Donald Trump has defied the conventions of campaign politics for so long now that predicting the end of his quest for the Republican nomination has begun to seem like a fool’s errand. That doesn't seem to be the case any more.
Obviously Trump is in no danger of dropping out of the race at this point, as he might have been in, say, September, if his campaign had looked then the way it does these days. And, in fact, even with Ted Cruz's win in Wisconsin last night, there is still a good chance he’ll be the GOP’s nominee in the general election, though it seems not quite as inevitable as it might have a month ago.
All that said, it’s hard not to see a campaign in the midst of a flameout. Consider some evidence:
- Gabriel Sherman’s behind-the-scenes tour of the Trump campaign in this week’s New York described a barebones operation underfunded by a cheapskate candidate and willfully unprepared for the stresses and needs of a big-time, national presidential run. Sherman also described a candidate whom acquaintances say they had never seen so tired. After months of six-days-a-week travel, countless speeches and rallies, and expending the energy it takes for Donald Trump to play the reality show character “Donald Trump” on a daily basis, it’s possible the man has run out of steam.
- There's also this story in Politico, which claims the role of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is being reduced. This comes on the heels of Lewandowski’s indictment for battery over his manhandling of then-Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at a campaign event last month. You could argue that Lewandowski’s delegating some responsibilities is a natural outgrowth of a campaign scaling up and preparing for the general election. But the story is chock full of quotes from a source “involved in the campaign,” who paints a picture of a power struggle going on between Lewandowski loyalists and other members of Trump’s inner circle. Such quotes are never a good sign for a campaign. They point to discord that could weigh down a candidate at a time when he needs to be near-perfect to snag enough delegates to hold off Ted Cruz and win the nomination on the first ballot at July’s convention.
Put it this way: You don’t hear stories like this coming from the Cruz campaign, which has long been the most disciplined and polished operation on the Republican side. Some more evidence:
- As if the message didn’t get through, three days later Politico put out another story headlined “Trump Campaign in Disarray.” This second story relates that the campaign has been laying off staff at both the state and national level, including Matt Braynard, who led the data team. When you consider how important data is to a campaign’s micro-targeting of voters it can appeal to (as witnessed by how well the Obama campaign’s large investments in it paid off in 2008 and 2012, or the blow-up between Bernie Sanders’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee over access to a voter database last fall), the thought of a major presidential run having little infrastructure and inexperienced workers running its rudimentary efforts should make Trump fans nervous.
- Consider also the news on Monday that Trump’s candidacy could put Mississippi, one of the reddest of red states, in play for Hillary Clinton in the fall. This is pretty stunning, if for no other reason than that the state has only voted for a Democrat for president once since 1964, and that was for Jimmy Carter in 1976. It comes on the heels of new Electoral College projections showing Trump getting stomped in the fall and whispers that the GOP establishment has already given up on winning the White House and is concerning itself with saving its down-ballot candidates, and thus the size of its Congressional majorities.
(If there is any justice in the world, this news will also tamp down the unbelievably stupid argument from some Bernie Sanders supporters that Clinton’s massive wins in Southern states should be given less weight because Democrats have no chance of winning them in the general. But it probably won’t.)
This is all to say nothing of the continuing efforts of the GOP to keep Trump from scoring enough delegates in the primaries to win on the first ballot in Cleveland, which could throw the convention open to a compromise candidate. (This week’s name being hopefully bandied about by the Republican establishment and media folks: Paul Ryan.) Meanwhile, Cruz’s efforts to snap up unpledged delegates at state conventions had the Trump camp being reactive for once, belatedly hiring GOP operative Paul Manafort to act as a delegate wrangler. Manafort is an old hand at this sort of thing, but the lateness of Trump’s attention to the issue is a bad sign for him.
As E.J. Dionne put it in his column this week:
“[T]hese episodes tumbling one upon the other ratify what Trump skeptics said all along: that he is utterly unprepared to be a serious candidate, let alone president of the United States; that an endless stream of insults against all who get in his way wears thin over time; that he is winging it and stubbornly refusing to do the homework the enterprise he’s engaged in requires[.]”
I’d disagree that Trump is unserious – as Sherman’s article made clear, he did a fair amount of homework before embarking on his quest – but there has long been an element of “winging it” and running an unconventional campaign with the real estate mogul. Which worked as long as the field was wide open. But now that it has narrowed, now that the race has become a grind that requires attention to detail, a slavish navigation of the ins and outs of each state’s byzantine delegate-selection rules, and some of the other behind-the-scenes trickery that is a lot less fun than just standing up in front of a crowd of adoring supporters and insulting minorities, Trump has been exposed. He’s a step behind and playing catch-up, and that is not a position he’s accustomed to being in. Whether he can respond will determine who comes out on top at the end of the primaries.