election in November, and what it will take to overcome (presumably) Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s thematic message and personal demeanor through this time have not fully matured into inclusive “Presidential” mode, to put it mildly. The latest remarkable example, breaking via Abby Livingston of the Texas Tribune as I type this entry, is the letter from Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela, from a heavily Latino district in southern Texas, to Trump saying “you can take your border wall and shove it up your ass.”

But two stories today illustrate a different important development, or rather the lack of one. That is Trump’s apparent indifference about putting together the sort of organization that is always necessary to run a nation-wide general election campaign.


Why do you need more than one visible and voluble candidate, with his millions of social-media followers, to become president? Because managing a general-election campaign is more like coordinating a vast military operation than like running a viral-marketing campaign.

  • Issues come up faster, and in more complexity, and with higher stakes and more pitfalls, than any one person can possibly handle. You need people other than the candidate to talk about foreign policy (and within that, Asia and Europe and the Americas and terrorism and Israel-Palestine and ...), and about budget policy, and about economic trends, and about the latest gaffe or rumor or comment from friend or foe.
  • Of the 50 states plus DC that will cast electoral votes, some are in range for the GOP and some are not, and knowing exactly where and how to spend time and money, and what the local political networks are, and what issues are trending and hurting, is a big, complicated process that requires a lot of region-by-region sophistication and info. The relevance and power of “data analytics” for targeting voters and raising money was a huge part of Barack Obama’s success in 2008 (as Joshua Green described for us) and has only grown more important.
  • Speaking of money: Money, money, money. Trump’s not going to self-fund, and he can’t do all the events or court all the donors himself.
  • Turnout. You need actual people working city by city.
  • Logistics. When I was traveling on a general-election campaign back in 1976, my greatest respect was for the “advance” teams that had to line up back-to-back events each day around the country. It’s really hard; it’s a hundred times more complex and visible these days than it was back then; it can’t be run ad-hoc.
  • Candidate-wrangling. Campaigning is really, really tiring. Someone needs to protect the candidate, and when necessary play the “candidate-whisperer” role of saving him/her from his own worst instincts and impulses. It is not 100% obvious that anyone is in a position to save Trump from himself in this way.
  • Endorsements, surrogates, joint appearances, alliances. These are important and also a PITA to arrange. Every official is important in his own eyes, they all need to be flattered and respected and brought on board.

Donald Trump did better than almost anyone (including me) thought possible in the primaries, but they were a different game. The main axes of operation were the mass rally, at which Trump excelled; and the multi-participant, scrum-like chaos of the “debates,” at which he also excelled. His skills still matter, but it’s a different sort of challenge now.

Thus the significance of this amazing story by Benjy Sarlin, Katy Tur, and Ali Vitali for MSNBC, and a complementary piece by Jim Rutenberg in the NYT.

Sample of the first, which has the headline “Donald Trump does not have a campaign”:

Donald Trump is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem….

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.

Aides appeared unprepared for the Trump University story last week, despite knowing in advance that unsealed court documents would reveal explosive allegations of fraud….

The absence of a response to the Trump U story left the candidate to fill the vacuum with a torrent of demagoguery against the federal judge overseeing the case, Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump said was biased by his “Mexican heritage” despite his Indiana birthplace.

Sample from Rutenberg, under the headline “The Trump Show, a Hit for Now, Faces a Test in the Fall”:

It’s time to stop calling Donald J. Trump’s presidential operation “the Trump campaign.” It would be far more accurate to call it “Trump Productions Inc.”

Mr. Trump is not running a campaign in the modern sense — or what was the modern sense until about yesterday. Rather, he oversees a prolific content production studio that has accomplished what every major media conglomerate is trying to pull off with mixed success.


As with anything about Trump, no one can be sure what will happen next. But in for-the-record spirit, five months before the presidential election, Donald Trump is in a position different from any other modern nominee, in his apparent disdain for the mechanics of building a campaign. From this point, either:

  1. He’ll win nonetheless, once more demonstrating his power to rewrite the fundamental rules of politics;
  2. He’ll lose, reinforcing the relevance of those rules;
  3. He’ll change course, after the apparent slippage of the past few weeks; or
  4. Somehow, someone else will end up as the nominee.

Right now #2 seems most likely to me — but the reason for a real-time chronicle is that no one can be sure.