WASHINGTON — In 2016, President Donald Trump compared Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the lumbering federal bureaucracy. Now he’s building one of his own.
From an office tower across the Potomac River from Washington, from the bowels of the Republican National Committee’s headquarters on Capitol Hill and from field offices across the country, Trump is assembling an army of operatives to fight for victory in what stands to be a legacy-defining political battle. Even with a sea of still-unfilled desks, his 2020 campaign is already unrecognizable from the fly-by-night operation of the last effort, when Trump won the White House despite his inexperienced campaign team.
Trump may still consider himself his own best strategist and communicator, but this time he’s leaving nothing to chance. Trump’s 2020 effort is melding the RNC and his presidential campaign into one functional entity, with the two organizations sharing staff, resources and data in what they argue is the perfect model of the modern integrated campaign.
“We are creating the largest and most efficient campaign operation in American history with the ability to reach more voters than ever before,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said.
Still, the constant and greatest source of uncertainty for the new effort remains Trump — his disdain for feeling managed and his unwavering belief in his own gut instincts above all else.
“Everything the campaign does is to complement and reinforce the candidate, it’s not a substitute for the candidate,” GOP strategist Alex Conant said. “The candidate needs to be in sync with the campaign.”
Trump’s attacks on the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona earlier this month marked an example of how a candidate could unsettle his own political effort.
Driving the 2020 operation is Parscale, a confidant of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is the White House overseer of the campaign. Parscale brings an unusual pedigree to the position: He did website work for Trump’s golf properties before being hired to run Trump’s digital efforts in 2016, when his targeted Facebook ads helped drive Trump voters in the Midwest to the polls.
A priority of both Parscale and Kushner, aides said, is reducing the disruptive staff turnover that defined Trump’s first White House bid and continued through his first two years in the White House. Key campaign hires have had to pass muster with both men. And Parscale, with his 13-month tenure in the job, already has lasted longer than any of Trump’s three 2016 campaign heads.
One reason that Trump is more open to a bulky campaign apparatus this time: the RNC’s fundraising prowess. Trump self-funded his 2016 campaign to the tune of more than $66 million, but he hasn’t put any money into his campaign since November 2016, and officials say that, so far, he doesn’t intend to.
Buoyed by the release of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the special counsel investigation, which had been hanging over the president’s 2020 prospects, the announcement that Mueller found no evidence of collusion with Russia has served as an unofficial kickoff for Trump’s campaign. But the GOP’s fundraising operation is already well underway.
For 2020, Trump’s campaign is benefiting from the RNC’s access to high-dollar donors, as well as Trump’s massive grassroots email list for small-dollar contributors. Through the end of 2018, the last date for which figures are publicly available, the campaign had brought in more than $129 million. President Barack Obama, by comparison, didn’t even begin his 2012 re-election campaign until 2011. Party operatives think the 2020 campaign and allied GOP groups will need to raise more than $1 billion for Trump’s re-election effort.
Trump’s campaign is spending heavily out of the gate, with twice as much spent on digital advertising so far this year as the Democratic field combined, according to data compiled by Democratic digital marketing firm Bully Pulpit Interactive.
Beyond early fundraising success, the campaign says it is deploying its dollars more efficiently than previous campaigns.
Trump’s 2016 effort was entirely dependent on the RNC in the general election for data, field workers and rapid response, leaning on the national party’s army of staffers in swing states and yearslong technology investments to win. The party operation dwarfed Trump’s campaign staff of just over 100.
Heading into 2020, Trump and the Republican Party are increasingly indistinguishable. In the main hallway of the party’s Capitol Hill headquarters, glossy photos of Trump have replaced photos of other GOP presidents. Political director Chris Carr holds the title for both the campaign and the RNC. And while state-based operatives may work for either entity or their joint venture, known as “Trump Victory,” they will share a common organizational chart.
The RNC’s existing data operation, which Democrats are frantically trying to replicate, has been steadily honed over the last six years, soaking up consumer data and years of political outreach to produce “voter scores” on every voting-age American. The 100-scale scores are then used by GOP campaigns to identify and contact the voters they need to turn out at the polls.
Trump’s campaign is aiming even higher going forward, planning to build a team of more than 1 million volunteers to reach out to swing voters, aides said.
“We will have a formidable ground game, one volunteer for every 13 swing voters, and a data operation that cannot be replicated,” Parscale promises.
Trump’s 2016 campaign chief executive, Steve Bannon, who has feuded with some in the president’s orbit since leaving the White House, assesses the 2020 operation positively.
“They got an operation stood up,” he says approvingly.
Associated Press writer Karl Ritter in Rome contributed to this report.