Republican Donald Trump shook up his struggling presidential campaign on Wednesday with moves to reinforce his insurgent, anti-Washington image but quickly encountered doubts on whether he is taking the right steps to boost slipping poll numbers.
Trump announced he had hired Steve Bannon, the pugnacious head of the conservative news website Breitbart News, as campaign CEO, a new position. He also promoted senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to the position of campaign manager. She is expected to travel with Trump and advise him on the road.
The appointments amounted to a demotion for Paul Manafort, who was brought on as campaign manager earlier this year to professionalize Trump’s campaign but has struggled to get the New York businessman to rein in his freewheeling ways.
The shakeup takes place as Trump finds himself behind Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in national polls and in many battleground states, potentially facing a big defeat in the Nov. 8 election that could also cost Republicans control of the US Congress.
Bannon’s appointment suggested that Trump is aiming not so much to tone down his aggressive style but to be more disciplined in emphasizing themes that resonate strongly with the voters he is trying to court, such as his stances on illegal immigration and withering personal criticism of Clinton.
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager who was ousted in June, said on CNN that Bannon was “a street fighter,” like himself. The campaign statement announcing the changes touted a Bloomberg Politics article that dubbed Bannon “the most dangerous political operative in America.”
Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Trump in the past, said his embrace of Bannon seemed to indicate the New York businessman had no intention of changing tactics. “He’s rejecting efforts by political professionals to professionalize his campaign and he’s going the route he went in the primaries: hard right. It’s proven to be a disaster in the general election,” Walsh said.
The shift to new leadership is never a good sign at this stage of a campaign, but some Republican strategists stressed that it was not too late for Trump. “I’ve thought for a while that they’ve needed more smart, senior people and it looks like they just got them,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black. “It’s only the middle of August. This race is going to be close in the end, but he does need to tighten up his performance.”
The change is expected to lead to shorter, more policy-specific campaign speeches from Trump like the one he held in Milwaukee on Tuesday night when, instead of an hour-long, no-holds-barred performance, he made more focused remarks with the use of a teleprompter.
“You’ll see more of that,” said a Republican source with close ties to the campaign. “That is the type of messaging that Donald Trump wants to be giving and is comfortable giving.” Conway told Fox News she was advising Trump, a former reality TV star who has never held elected office, to “keep giving policy speeches,” saying voters want to hear more than “cacophony.”
She said she was also advising him to take “his case directly to the people.” Trump does not like people to tell him what to say and how to say it, she said, adding, “With Donald Trump, he is still his own best messenger because people see him as very authentic.”
Conway and Bannon may prove to be opposing forces in Trump’s campaign. Conway is analytical and numbers-driven and often offers a more pragmatic approach to winning campaigns. Bannon is brash and bombastic, likes to push the limits of polite conversation and revels in taking the fight up a notch.
A New Jersey-based pollster, Conway has worked in Republican polling since the 1980s, including for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. She also worked for vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in his earlier races. Conway has worked to improve the Republican Party’s standing with women voters and to push back on the Democratic accusations that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”