How Does Trump Stop His Free Fall? Maybe He Can’t
Election 2016

How Does Trump Stop His Free Fall? Maybe He Can’t

REUTERS/Chris Tilley

As remarkable as it may seem, Donald Trump’s campaign is cracking up just a month after the billionaire businessman wrapped up the GOP presidential nomination. And it’s far from clear whether he and his newly elevated campaign guru Paul Manafort can pull the campaign out of its tailspin before the November election.

While it’s always risky to underestimate Trump’s ability to defy the odds and spin new narratives that abruptly change the course of the campaign, his brand of combative, negative politics has turned decidedly toxic. In the process, he has alienated large swaths of Republicans in Washington and throughout the country, rekindled the once moribund “Stop Trump” faction, and raised doubts that he can build a national campaign organization and garner the big bucks necessary to go toe-to-toe with Democrat Hillary Clinton this fall.

As The New York Times described it on Tuesday, Trump is entering the general election campaign “under the worst financial and organizational disadvantage of any major party nominee in recent history.”

Related: 3 Good Reasons Trump Fired Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski

Just a day after Trump shook up his campaign by firing his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, consolidating power in the hands of Manafort, a GOP operative and lobbyist,  a new Qunnipiac University Poll shows Trump losing altitude against Clinton in the critical battleground states of Florida and Ohio, and barely behind in Pennsylvania.

Clinton opened an eight-point lead over Trump in Florida, 47 percent to 39 percent, while overcoming a small Trump lead in Ohio to achieve a 40 percent to 40 percent tie. Clinton also holds a tiny lead in Pennsylvania, 42 percent to 41 percent, but that is well within the poll’s margin of error.

No presidential candidate has ever won election without carrying at least two of those three states. And with Florida seriously in doubt for Trump this year because of the large percentage of Hispanics who abhor his immigration policies, Trump will need major breakthroughs in rust belt states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan to alter the national electoral map in his favor. Currently, Clinton leads Trump nationally by an average of 5.8 percentage points, according to an aggregation of national polling by Real Clear Politics.

Related: Trump Says He Doesn’t Need the GOP; Republicans Might Be Okay with That

Trump, who has long boasted of a gold-plated brand, began this month with less than $1.3 million in cash on hand after raising $3.1 million and loaning himself an additional $2 million. That amount would be considered chump change in any major congressional campaign for the House or Senate. 

By contrast, Clinton raised $28 million and began June with $42 million in cash on hand. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who lost to Clinton in the race for delegates but hasn’t formally discontinued his campaign, still raised $15.6 million last month and boasts of $9.2 million in cash on hand.

Trump, of course, can dip into his holdings to replenish his campaign war chest. “If need be, there could be unlimited ‘cash on hand’ as I would put up my own money, as I have already done through the primaries, spending over $50 million dollars,” Trump said in a statement today. “Our campaign is leaner and more efficient, like our government should be.”

But until now he has been a tightwad when it came to spending on a national political organization, statewide campaign personnel and polling. Remarkably – while he has been hammered mercilessly by both parties for controversial statements questioning the integrity of a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage, and his insensitive and politically self-serving comments in the wake of a terrorist’s killing of 49 people at a gay club in Orlando – Trump’s campaign has not aired a single TV ad defending his views.

Related: When Donald Trump Says We’re Losing to China, He’s Right About One Thing

Clinton and her allies, by comparison have spent roughly $26 million on media advertising in June alone, promoting Clinton’s policies and resume while painting Trump as a dangerous figure not qualified to be commander in chief.

Trump’s First Half Was a Cakewalk

Trump once reveled in his notoriety as the political outsider who rewrote the play book of U.S. presidential politics and bowled over a vast field of GOP rivals with his outrageous insults of rivals, his xenophobic and racially tinged assaults on illegal immigrants, Mexicans and Muslims – and even a broadside against a disabled journalist.

The real estate mogul boasted that he was self-financing his campaign, which meant he wasn’t beholden to Washington lobbyists, other deep-pocketed businessmen, super PACS or other special interests. Trump scoffed at the use of paid media to get his message across, and instead dominated the political terrain with his use of Twitter and other social media, frequent wall-to-wall appearances on the Sunday network talk shows, pop-up telephone interviews on cable television, and mass rallies throughout key primary states that drew uninterrupted TV coverage.

