Trump staff shake-up shows a candidate who lost his way

By Dan Balz analysis

The latest shake-up in Donald Trump's campaign is rightly described as a move to "let Trump be Trump".

In reality, the sudden changes highlight the fact that a politician whose instincts appeared so sure during the Republican primaries has lost his way as a general election candidate.

It remains questionable whether he can find the equilibrium and the discipline needed to turn his flailing campaign around.

That is likely what is behind the shifts that were formally announced in a release emailed by Trump's campaign at the unusual hour of 5.38 am local time, hours after the Wall Street Journal first reported the news.

Coming 82 days before the general election, the staff changes had the distinct bouquet of desperation rather than the kind of routine and orderly "expansion" that Trump and his senior advisers were saying.

Trump has been in a downward spiral for weeks, a descent that has come with remarkable - and to GOP leaders alarming - swiftness.

In the weeks since the Republican and Democratic conventions ended, his position has deteriorated dramatically, turning what was already a difficult path to victory against Hillary Clinton into one that now requires a dramatic change in fortunes to succeed.

Perhaps the changes will produce such a turnaround. The recruitment of former banker Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News to become chief executive signals a kind of go-for-broke return to Trump's anti-establishment message and posture, but not without risk.

The elevation of pollster Kellyanne Conway to the role of campaign manager will provide Trump with what he has lacked for some time now, which is a seasoned hand who will travel with him on his plane and who can try to keep him focused.

Staff intrigue is catnip to political insiders, and there will be ongoing efforts to analyse how the changes will affect the inner dynamics of the Trump operation.

In particular, there are questions about the degree to which they diminish the role of Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman who was brought in earlier this year and supplanted - and ultimately helped force out - previous campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Trump has been in a downward spiral for weeks

Trump spokesman Jason Miller said that the changes were already having a positive impact. "Anecdotally," he said, "if you're watching cable news shows, you could make the case this was the best morning for us in weeks."

He pointed to positive reviews for the law and order speech Trump delivered yesterday in Wisconsin and the generally encouraging reception he said the staff changes had received. On top of that, he noted that Clinton is facing renewed scrutiny over her email problems, thanks to the decision by the FBI to send more documents to Capitol Hill, including the record of her interview with FBI officials that preceded the decision not to recommend prosecution.

Miller said the staff moves underscored Trump's focus on winning. "Mr Trump is making it clear how he wants the campaign to be run and how he wants it organised, and how much he wants to win this race and what he's prepared to do to win this race," he said.

Staff shake-ups, however, are no substitute for a candidate with a clear sense of himself, his message and what it takes to win a general election in 2016. By almost every indication, Trump has fallen short on all these measures. Blaming his staff does not absolve his own failures as the leader of his campaign. Letting Trump be Trump won't instantly solve the weaknesses he's demonstrated as a general election candidate.

For months, Trump has been pulled and tugged by campaign officials and party leaders. He has been offered advice from many directions. He's been urged to be more stable and presidential and urged to blast out his anti-establishment message with even greater intensity. He's been urged to use a teleprompter and offer more policy. He's been urged to let it rip at his rallies.

Blaming his staff does not absolve his own failures as the leader of his campaign

He's done some of all of these in recent weeks - as well as unscripted digressions that have overshadowed his better moments. As Labor Day nears, he is trailing nationally and in all the battleground states.

Trump has been resistant to advice from so-called experts because he beat all them during the primaries. But he began the general election with a distinct lack of understanding of the differences between the primaries and the general election. He appeared not to understand the dynamics, the demographics or the geography of a winning general election campaign.

He commented during an interview with the Washington Post last May that he could put California and New York in play and even said the reception he had received in the state of Washington during the primaries gave him a belief that he could compete there. He hasn't acted on any of those claims, obviously, but last weekend he was campaigning in Connecticut, which Republicans have lost in six straight elections and by double digits in every election since 1996. Who thought that made sense?

His messaging and behaviour have opened up demographic deficits that are now crippling his candidacy. The first is among Republicans. Nationally and in key states, Trump is significantly underperforming among Republicans. Clinton has consolidated the Democrats, now winning 90 per cent or more in most surveys. Trump is far short of that level, now winning about 80 per cent, give or take, among Republicans. He needs that number to move up, and if it does, the race will begin to look more competitive.

The changes amount to hitting a reset button for Trump and his campaign. But Trump has tried this before

The other big problem is with university-educated voters. Trump has been bleeding in that category and it has grown worse over the northern summer. Republicans traditionally win whites with and without college degrees. Trump has solid support among whites without college degrees but he is significantly underperforming Mitt Romney's 2012 numbers among those with college degrees. In many places, he's losing those voters. Additionally, there is a risk that he could see his support among white women without college degrees deteriorate.

Trump has shown little of the confidence he displayed earlier in the year. With the polls turning against him, he has little to brag about. With conflicting advice on what to say and how to act, he's appeared off balance and unhappy. Where he once dominated news cycles through his accessibility to the media, particularly all the cable channels, he's become far more a creature of Fox News than he was during the primaries.

The changes amount to hitting a reset button for Trump and his campaign. But Trump has tried this before. The question now is whether the newly constituted team will find a way to build back his support or put him on a path that will simply harden the support he already has.

- Washington Post

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