As President Donald Trump prepares to formally launch his reelection bid tomorrow, his allies are trying to tamp down headlines that depict his campaign as trailing top Democrats, beset by withering leaks and unable to keep internal tensions from spilling into public view.
The 2020 drama intensified over the weekend, as Trump's campaign abruptly fired three of its pollsters, including one polling firm formerly owned by Kellyanne Conway, the president's adviser and former campaign manager.
Privately and publicly, campaign advisers fumed over the leak of internal polling data that showed Trump far behind former Vice President Joe Biden in key states - a pattern that has touched a nerve with the president.
"Only Fake Polls show us behind the Motley Crew," Trump wrote Monday on Twitter, referring to the crowded Democratic field. "We are looking really good, but it is far too early to be focused on that. Much work to do! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
But the campaign's first major public stumble - culminating in a personnel shake-up on the eve of Trump's reelection rally in Orlando, Florida - served to undercut its well-laid efforts to portray the president's 2020 bid as a well-oiled machine ready to carry him to a second term.
The president may seek to change the subject Tuesday at the rally, where he will address a crowd he has already described as record-size. He will be joined by first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and several members of his family and 2016 campaign staff.
Trump's advisers said the president's supporters, who are expected to fill the 18,500-seat Amway Center, are not paying attention to internal machinations of the campaign and won't be swayed by early signs of turbulence.
"Nothing will get in the way of the tremendous kickoff and the momentum the president will have and sustain through Election Day next year," said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.
Trump will take the stage in Florida to make the case that the first 2 1/2 years of his administration have been about "promises made" and "promises kept," advisers said. He will point to the strong U.S. economy and a slew of actions he has taken on issues including taxes, military spending and judicial appointments.
While an economy with low unemployment and steady growth would normally be a solid tail wind for an incumbent president, the Trump campaign is facing signs of a tough path to reelection.
The 17-state poll conducted by the campaign in March, for example, showed Trump trailing Biden by double digits in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, ABC reported Friday. Trump's approval rating has also been stuck around the 40 per cent mark throughout his term.
The campaign moved to sever its relationship with polling firms run by Brett Loyd, Mike Baselice and Adam Geller while keeping pollsters Tony Fabrizio and John McLaughlin, according to several officials with knowledge of the matter. Fabrizio called to fire the pollsters, officials said. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Of the three, only Loyd appears to be fully on the outs. He's president and chief executive of Polling Company/WomanTrend, which was founded by Conway. Geller and Baselice are expected to head to America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, and they maintain the trust of top campaign officials and a good relationship with the campaign, officials said.
The move to fire the pollsters was supported by campaign manager Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, officials said. There have long been tensions between Kushner and Conway, who both work as senior White House advisers to Trump, and advisers said the ouster of the three firms was primarily targeted as a jab at her. Conway sold her polling firm before joining the White House.
Baselice, the founder of Austin, Texas-based polling firm Baselice & Associates, and Geller, the founder and chief executive of National Research, can begin working for America First Action after an appropriate "cooling off" period under election laws.
Brian Walsh, president of America First Action, said the group will begin conducting polls later this summer and dismissed polling at this point as premature.
"There's no major strategic predictive or decision that's going to be influenced by a survey you take in May or June of 2019," he said. "It's really early in the process. At this point, Ronald Reagan was losing."
For his part, Trump has publicly denied the existence of the internal polls showing him behind Biden, even as his campaign confirmed them. The coverage of the polling has infuriated Trump, who has repeatedly encouraged allies to downplay or deny the results. During a ride in his presidential motorcade last week in Iowa, when the subject of polling came up in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Trump asked to get his campaign manager on the phone, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
At that point, Trump asked to go off the record and spoke to Parscale about the surveys. Parscale told Trump that the leaked polls represented the worst-case scenario under turnout models unfavorable to the president, the person said.
Parscale and Fabrizio have since put out statements describing the data as outdated and not representative of today's race.
"In a more likely turnout model patterned after 2016, and when a Democrat is defined, the race is not only competitive, the president is leading," Fabrizio said.
The poll also found Trump behind Biden in Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia - all states he won in 2016. Since the poll was conducted, Trump has notably intensified his attacks on Biden.
According to two advisers who spoke with him in the past month, Trump remains bullish on his prospects and argues that polls don't capture his popularity. He has pointed to crowd sizes and the number of people who interact with him on social media, both of these people said.
Several campaign advisers said they were frustrated that the polling saga had become a week-long story. One of these people said the poll was essentially "meaningless," given how early it is in the campaign and how undefined the Democratic field is. But the campaign and Trump advisers "have given it life," this person said, just as he is launching his campaign.
These advisers said conversations have begun on how to attribute some of the country's economic successes more to the president - and to make the election less of a referendum on the president's behavior. They have grown frustrated that polls consistently show that a majority believe the country is on the right track economically, and they feel secure, but Trump's numbers remain mired at 40 percent or below.
"The election has to be about something other than the president's behaviour, or we lose," one campaign adviser said. But the advisers said no efforts have been made to intervene because they would be useless.
In the run-up to Tuesday's launch, the campaign communications team had been working more closely with reporters to help preview their operations. Campaign advisers boast the operations are far more professional and streamlined than Trump's 2016 campaign.
But one campaign official said that in the coming days, the reelection effort might dial back its public comments slightly - following the lead of the president and letting Trump speak for himself.
In addition to the formal campaign, Parscale has implemented a biweekly conference call with a group of loyalists from 2016, according to two people familiar with the call. The arrangement came after Trump called a number of former campaign advisers one Saturday this spring and became frustrated that many were not heavily involved in the 2020 effort, according to one person with knowledge of the situation.
The conference call, which one person described as Parscale's "soft advisory board," included former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump Jr. and a group of advisers including David Urban, Michael Glassner and Katrina Pierson.
Trump advisers say the president will ultimately call the shots for his campaign.
"Not only is Donald Trump the incumbent president, he is also the campaign manager, the comms director, the political director'' and more, Murtaugh said. "The campaign is an extension of him and as such we absolutely follow his lead."
Most of the two dozen Democrats seeking to oust Trump have not spent much time discussing polling that shows Trump may be headed for defeat. After Trump's 2016 victory defied most pundits, there is a fear that polls for 2020 may be wrong.
"Democrats should be running in abject fear every single day that he is double-digits up because of a good economy and him being a guy who has been able to pull rabbits out of his you-know-what," said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster for the Global Strategy Group. "The way the voters feel about the economy still says that, if this guy could put two sentences together that don't [tick] people off, then he could pull it out again."
Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, did polling last month that concluded Democrats would defeat Trump if the election were held in May, losing Florida but winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But in a public memo aimed at fellow Democrats, he warned that the advantages could be overcome if Trump pulled the focus away from issues like health-care costs and slow wage growth.
The constant focus on Trump's own drama can work to his advantage, Cecil has warned.
"He gives an unusually high amount of fodder to opponents and the media in terms of distractions from real issues," Cecil said. "We end up talking about polling and his internal polling. We end up talking about some tweet that he made."