Of all the people taken aback by a Republican convention that has featured angry floor revolts, attacks on the the popular GOP home state governor, and a plagiarism scandal that drew a tardy and inconsistent response, the most traumatized may be the party’s political consultants.
Much has been made of the many senators, erstwhile former GOP White House candidates, former presidents, and Republican Party elders, including the entire Bush family, who have stayed away from Cleveland this week. But news stories have largely overlooked the hundreds of political professionals who have been watching in horror as Donald Trump, now the party’s official nominee, broke every rule in the conventional political playbook.
Trump’s impulsive, improvisational style, his reliance on Twitter and social media over TV ads, his limited fundraising, his failure to bring in many seasoned political pros to advise his campaign—other than the controversial Paul Manafort—have done more than leave an army of GOP pollsters, speechwriters, fundraisers, and strategists out of work this year. Trump has challenged the very notion that politics is serious business that demands professional knowhow. If anything, his resistance to expertise has fueled his success, not hampered it.
“In most of our lives, we tend to want professionals who know what they’re doing—whether it’s pilots flying an airplane, or surgeons cutting on our families, or engineers building a bridge,” says leading GOP political consultant Whit Ayres, who did polling for Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s unsuccessful GOP primary bid. “But Donald Trump acts as though he knows better than people who have done politics for a living—that his instincts are better, that his knowledge is greater, and that his judgment is better. So we’re going to have a test of that hypothesis come November.”
Trump’s iconoclastic disregard for the conventions of a typical national presidential campaign works only because he is Trump, says Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University political science professor. Trump can afford to toss aside the political playbook, which would typically include a carefully scripted message, an elaborately timed public schedule, and a big campaign budget, because of his national celebrity and colorful personality, says Panagopoulos. But, he adds, it’s a risky strategy that could backfire on Trump.
Trump is “possibly rewriting the book, or possibly setting the stage for a disaster that is going to reinforce the value of more standard approaches,” says Panagopoulos, who heads Fordham’s Elections and Campaign Management Program.
Trump’s atypical and problem-plagued convention brought the rough edges of his campaign to the fore, as speakers unleashed unusually vitriolic and often unsubstantiated attacks on Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and Trump himself barreled about unpredictably. Some of Trump’s actions, such as his decision to break with tradition and show up for the convention’s opening night, may well have boosted excitement and ratings. Others, such as his constant interruptions of his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, during an awkward 60 Minutes interview, left political pros scratching their heads.
“It’s surreal,” GOP strategist Nicole Wallace told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Wallace said she and other consultants on the campaign’s sidelines were “dismayed” by the public insults that Manafort leveled in Cleveland at Ohio Governor John Kasich, who ran without success against Trump in the primary and skipped the convention. Manafort “went on a full round of shows in which he called John Kasich an embarrassment,” said Wallace, who was communications chief on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign and served in the Bush White House. “I cannot tell you how catastrophic that would be for anybody not working for the Trump campaign.”
For a long list of seasoned GOP strategists and operatives who worked on the campaigns of Bush, Arizona Senator John McCain, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the mood is “depressed, discouraged,” says Ayres. Some of the GOP consulting world’s leading lights, such as Fred Malek, McCain’s former finance director, and Marc Racicot, who chaired Bush’s re-election efforts, have found an outlet in impassioned op-eds that call on Trump to exhibit more discipline, or explain why they are not backing Trump.
The issue is not just the Trump campaign’s lack of political discipline and professionalism, of course. Many Republicans agree, as Ayres argues in his book 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America, that the GOP must take its message to Latinos, Asian Americans, and others outside the party’s traditional base. Trump has essentially done the opposite. Even if Trump manages to win, says Ayres, it will represent the “last gasp” of a party strategy reliant on a shrinking base of white voters.
But Trump’s erratic campaign, which has been plagued with firings and infighting, and is thin on staff, funding, polling, data gathering, and campaign infrastructure of any kind, has left the political consulting class bemused and even a tad offended. Trump revels in his rejection of the professional fundraisers, strategists and “party establishment” types, which was central to his appeal during the GOP primary. Those same insiders, however, now wonder whether Trump’s go-it-alone strategy will work so well in the general election, particularly in light of this week’s bumpy convention.
“It’s amateur hour at the presidential campaign,” says Ayres. “And we’re going to see if an amateur can pull it off.”