White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who is leading Trump’s reelection effort, convened an all-hands meeting Thursday morning at the party headquarters in Washington to bring together top advisers for the Republican National Committee and the campaign. At issue was how and where the campaign, which has been operating with sometimes conflicting sets of voter-targeting data, should spend its remaining funds.
In recent days, the debates over messaging have reached the Oval Office, and advisers have raised concerns about a lack of coordination between the national party, which controls much of the ground operation, and the campaign, which has been buying most of the ads and directing surrogate travel, according to people familiar with the conversations.
The 11th-hour machinations in the White House come as the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, continues to outraise and outspend Trump and deliver a closing argument largely focused on the president’s troubled handling of the pandemic.
While Trump continues to boast of large crowds, Biden has kept up a much less aggressive schedule, intentionally avoiding large gatherings that could facilitate viral spread. Biden’s advisers have also started warning supporters that the advantage Democrats now have will dwindle in the coming weeks, possibly setting the stage for another November surprise.
“We cannot become complacent because the very searing truth is that Donald Trump can still win this race, and every indication we have shows that this thing is going to come down to the wire,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote in a memo to campaign donors.
With just over two weeks left before voting ends — millions of votes have already been cast in many states — both sides are looking to the second and final presidential debate, set for Thursday night in Nashville, as a final potential game-changing moment.
Biden’s lead in national polls has grown slightly since their first encounter last month, which was marked by Trump’s frequent interruptions and his refusal to condemn white supremacists, though the race is tighter in key battlegrounds.
Trump’s team spent much of its time in recent days trying to position itself for a 2016 repeat, scouring the electoral college map for what advisers concede is a shrinking set of potential paths to victory and looking for voting populations that could still be swayed by the campaign.
Campaign manager Bill Stepien and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel are not viewed as internal allies, and Trump’s senior advisers have grown concerned that the two operations were not coordinating. RNC officials, who have been focused on running the ground operations, have begun to plan their own television ads targeted at winning over voters with a message that attacks Biden’s record on policy issues.
“We’re meeting to talk about our message and resource allocation,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said of the confab, before denying any rift between the campaign and the national party. “I’ve been on three calls recently with the RNC coordinating our closing-weeks game plan.”
Unlike the Biden campaign, which has relied heavily on paid advertising, the leaders of the Trump operation have focused more on using the president’s public events to get the message out and on a massive get-out-the-vote field effort. The operation, estimated internally at about $250 million to $300 million, has been working for months in key states to find and mobilize voters to the polls, with a larger volunteer effort that has been on the ground longer than Biden.
Republicans are also facing a separate pitched battle for the Senate, with its incumbents in several competitive races trailing Democratic challengers as they fail to win over Trump supporters and moderate swing voters.
Several Republican senators in recent days have taken steps to distance themselves from Trump, most notably Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who, on a recent call with supporters, said the president “kisses dictators’ butts,” mocks evangelicals behind their backs and has mishandled the pandemic.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans have urged the campaign to focus on messaging that would help senators in difficult states, such as Arizona, Maine and North Carolina. But Trump has argued to McConnell and others that the senators would be doing better if they were more supportive of his agenda.
Multiple people involved in the Trump effort said the Thursday meeting at the RNC led to agreements on the way forward that have ended, for the moment, a mood that has at times grown grim inside the Trump operation, with finger-pointing over who should be responsible for a potential loss — and whether it should be attributed to an undisciplined message, the coronavirus pandemic or campaign spending and choices made by former campaign manager Brad Parscale.
“Bottom line: Everybody is mad at everybody,” said one Republican strategist familiar with the previous fighting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the dynamics behind the scenes. “It’s pretty ugly.”
Miller, McDaniel, Stepien and Kushner all attended the Thursday meeting, along with other senior aides. Katie Walsh Shields, a former White House deputy chief of staff and RNC consultant, was also asked by Kushner to be a part of the conversation, three people with knowledge of the meeting said.
Reince Priebus, a former White House chief of staff who did not attend the meeting, has also reentered the mix, taking on a more aggressive role in helping Trump prepare for a recent town hall on NBC and advising him on strategy in certain states. Priebus has told others he is concerned about the president’s chances.
Trump’s campaign remains confident that Trump can win states such as Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia, where public polling averages indicate either a tied race or a slight advantage for Biden.
Unlike Democrats who are focused on banking their votes early, the Trump campaign predicts most of the president’s voters will turn out on Election Day.
Some campaign officials are arguing for the president to spend more time in Pennsylvania, while others want more disparate travel, exploring paths to victory that run through Nevada, Wisconsin and Michigan, where the campaign has been pulling television reservations over the past month.
