President Donald Trump is sitting on a war chest topping $40 million, boots on the ground spread across nine regions crucial to his 2020 map and a sprawling network of volunteers who’ve been rigorously trained for the months ahead.
When he takes the stage Tuesday in Orlando to announce his bid for re-election, Trump will be joined by 20,000 guests whose personal information — names, zip codes, phone numbers — was meticulously recorded when they requested tickets to the rally. First-time attendees will receive relentless emails and texts in the coming weeks, reminding them that they can help “keep America great” by contributing $5, $10 or $15. Some maxed-out donors who gave generously to his 2016 campaign will trek to Florida to witness what they delivered, and decide whether to give big again.
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It’s a straightforward strategy to get the president four more years in the White House: be the political juggernaut Trump lacked in 2016.
While 23 Democratic presidential candidates scramble for attention, Trump’s 2020 campaign is quietly flipping the script from its ham-fisted approach the first time he sought elected office. His team has spent two and half years building a robust, modern and professional operation to optimize as many variables as possible, and amassing an unprecedented pile of cash to keep it all afloat.
It’s worked so far. The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee had a combined $82 million in the bank as of April — the result of a joint fundraising operation — and staffers have yet to devolve into the bitter infighting that strained the president’s first campaign and stained his earliest days in the White House.
“In 2016, the people on the campaign like to say that they were building the airplane while it was in flight. This time, he will have a campaign that is befitting of an incumbent president of the United States,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the new-and-improved Trump campaign.
Indeed, one official involved in Trump’s first presidential campaign likened the experience to a slow-motion plane crash: “We were strapped in on a sloppily assembled machine that was gradually spiraling out of control.”
Even with a better-financed and well-ordered campaign, the developing 2020 landscape has been tough for Trump. State investigators are still probing his past business ventures and financial history. Court rulings have delivered devastating setbacks for his agenda. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has encouraged congressional Democrats to do everything short of impeachment to hold his administration accountable.
On top of all that, the outburst-prone president has struggled to boost his approval rating above where it hovers at 42 percent and could encounter difficulty billing himself as an outsider while occupying the center of the swamp.
“He’s an incumbent. It’s hard to run the same way in 2020 as he did in 2016,” said a person close to the Trump campaign.
The challenges are not lost on the president’s campaign staff. This time, Trump will launch his 2020 campaign with organizational and financial advantages that his previous crew could have only dreamed of — soothing allies who worry the current political environment is less conducive to victory.
From a 14th-floor suite originally designed to house the offices of a capital markets firm, Trump’s modest campaign team of about 50 employees has spent the past several months laying the groundwork for a 2020 race that diverges from 2016 without sacrificing his insurgent populist message. Extensive assistance from the Republican National Committee has helped — bringing institutional knowledge and resources that were notably absent in 2016, driven by a massive staff, existing presence in all 50 states and a staunch Trump ally at its helm.
Officials at the RNC’s Capitol Hill headquarters are in constant contact with counterparts who work out of the Trump campaign’s Arlington, Va., office, and staffers from each side often travel to the same events to show simultaneous support for the party and for Trump. For example, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel both attended a dinner this week hosted by the Republican party of Macomb County, Mich., the self-described “home of the Reagan Democrats” and a must-win for Trump in 2020.
“If you look at where the campaign was in 2016 and where it is today, it’s a completely different organization. It has a united Republican party behind it that also has one of the best fundraising operations we’ve ever seen,” a Michigan Republican party official said, adding that the Trump campaign plans to deploy significant staff to Michigan beginning in early July.
A campaign official said Parscale plans to have “a fully functioning ground game by the end of summer,” as well as several coalition groups that will specifically target women, Latino and African American voters.
Many of those campaign staffers, along with members of the GOP’s state party affiliates, have gone through a program known as GROW, or Growing Republican Organizations to Win. The custom workshop-type classes were created by the Trump campaign and the RNC to train field staff in fundraising, communications, data and digital efforts that will be unique to their states in 2020. One state party official who recently completed the training said they were asked to draft mock press releases and budgets as part of the programming.
Campaign officials readily admit that Trump determines the message on any given day, making it difficult to create a fixed communications strategy that volunteers and staff can follow. Earlier this year, for instance, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner instructed campaign staff to avoid targeting specific 2020 Democratic candidates only to watch the president lob repeated insults at former Vice President Joe Biden weeks later. (Trump has also insulted Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.)
“The key for the Trump campaign is to successfully build its operation around the most unconventional candidate in history,” said Jason Miller, a former campaign adviser who remains close to the president. “Parscale has a good enough relationship with Trump to know that you always follow his lead and your job as the campaign is to build upon and amplify his message, not force feed him some message that you cooked up.”
Parscale has declined to foist soundbites on Trump, opting instead to let the president weaponize Twitter at his own discretion. But the campaign has begun crafting candidate-specific messages that they hope Trump will test out, and eventually deploy regularly, depending on who becomes the Democratic nominee. Officials have largely focused on Biden, Sanders and Warren, believing Trump’s ultimate opponent will emerge from that trio.
“If it’s Sanders or Warren, they immediately become advocates for radical change that’s a step too far for most voters, and Trump becomes the centrist. But against Joe Biden, the race is much more of a change vs. status quo dynamic,” Miller said.
Campaign allies who are aware of internal polling say they also want Trump to tout his accomplishments constantly. He will only outperform his Democratic opponent if he’s “getting the right amount of credit for the progress he’s making on immigration, the economy and national security,” one outside adviser suggested. Several 2020 Democrats have argued that the economy is booming because of policies put in place by former President Barack Obama, although Trump’s economic approval rating reached a new high in a CNN poll last month.
Trump’s campaign has been briefing him almost weekly on polling, according to two aides familiar with the conversations, one of whom said the president is more obsessed with polls than anything else, despite repeatedly questioning their reliability after 2016.
The campaign’s first internal re-election poll found Biden trouncing Trump by seven points in Florida when it surveyed Sunshine State voters back in March, ABC reported Friday. The state is key to Trump’s campaign strategy: Without it, a single loss in the Rust Belt could trigger the end of his presidency.
Campaign officials say that isn’t going to happen. They say fundraising has been too successful and that their massive data-gathering operation is unmatched by any Democratic presidential hopeful.
But as Trump prepares to launch his re-election bid 17 months before voters hit the polls, perhaps their most distinct advantage is time.
“It’s important to remember that we are not on the same timetable as the Democrats,” Murtaugh said. “We are already in the general election.”
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this story.