Donald Trump is at his best when he’s campaigning. The man loves the limelight, the massive rallies in 20,000-seat arenas broadcasted in real time by Fox News, and the accolades, applause, and chants from his red-hatted disciples. Trump won the 2016 election by letting his force of personality take over the campaign and riding on the exhaustion of the Clinton political brand.
2020, however, is not 2016. Trump can claim to be an outsider populist all he wants, but the 'drain the swamp' mantra doesn’t have the same allure when you’ve been in the middle of the swamp for the last three years. Trump’s campaign staffers don’t want to get on the boss’s vindictive side, but they too recognise that extending the Trump presidency for another four years will require a more savvy political operation than the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style that the brash billionaire loves so much. It’s the reason why the Trump re-election campaign is bulking up its staff, collecting the phone numbers of potential supporters, fundraising across the country, and pouring money into everything from on-the-ground canvassing and opposition research to digital advertising.
A more business-like campaign, however, doesn’t necessarily mean a more business-like Trump. Indeed, Trump is the same thin-skinned, self-obsessed, media hound that he was 10, 20, or 30 years ago. You can have all of the cash and talented electoral staff in the world and still be unable to keep Trump on-script. In fact, push talking points on him and the president is likely to be defiant and do the opposite out of spite.
When an internal campaign poll meant for private eyes only was leaked to the press, the president was seething mad. The poll showed Trump getting trounced by former Vice President Joe Biden during a one-on-one general election matchup in all of the states that matter in a presidential election – behind in Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania; down 7 in Iowa; 8 in North Carolina; 6 in Georgia; and 17 in Virginia. It made Trump look like the Republican version of Jimmy Carter, a floundering, weak, pathetic incumbent inevitably destined for a walloping defeat. Those numbers spelled loser, a term Trump weaponises against his opponents as the worst insult possible.
The president at first denied it. He told ABC News that 'Those polls don't exist,' as if he thought Americans were stupid enough to believe him. He railed at campaign officials for days, complaining that the poll was an inaccurate portrayal of his support and flabbergasted that it was shared with the 'enemy of the people'. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale heard the message loud and clear and fired several of the pollsters in order to ease his boss’s state of mind. 'A person familiar with the purge said the firings were less about the accuracy of the polling and more about mollifying the President,' CNN reported yesterday.
This episode will be forgotten in about a week. Trump will say or do something that turns the news cycle upside down. The horse race coverage, meanwhile, will return back to the Democratic primary and the first upcoming debates between the 20 candidates who qualified for the nationally-televised melee.
But the firing of the pollsters is about as clear a signal as any that Donald Trump will continue to be the freewheeling, strongman-fixated individual he has always been. No campaign operation, however professional or impressive, will tame the bull.