The stingy multi-billionaire prided himself on running the campaign on a shoe string, with a minimal staff and ground game. Rather than build his own campaign organization of communications specialists, opposition researchers, voter identification data specialists and get-out-the-vote volunteers, he is depending on the Republican National Committee for much of that backup. His now departed campaign manager Lewandowski frequently summed up the overarching campaign strategy by stealing a line from “The West Wing” TV series: “Let Trump Be Trump.” 

Related: New Clinton Strategy Doubles Down on Mocking Trump 

But Trump’s revolutionary primary election campaign tactics that defied the odds and catapulted him to the top ironically are doing him in even before the July Republican National Convention as Clinton methodically consolidates her party. 

So what can Manafort and Trump do at this point to alter the course of the campaign?

According to some political experts, there are three the short term strategies that could enhance Trump’s diminished prospects – two that are relatively simple and the third that may be impossible to achieve. 

Get serious about fundraising. There is absolutely no way Trump can beat Clinton this fall without a huge campaign war chest and a media budget to counter Clinton’s saturation ad campaign in key battleground states. The days of “free media” are behind Trump, largely because his bombastic, scorched earth rhetorical routine is getting old. TV reporters and anchors are more interested in asking him to defend his latest outrageous comment than to let him drone on incessantly about “Crooked Hillary” and her email problems. 

Trump already has begun to prime the pump, and some of his allies believe he is turning the tide. Earlier this month, Trump huddled with some of the GOP Party’s biggest fundraisers and wealthiest donors at the Trump Tower.  Among those who were invited to the morning strategy session and luncheon were New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Wisconsin roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks, Dallas investor Ray Washburne, and Ron Weiser, a national co-chairman for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, according to The Washington Post.

Related: Your Vote for a Third Party Candidate Won’t Be a Waste in 2016 

Trump was scheduled to appear today at a major campaign fundraiser in New York City hosted by some of the biggest names on Wall Street. Some Trump fundraisers told The Times they are now optimistic they can raise up to $500 million for the nominee through October in a joint operation with the Republican National Committee.

Mount a charm offensive. It’s hard to overstate the amount of damage Trump has done within his party with gratuitous slaps at party leaders, members of Congress, governors, former rivals including Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, and former GOP presidents and candidates. Many establishment Republicans who have felt the sting of Trump’s criticism either will sit out the national convention and general election presidential contest or even quietly work for his defeat. Although Trump has amassed more than enough delegates to claim the nomination in July, some delegates technically committed to him on the first ballot may attempt to change the party’s rules to vote for someone else. 

Trump may think that he can win election this fall without the support of the party elite, but he’s wrong. Many rank and file Republicans frequently take their cues from their elected officials, and right now many GOP senators and House members fear Trump will take them down this fall and are distancing themselves from their party’s standard bearer. Also, a number of GOP governors, including Susanna Martinez of New Mexico, who have been insulted by Trump are likely to sit on their hands in the presidential campaign this fall.

While feelings run high against Trump within his own party, the reality is that it doesn’t take all that much flattery and apologizing to turn things around. Politicians have huge egos that are easily bruised but also easily placated. Trump could work the phones and make appearances to smooth ruffled feathers, show a little humility and dangle promises of good things and appointments to come if he is elected president.

Finally, reassess and reset many of his more controversial positions. Trump has done a remarkable job of energizing and animating a large number of angry white conservatives who love the fact that Trump speaks his mind – even if much of what he has to say is disturbing or off the grid.

But he has alienated millions of voters in his own party with vows to prevent Muslims from entering the country, a racially tinged attack on a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against the now-defunct Trump University, a promise to round up and deport 11 million illegal immigrants and a pledge to build a wall along the southern border and somehow force Mexico to pay for it.

Trump has delivered a few formal speeches, including a major address on his foreign policy objectives that would “Put America First.” But most of his controversial pronouncements have been impromptu or off the cuff.  Trump needs to start doing his homework and provide voters with a more coherent and realistic approach to domestic and foreign policy.

But then, of course, Trump wouldn’t be Trump any longer, and he would risk appearing to be like every other candidate who shades his or her positions to curry favor with voters. That is why this third strategy is the least likely to occur.

“The main problem with the Trump campaign is Donald Trump,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. “And absent a rebellion at the convention, that cannot be fixed.”

Sabato said that Manafort can work on money and organization—and the convention. “The latter is critical to any chance of a Trump relaunch,” he said. “A better story has to be told, and it has to hold up to factual analysis. But too many big GOP donors and corporations aren’t going to put in a dime for Trump. Maybe we will find out eventually just how liquid his fortune is.”