Campaign officials say they will increase resources and time commitment to all four states over the coming weeks, with Trump already scheduled to address Michigan and Wisconsin on Saturday, Nevada on Sunday and Arizona on Monday. Vice President Pence spent the weekend traveling through Pennsylvania.
In the week that ended Friday, the campaign added to its advertising reservations in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Maine, where there is a single electoral vote up for grabs, according to the tracking firm Advertising Analytics. The campaign pulled reserved television time out of Nevada and Wisconsin, a state that has been hammered in recent weeks by rising coronavirus infection rates.
Trump’s ability to win a single Maine electoral vote, tied to a rural congressional district, could prove pivotal in a scenario where he can hold all of his must-win states, and then also pick up either Minnesota or Wisconsin. That would result in a 269-to-269 electoral college tie, giving the newly elected U.S. House the power to select the president, with one vote given to each state delegation.
Republicans control 26 state delegations to the House, giving them an advantage if Democrats do not win more seats in November.
“You will also see additional resources and time spent in Wisconsin and Nevada,” Miller said of the coming weeks.
But geography is not the only issue on the table for the final weeks. Trump’s advisers have also been discussing the best tone and focus on Trump’s remaining advertising.
There are some in Trump’s orbit who have urged a sharper focus on the policy consequences of a Biden victory, for taxes, health care and other issues. Most Trump aides say that a focus on the economic growth before the pandemic — and how Trump would rebuild the economy — is the best message. But the president has sought to ramp up attention on Hunter Biden.
The campaign’s travel schedule has changed regularly, with various advisers and a president often changing their minds.
Some Trump advisers believe that many of the voters still available to be won by Trump are suspicious of his leadership as president but are also worried of the consequences of liberal governance under Biden, leaving an opening for the president.
Positive paid messages about the president’s own performance as president have dominated the past month of Trump campaign advertising. Nearly half of its television money has gone to positive ads that showcase the president’s accomplishments and promises for the second term, according to Advertising Analytics.
Only 16 percent of the ads have been exclusively negative spots, and the rest have contrasted glossy depictions of Trump’s leadership with negative portraits of Biden.
Though the campaign has spent far more on television than in 2016, Trump’s effort continues to be outstripped by the Democratic operation. For the week that ended Friday, Trump and his two largest outside groups spent $32 million on television, according to Advertising Analytics, compared with $46 million by Biden and his two biggest outside groups.
People familiar with the RNC meeting said differences between competing groups of advisers were set aside for the moment. The focus of the Republican Party’s planned advertising has not yet been announced but will probably include states where there are competitive Senate races.
“It is normal for the party to supplement the campaign’s advertising, just like the Democratic National Committee has done for the Biden campaign, and not a reflection of any disagreement over strategy,” said Michael Ahrens, RNC communications director, of the advertising plans.
Kellyanne Conway, the 2016 campaign manager who left her job at the White House in August, has been one of the champions of returning to the strategy Trump used four years ago of focusing the election on the Democratic candidate.
“Many Americans are shrugging their shoulders in indifference about Joe Biden when they should be raising their eyebrows in trepidation,” she said. “Defeating Biden requires placing him squarely in the spotlight, moving him from unobjectionable to unpalatable.”
Trump, who has been meeting separately with his senior team, has continued to project an optimistic tone both publicly at rallies and behind closed doors. He stood at his golf club on Thursday night and largely joked with about 150 donors, most of whom were not wearing masks, according to an attendee.
He said that the polls were wrong about him in 2016 and that he knows he will probably win because of his big crowds and his extensive travel schedule, complaining about being “on an airplane all the time.” He talked about Regeneron, the therapy he credits with his recovery from the coronavirus, his son Barron Trump, “Sleepy Joe” and other topics, largely consistent with his campaign speeches, the attendee said.
At the root of the operational challenges are problems that have lingered for months, following the sudden exit of Parscale, the first campaign manager, and the scramble by his successor to get a handle on the finances of the operation.
“It’s a leadership issue because of the way Jared put this thing together,” said one source familiar with the internal struggles, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more frankly.
Stepien, who is seen internally as a low-profile engineer focused on running the campaign, has since installed a level of financial discipline at the campaign and focused on the tactical priorities. But he has made clear to others that the finances of the operation were in disarray when he took the reins.
Others in campaign leadership have blamed other factors for the shortfall, including the pandemic dampening fundraising in the spring and the campaign’s need to start buying television advertising earlier this year for the funding shortfalls, according to people familiar with the conversation.
In a sign of the campaign’s money troubles, Trump will divert from the trail Sunday for a high-dollar fundraiser in southern California, an unusual trip to a state that is not in contention this close before the election.