Donald Trump's sinking polls, unending attacks and public blunders have the GOP reconsidering its strategy for November
Correction appended, Aug. 11
When Donald Trump mucks things up, the first person to let him know is usually Republican Party boss Reince Priebus. Almost every day, Trump picks up his cell phone to find Priebus on the line, urging him to quash some feud or clarify an incendiary remark.
The Wisconsin lawyer has been a dutiful sherpa to the Manhattan developer, guiding him through the dizzying altitude of the presidential race and lobbying the GOP to unite behind a figure who threatens its future.
But every bond has its breaking point. For this partnership, the moment nearly arrived in early August. Priebus was on vacation when he learned that Trump had declined to endorse Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and a close friend. The chairman had a frank message for the nominee, according to two Republican officials briefed on the call. Priebus told Trump that internal GOP polling suggested he was on track to lose the election. Priebus explained to Trump that Priebus had a responsibility to the entire Republican Party, not just the presidential nominee.
There is no doubt that the possibility Republicans will all but abandon Trump now haunts his struggling campaign. Since his convention in Cleveland, Trump has done almost nothing right by traditional standards. He has picked fights with senior Republicans and Gold Star parents, invited Russian spies to meddle in U.S. democracy, appeared to joke about gun enthusiasts’ prematurely removing a U.S. President from office. He’s shuffled campaign messages like playing cards and left GOP elders fretting that he lacks the judgment to be Commander in Chief. During a dismal two-week stretch, he surrendered a narrow lead over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and now trails by an average of 8 points in recent nationwide polls.
Trump has overcome rough patches before. But with fewer than 90 days until Nov. 8, he now faces a reckoning. There are daunting demographics to surmount. Allies complain of massive staff shortages in battleground states. And voters are skeptical of a billionaire reality star who seems to study the rules of campaigning only so he can break them.
Then there are the challenges entirely of Trump’s own making. More than three months after he effectively clinched the Republican nomination, he has yet to settle on a strategy to match the demands of a broader electorate. In an interview with TIME on Aug. 9, the improvisational candidate sounded torn between conflicting pieces of advice, unsure of how much to hold back and when to let loose. “I am now listening to people that are telling me to be easier, nicer, be softer. And you know, that’s O.K., and I’m doing that,” he says. “Personally, I don’t know if that’s what the country wants.”
Polls show that Trump has failed to grasp one of the essential truths about this extraordinary contest: in a race between the two most unpopular major-party nominees in modern history, it’s in each campaign’s interest to train the spotlight on the other. Clinton wants the race to be about Trump. Which is what the publicity-addled Republican wants too. And why not? It worked for him in the Republican primaries. “I got 14 million votes and won most of the states,” he boasts. “I’m liking the way I ran in the primaries better.”
But the general election will likely be decided by groups of voters who are rarely among the cheering throngs at his rallies. This is a fact that Trump is only now starting to confront. “I don’t know why we’re not leading by a lot,” he admitted to a crowd of thousands in Jacksonville, Fla., on Aug. 3. One reason is that he’s getting crushed by minority voting blocs that Republican strategists have suggested courting, such as blacks, Hispanics and young women.
Ask him about these struggles and the braggadocio fades to fatalism. “All I can do is tell the truth,” he says. “If that does it, that’s great. And if that doesn’t do it, that’s fine too.” Even the best salesman must bow to the realities of the marketplace.
The trouble started before Trump even left Cleveland. Twelve hours after accepting his party’s nomination, he arrived in a half-empty hotel ballroom for a victory lap. It was a chance to thank supporters and bask in the previous night’s afterglow. Free’s “All Right Now” echoed through the speakers. And then, as Priebus’ team watched live from their hotel a few blocks away, everything went wrong.
Two evenings before, Trump had crushed the last vestiges of Republican opposition, orchestrating an outburst of boos as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas delivered the ultimate snub: refusing to endorse his onetime rival. But for Trump, that victory wasn’t enough. Rather than mend fences, he told fans he didn’t want the GOP runner-up’s endorsement and might bankroll a super PAC to kill Cruz’s career. Apropos of nothing, he revived a dormant controversy involving an unflattering picture of the Texan’s wife, boudoir shots of Trump’s and a tiny super PAC that no longer exists. He once again linked Cruz’s father to the Kennedy assassination, a false conspiracy fed by a 50-year-old photo published in a supermarket tabloid. For good measure, Trump fired a parting shot at Ohio Governor John Kasich, another vanquished rival whose political machine could provide a boost in a critical swing state.
The riot of recrimination was a vivid reminder that some of Trump’s worst traits as a candidate–paper-thin skin, an absence of discipline, a bottomless capacity to nurse grudges–are not going away. Republicans waiting for the long-promised presidential pivot seemed like characters in a Beckett play, trapped in Trump’s theater of the absurd.
As Democrats hurled criticism during their convention, Trump tried to compete with press conferences. But his counterprogramming verged on the bizarre. In a striking breach of protocol, he urged Russia on July 27 to hack Clinton’s emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said, essentially urging a geopolitical adversary to commit espionage against his opponent. Establishment-minded Republicans phoned one another. Was this really happening?
