Donald Trump's campaign has coasted on controversy, free media coverage and hysterical mega rallies. To the shock of veteran politicos everywhere, Trump has bulldozed through most of the primary process without the overwhelming aid of super PACs and paid advertising. He's even shunned what's often called retail politics – shaking hands in shopping center parking lots, attending local events, holding intimate Q&A's in small-town pizza joints.
What's peeved establishment Republicans more than anything is Trump's vacuousness. Debate after debate, speech after speech, Trump has replaced substance with vitriol, ideas with insults. The results speak for themselves. But there's a limit to this kind of politics. The bombast and the bigotry will excite the base in unfortunate – but predictable – ways, but eventually Trump had to get serious, or at least pretend to.
Now that Trump is inching closer to 1,237 delegates (the number needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot), he appears to be reinventing his image and campaign. There were signs that changes were coming a few weeks ago when Trump began reshuffling his staff. He demoted his amateurish campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and brought in old-school GOP operatives Paul Manafort and Rick Wiley.
There were reports that Trump's plan was to “professionalize” his campaign. It's now clear what that meant. If you watched his victory speech after the New York primary, you heard and saw a different Trump. He was prudent, measured, concise. “We have won millions of more votes than Senator Cruz,” Trump said, “millions and millions of more votes than Governor Kasich. We've won, and now especially after tonight, close to 300 delegates more than Senator Cruz.” This is not the let's-build-a-wall-and-make-Mexico-pay-for-it Trump we're used to hearing after victories.
As The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote, “Gone was 'Lyin' Ted.' In its place was 'Senator Cruz.' Gone was the long-winded speech that went nowhere. In its place was a succinct recitation of states and delegates won. Gone was the two-day vacation as a reward for winning. In its place was an early morning trip to Indiana followed by another planned stop in Maryland.”
This is a major shift in strategy and tone for Trump. He's finally taking the advice of non-sycophants who understand the process better than he does. And the changes go beyond the rhetorical. As The Wall Street Journal reported, "He [Trump] and his newly recast team also are pledging to do more outreach to Washington Republican leaders, who have often been hostile and the target of Trump attacks, and to spend significant amounts of money to run a more conventional campaign."
For the last year, Trump has been unwieldy, undisciplined, and inconsistent. That approach may win him the most primary votes, but it won't unite the party behind him at the convention. If anything, the 1.0 version of Trump was talking and insulting himself into a political cul-de-sac. But Trump 2.0, as Cillizza put it, will “show unbound delegates as well as party leaders and influencers that he can be magnanimous, that he can be a uniting force within the party.” "The campaign is evolving and transitioning," Trump said recently, "and so am I. I'll be more effective and more disciplined. I'm not going to blow it."
All of these changes ought to terrify Republicans looking to stop Trump. If the Donald is going to feign dignity and talk like an actual presidential candidate, they're in real trouble. It's much easier to sabotage Trump at the convention if he's still playing the role of the race-baiting clown. But if he's willing to play the game as he has the last week or so, well, that adds a whole new layer to the Republican race.
In Cillizza's words, “Be scared, anti-Trump forces. Be very scared.”