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Trump can ditch his advisers, but has only himself to blame

In normal presidential elections, the labors of campaign strategists don't change much. Underlying conditions in the country drive the outcome.

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John Harwood
CNN — In normal presidential elections, the labors of campaign strategists don't change much. Underlying conditions in the country drive the outcome.

In the re-election race of President Donald Trump -- who rivets enough national attention to blot out the sun -- they matter even less. That marketer's talent, now a crippling 2020 weakness, renders last week's sacking of campaign manager Brad Parscale a minor development.

"Trump is the message, Trump is the strategist, Trump is the campaign manager," observes Kevin Madden, a longtime aide to Republican politicians from George W. Bush to John Boehner to Mitt Romney. Against that reality, the plans of new campaign manager Bill Stepien represent mostly "a bunch of noise."

Rather than signaling a turnaround, the move underscores how badly Trump has already damaged his own prospects. Two new national polls in recent days showed the President with a double-digit deficit against Democratic opponent Joe Biden. Trump, not Parscale, dug that hole.

The President started digging long before the coronavirus upended American life. Trump's crude, truculent, divisive style has made him the first President never to reach 50% approval in the Gallup Poll.

He led House Republicans to crushing defeat in the 2018 midterm elections even as the economy grew smartly. By January 2020, as the Democratic primary campaign heated up, Trump trailed Biden by nine percentage points in CNN polling.

In the rolling series of national crises since, Trump has deepened and hardened his disadvantage. That in turn has eclipsed his opportunity to do what presidential re-election efforts typically do: boast of the incumbent's accomplishments, draw a flattering contrast with his opposition, and outline a hopeful second-term vision.

Trump has all but abandoned trying to arrest the pandemic that has so far claimed the lives of more than 138,000 Americans. He repeats obviously false assessments of the crisis, resists promoting the mask-wearing health experts agree would help, and disdains the expertise of his own scientists.

Coronavirus shattered the economic expansion Trump had claimed as his shining achievement. Now his impatience to restore lost growth, by pushing states to re-open prematurely, has accelerated viral spread. That has dampened the nascent recovery, forcing major cities and states to consider re-imposing the costly restrictions Trump pushed so hard to lift.

Protests for racial justice following the death of George Floyd complete the fumbling portrait. The 74-year-old President inflames the crisis instead of calming it, indulging instincts for 1960s-era white backlash as most voters seek something different for a diverse 21st century nation.

From mask-wearing to racially-offensive language to banishing the Confederate flag, the President has driven institutions symbolizing heartland America toward his opponents.

"When a Republican president is on the wrong side of a cultural war with Walmart and NASCAR, Republicans might pause to think about the insanity Trump makes you defend," tweeted Stuart Stevens, a longtime GOP ad-maker. Other Republicans warn his dishonest broadsides against mail-in voting will hurt the party by discouraging GOP absentee ballots.

Last week's Quinnipiac University poll catalogued the wreckage on two principal gauges for incumbent presidents. Three-fourths of voters expressed dissatisfaction with the state of the nation; 60% disapproved his job performance.

By two to one, voters said Trump hurts rather than helps efforts to stop coronavirus, and that they distrust what he says about it. They preferred Biden over Trump on handling the pandemic, health care, racial inequality and even the economy.

Overall, Trump trailed in their prospective November matchup by fifteen percentage points, 52% to 37%. Shifting conditions can narrow that national gap, and Trump's smaller deficits in battleground states. But it's far too big for a new campaign manager to erase with well-targeted campaign events, energetic turnout operations, or sharp negative ads.

In a normal campaign, "a well-played hand can be worth a point or two on the margins in a particular state," notes Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political scientist who advised both of George W. Bush's winning presidential bids. In 2020, Shaw says, "Trump is such a dominant presence that (voters') opinions of Biden don't even matter in some ways. "

Nor can Trump ride memories of the buoyant pre-coronavirus economy with his "return to greatness" slogan because, Shaw adds, "you can't be out of step with reality."

Republican House and Senate campaigns welcome Stepien's elevation anyway. Colleagues cite his calm demeanor, savvy, and past work for more conventional Republicans such as Bush, John McCain and Chris Christie. That makes Stepien likelier to understand the needs of others in the party than either Parscale or Trump.

"It's still uphill, but he can fill in some of the potholes and smooth out some of the bumps," says GOP pollster Glen Bolger.

The hill looms exceptionally steep. At this point in 2012, when Madden served as the Republican nominee's spokesman, Democratic incumbent Barack Obama led Romney in the Gallup Poll by four percentage points. That ended up Obama's winning popular-vote margin.

"You really don't learn how little these campaigns matter until you stop working on them," Madden says now. "What were those 18-hour days for?"

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