The next night, a Virginia lawyer named Khizr Khan stepped to the microphone in Philadelphia. The Pakistani émigré turned American citizen spoke of his son Humayun, a U.S. Army captain killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004. “If it was up to Donald Trump,” he thundered, his son “never would have been in America.” Brandishing a pocket-size copy of the Constitution, he addressed Trump directly: “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
The return volley was predictable. Trump seemed to question whether Khan’s wife Ghazala, who had stood silently alongside her husband, was barred from speaking because of her religion. “It’s Queens,” one Republican operative mused, invoking Trump’s birthplace. “If they hit you, you hit back.” A stirring moment became a multiday feud. And Trump lost. More than 70% of respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News poll said they disapproved of his handling of the dispute, including 59% of Republicans. The emergence of the Muslim parents, blistering Trump’s policies through the scrim of their own patriotism, was more than karmic irony. It was strategic success. A hook had been dangled by the Clinton campaign that he could not help but bite.
Trump goes with his gut, and when his instincts betray him, no one can rein him in. “No one puts words in his mouth, and nobody decides what he says other than him,” says longtime adviser Roger Stone. “Politics is nine-tenths discipline.”
For party officials, the Trump campaign has become like the sign inside factories: X days without an accident, with the tally regularly resetting to zero. “I think what he wants to do and what he does do are two different things,” says another senior GOP official.
And so more missteps followed. The campaign announced a 13-member economic advisory council with zero women and just three trained economists. The self-styled law-and-order candidate attacked fire marshals for turning away supporters when his venues hit capacity. At a rally, he described watching a U.S. plane deliver $400 million in cash to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. Trump’s own campaign acknowledged that he was wrong; it was footage of the prisoners being freed in Geneva. The candidate repeated the canard anyway, goaded by an audience that bought the story.
When a chorus of criticism rained down from Republicans, Trump lashed back. He slammed Senators John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 nominee, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Both are incumbents locked in tight re-election races. He trolled Ryan a week before the House Speaker’s contentious primary, withholding an endorsement in nearly the same language Ryan had once deployed against him. “I’m not quite there yet,” Trump said coyly.
For Republicans loyal to the party but scornful of their nominee, the Trump campaign was increasingly becoming a moral conundrum. As if to goad them, Trump even began to call the integrity of the American democratic process into question. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged,” he said in Ohio. “I have to be honest.”
On Aug. 9 in North Carolina, he appeared to go even further. In an errant aside, he said the only remedy to a more liberal Supreme Court under a President Clinton would be Second Amendment supporters. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said, before shifting his tone. “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” Critics pounced, saying those words could spur a fanatic to endanger Clinton’s life. The Secret Service, which investigates threats against its protectees, said it was aware of the remark. Trump responded by arguing that he was simply encouraging activists to exercise their political power at the polls and blamed the press for misinterpreting his words. Ryan, the highest-ranking elected Republican, said it sounded like”a joke gone bad.”
At Clinton headquarters in Brooklyn, aides still nursing scars from skirmishes with Bernie Sanders marveled at their good fortune. As in all campaigns, researchers watch every public event, read every interview, archive every tweet. “On other campaigns, we would have to scrounge for crumbs,” says a senior Clinton adviser. “Here, it’s a fire hose. He can set himself on fire at breakfast, kill a nun at lunch and waterboard a puppy in the afternoon. And that doesn’t even get us to prime time.”
Republicans began to openly wonder whether Trump could be trusted with the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Sensing an opportunity to pounce, Barack Obama declared Trump “woefully unprepared” for the presidency during an East Room press conference. Hank Paulson, a former Bush Treasury Secretary, said Trump had led “a populist hijacking of one of the United States’ great political parties.” Fifty Republicans with deep experience in national security signed a letter opposing him. A steady stream of Republican operatives and members of Congress, including Senator Susan Collins of Maine, announced that they could not vote for Trump either.
“This was a terrible week, and it kept going from bad to worse,” says veteran Republican consultant Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign. “He’s got to stop picking fights and settling scores.”
With their candidate mired in self-sabotage, Republicans could only watch and wince. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since George Wallace,” said retail mogul Art Pope. Sitting at a lakeside hotel in the Colorado Rockies on July 31, the conservative megadonor wondered how his party had wound up cowering in fear of the latest tweet from a former reality star. “My concern is Donald Trump will depress the Republican vote and hurt down-ballot candidates,” said Pope, a close ally of North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. “We’re going to lose races because of him. I just hope it’s not all lost.”
Republicans groan that the difficult task of keeping their Senate majority gets tougher with each outré remark. Which is why the RNC is considering shifting some cash and staff away from the presidential race and toward down-ballot contests. That plan is already in motion among powerful outside groups that typically spend hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of the party nominee. “There’s going to have to be some resource reallocation,” says a senior Republican official familiar with internal party deliberations. A second senior party official routinely instructs Senate campaign managers to distance their candidates from Trump. “Don’t worry about the appearances,” the official said on a recent conference call. “Worry about winning.”
