Donald Trump’s staff changes have done little to convince Republican consultants and critics that he’s moving toward building a winning organization for November.
Trump on Wednesday announced Kellyanne Conway, a former pollster for Mike Pence who joined the campaign earlier this summer, will now serve as campaign manager. While Stephen Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News, was unveiled as CEO of the campaign, a move that has been met with widespread skepticism.
The general feeling among party consultants is that the hires don’t telegraphing a change in how Trump’s campaign has done business. Instead, they underscored the GOP presidential nominee’s desire to double down a media-first strategy, which brought him success in the primary, argued Phillip Stutts, a Florida-based Republican digital consultant.
“They had to make some changes because there was nowhere else for them to go,” Stutts said. “They need an overwhelming force of Trump's cult of personality to win, which seems like they’re going to put out there. They’re going to try it. It’s a long shot.”
He added: “It’s their only shot.”
Stutts echoed the industry sentiment, widely felt by professional campaigners, that Trump is continuing to neglect the ground game at his peril. Early voting is set to start within weeks, and for a well organized campaign banking votes during that period can mean anywhere from a one-to-four-point gain.
The Trump campaign continues to struggle to build staff in the states, and many operatives leading his effort in battlegrounds have little to no experience organizing turnout operations on the scale required for a presidential campaign.
Trump is currently trailing Hillary Clinton, who has invested heavily in field, by 2.6 points in Ohio and 9.2 points in Pennsylvania, according to Real Clear Politics’ polling average. And in a handful of more recent polls, Clinton’s lead in those states sits above those polling averages, which include surveys from the past month when the race was a bit tighter.
“It’s a Hail Mary they’re throwing,” said Stutts, “but who’s to say Bannon can’t be the guy to do it?”
Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is considered by other GOP consultants to be the least likely candidate to successfully throw that Hail Mary. The Trump campaign’s close knit relationship with Bannon and Breitbart News was an issue throughout the GOP primary.
“If you and I were writing a comedy for HBO and someone suggested a Republican nominee turn his campaign over to Breitbart as a plot twist, we'd say it was too absurd,” said Stuart Stevens, the GOP media consultant who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012. “This is insane. The RNC should cut off funds and ties before it becomes a Trump-Breitbart conspiracy.”
While most of the ire from GOP Trump critics was focused on Bannon’s new role, there’s also doubt that Conway’s elevation will mark any real shift in direction for Trump.
“I'm not surprised that Kellyanne would sign on. But I think it shows that Trump is doubling down on the kind of voter he is already winning,” said Katie Packer, a GOP consultant who has lead the party's Never Trump movement. “Kellyanne’s vigorous defense of Todd Akin in 2012 demonstrated that she lacks an understanding of the kind of voters the GOP needs to attract to win in a general election. And either she believes what she said then or is willing to do and say anything on behalf of a paying client.”