Letting ‘Trump Be Trump’ Won’t Add New Voters

5 minute read
Russ Schriefer, a Republican political strategist with Strategic Partners & Media, has worked on seven of the last eight presidential campaigns, and was program director for 2004 and 2012 GOP conventions.

While it wasn’t quite a “you’re fired” moment, Donald Trump recently made some big staff changes—layering over Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort with KellyAnn Conway as Campaign Manager and Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News as the new campaign CEO.

The new leadership team seems to promise two things: “let Trump be Trump” and hit Hillary Clinton even harder.

They believe the way to win this election is not by reaching out to swing voters but by doubling down with the base and using the same smash-mouthed politics that propelled Trump to his stunning victory in the Republican primary.

As someone who was a full-time senior advisor on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, I’m often confronted (sometimes by angry critics) with the theory that Romney lost because he wasn’t tough enough on President Obama.

I disagree with the premise. I believe Romney was plenty tough. He attacked Obama relentlessly for the state of the economy as well as his lead from behind foreign policy. Today we are still feeling the repercussions of Obama’s policies in a sluggish economy and an increased threat from ISIS.

But it wasn’t until Trump arrived on the scene that I began to understand what those Romney critics really meant:

We didn’t imply that Obama was a Muslim, (just sayin’).

We rejected the crazy idea that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and never demanded to see his birth certificate.

We didn’t attack Obama on his association with Reverend Wright.

We didn’t brand our opponent with a catchy nickname like “Crooked Hillary.”

No, we stayed away from all these lines of attack for a few simple reasons. First, and most important, Governor Romney wouldn’t go there. While certainly willing to engage in the rough and tumble of political campaigns; the candidate would have dismissed out of hand any personal insults as well as any attacks tinged with racial or religious bigotry.

It was also bad politics. There’s a very smart, two-term governor who is fond of saying, “Politics is a game of addition, not subtraction.” And none of these attacks, while pleasing to some, would have done anything to add to the Romney coalition. A smart campaign first secures the base and then begins to reach out to voters who may be open to voting for either candidate. They call them swing voters for a reason.

Believe me, we made plenty of mistakes. But not doing better with our base wasn’t one of them. Romney received 59% of the white vote, more than Ronald Reagan received in 1984. He received 79% of the evangelical vote, tying George W. Bush’s mark set in 2004. But with the Republican base shrinking every four years, it has become more important than ever to reach out to new voters and new coalitions.

Some have argued that if only more white voters had turned out Romney could have won. But in the recent NBC/WSJ survey, Trump is underperforming Romney with white men by 14 points.

No, the problem facing Trump today is actually similar to the one Romney faced four years ago—how do you add to your coalition, not subtract from it?

In the fall of 2012, we sat in countless focus groups with suburban women realizing that while we didn’t need to convince everyone in the group to vote for Romney, we needed enough to win by a substantial margin. As it turned out, Mitt won white women by 14 points. Yet, that still wasn’t enough. Today, Donald Trump is at best leading the same group over Clinton by just a few. Way short of the margins needed to win the presidency.

In the post-2012 RNC autopsy, our failure to do better with Latinos was rightly singled out as a point of criticism. Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of our population and critical in winning several purple states. Romney received only 27% of the Hispanic vote, down from the George W. Bush high of 44% in 2004.

But, if letting “Trump be Trump” means continuing to call Mexicans rapists, tweeting out photos of taco bowls and supporting a policy of rounding up and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants who currently live in the United States, the 20% of the Hispanic vote Trump is receiving today might be the high water mark. And the RNC autopsy will be undergoing an autopsy.

The recent staff changes seem to indicate that there will be no pivot by the Trump campaign, no move to the middle, no change in tactics, just a continuation of a candidate who traverses the country in his personal jet, from rally to rally while tweeting about what ever happens to catch his attention on cable news that day. It is a strategy that will put to the test that a Republican campaign for president in 2016 can win by appealing to the same narrow group of voters that got then there in the first place.

The Democrats have nominated a historically unpopular candidate who is mired in personal and ethical controversies. As the Trump team has said: “this is not a hard race.” If they are correct, then Mr. Trump should win easily. The next 80 days will put their strategy to the test.

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