That explains why Republicans running for office this year don’t meet Trump’s plane at airports or introduce him at rallies. In some places, the avoidance strategy seems to be working. Senator Pat Toomey is in a statistical tie in his re-election bid in Pennsylvania, a state where Trump trails by about 10 points. In the key swing state of Florida, Senator Marco Rubio is running ahead in his re-election bid even as Trump narrowly trails Clinton. But in New Hampshire, Trump’s troubles may be dragging down Ayotte, who plummeted from a virtual tie to 10 points down in a recent poll.
On calls with Senate campaign donors, Trump often comes up, as moneymen probe for details on coordination with the top of the ticket. “What Trump campaign?” one swing-state Senate campaign manager snapped at a volunteer recently. “We have more offices than they do.”
Internal and public polling suggests that the party will see record numbers of split-ticket voters who shun Trump but remain open to supporting vulnerable congressional candidates. Traditionally, these voters would be among the last targets for the party’s get-out-the-vote effort. But that might change if Trump’s poll numbers remain moribund. That’s why Republican officials have begun to acknowledge the possibility of deciding in the near future which voters to prioritize. Trump, who is helping the party collect cash, is mystified by this account. “Why would they state that when I’m raising millions of dollars for them?” he asked TIME.
Like the rest of the party, Trump’s staff has been flummoxed by his political naiveté. They describe a candidate who doesn’t understand the basics of modern campaigns, from why you knock on doors to how to read a poll to why he should be dialing for dollars more aggressively. His headquarters has enough palace intrigue and warring fiefs to rival the fictional badlands of Westeros. “You’re always afraid of getting fired,” says one staffer, “but it’s his fault, not ours.”
These staff members are still cashing checks but have begun to lose faith that their boss can or should win the top prize in American politics. Most highly regarded Republican operatives have stayed away from the campaign, wary of being blackballed for future gigs. “If someone applied for a job and brought in a résumé that had Trump 2016 on it,” says a GOP fundraising consultant, “I wouldn’t give them an interview.”
But if many republicans are urging a more measured approach, still others preach confrontation as the surest path to victory. In early August, Trump traveled with Priebus to the tony island of Nantucket, off the Massachusetts coast. At an $800,000 fundraiser, he hobnobbed inside a steamy home filled with donors who wrote checks of $50,000 or more. Over and over, they pressed Trump to “take the gloves off” and attack Clinton as well as Republicans who won’t fall in line. His response, related by an attendee: “Reince tells me not to.”
Trump still has reasons to be bullish. For starters, roughly two-thirds of poll respondents don’t believe his opponent is honest or trustworthy. There’s no predicting what outside forces could intrude: another batch of leaked emails, a terrorist attack, a blow to the economy. Trump’s team frames the election as a choice between continuity and change, and change–even Trump’s radical variety–usually wins out. Conservative critics are finding ways to justify their vote for him. Some cite the stakes. “Forty years of Supreme Court Justices are going to be determined this November,” says Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who has not formally endorsed Trump. Trump himself appreciates the power of that argument. “You have no choice,” he told doubters at his Cleveland press conference. “You’ve got to go for Trump. Supreme Court.”
If his position is precarious, even his fiercest critics believe it’s too early to write him off. There are signs Trump is trying to change. During an economic speech in Detroit, he ignored more than a dozen protesters and delivered a game impersonation of a conventional Republican. He is teeing up his first televised ad campaign of the general election in the coming weeks. “They’ve spent $240 million on ads,” Trump says, dramatically overstating the advertising spending on behalf of Clinton. “I’ve spent nothing. Zero. Purposely.” He didn’t think he needed to. Polls disagree.
History suggests that 8-point leads in August can melt like ice cream in the heat. Al Gore was down by that margin in August 2000 and came back to win the popular vote. In 1988, George H.W. Bush rebounded from a similar deficit to win the White House. Over the coming weeks, Clinton’s convention bounce may dissipate.
The debates in the fall will provide Trump an opportunity to change his public perception. Trump told TIME he would “absolutely” debate Clinton three times as scheduled but, ever the wily foe, suggested that he might try to renegotiate the terms. Clinton’s unforced errors and defensive crouch have only magnified voters’ distrust. But most seasoned Republicans are far from optimistic about Trump’s chances. “It’s hard to say I’ve given up hope,” says a party official. “But I have yet to see evidence of anything else.”
Trump has made a sport of defying prediction, party orthodoxy and political gravity. He thinks he’s on to something he alone can see, and if he is right, it wouldn’t be the first time. For a candidate who has staked his campaign on a pessimistic vision of the nation, he still manages to summon a sense of optimism despite the darkening polls. “I actually think we’re doing better,” Trump says. “I may be wrong, but I think we’re doing much better than anybody understands.”
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly characterized a telephone conversation between Donald Trump and Reince Priebus, based on information from Republican officials. The Republican National Committee has acknowledged the possibility of redirecting its resources, but a spokesperson says Priebus did not explicitly convey that possibility to Trump in that phone conversation.