Kellyanne Conway on Trump campaign woes: Is the comeback plan viable?

As the Republican candidate falls behind in national polls, can he win key swing states without a strong grassroots presence or widespread GOP support?

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on Sunday in Naples, Fla.

With just two weeks left before election day, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, acknowledged that the Republican candidate has fallen behind challenger Hillary Clinton in the race. But she vowed to overcome obstacles in Mr. Trump’s way by taking the case directly to voters in key battleground states over the next two weeks.

Will the direct appeal overcome a weak ground game? 

We are behind,” Ms. Conway said Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press.” She also noted that Mrs. Clinton has “tremendous advantages,” such as “a former president, happens to be her husband, campaigning for her; the current president and first lady, vice president – all much more popular than she can hope to be. And she's seen as the incumbent.”

Trump has gained appeal among disenfranchised voters by running an untraditional campaign, but has subsequently alienated some essential GOP cohorts. Several polls show Clinton holding around a six-point lead over Trump nationally, with a tie or a slight edge over the Republican in the key states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina. With just two weeks to go before election day, a final test of his unorthodox campaign model looms: Can Trump turn his campaign around in battleground states, or have his unconventional tactics already hit their threshold in terms of garnering voters?

“The Trump campaign may be fighting a war on two fronts,” Costas Panagopoulos, the director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham University in New York City, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “One for undecided voters, but also one for its own supporters who may have become disenchanted with the Trump campaign in this election cycle.”

Because undecided voters likely only make up between 5 and 10 percent of the electorate, the Trump campaign’s strategy may need to broaden its focus.

“In a 50-50 race, that could be consequential,” Dr. Panagopoulos added. “But this is becoming less of a 50-50 race.”

Clinton’s campaign has focused on using ground efforts and collaboration with other Democratic politicians to appeal to voters and mobilize them, while Trump has run a much smaller operation, marketing himself as an outsider candidate and opting to host rallies in battleground states rather than setting up large get-out-the-vote operations. In Ohio, for example, Trump has just 117 staffers, a number whose efforts could be dwarfed by Clinton’s some 300 staffers, the National Review reports.

“Our advantage is that Donald Trump is just going to take the case directly to the people,” Conway said. “He doesn’t expect to be able to cut through the noise or the silence and the way we’re treated by some.”

While candidate visits and rallies spur enthusiastic voters to come out in support of a candidate, they don’t tend to effectively mobilize undecided or lackluster voters in the ways that grassroots efforts can. Circling back to supporters who have become disenchanted with the state of the campaign should also be a key part of his plan, Panagopoulos says, but that can prove more difficult when a candidate lacks support from Republican party operatives.

“It is certainly a disadvantage that he’s out-muscled on the ground. [Battleground states] are exactly where the ground game matters most,” Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, tells the Monitor. “His reluctance to invest in on-the-ground activists in some ways reflects a broader feud between his campaign and the RNC.”

Trump has foregone the types of partisan ties that Democrats have embraced, and has spent less money on ads, relying instead on free media coverage. Still, his campaign hopes to entice remaining undecided voters who don’t see the appeal of Clinton.

“We feel that with Hillary Clinton under 50 percent in some of these places, even though she has run a very traditional and expensive campaign, that we have a shot of getting those undecided voters who somehow have said, ‘I know who Hillary Clinton is, I don’t want to vote for her, I don’t much trust or like her,’ that we need to bring them aboard over the next couple of weeks,” Conway said.  

Trump fueled his rise to the top in the Republican primary by criticizing the GOP and its establishment members, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. On Sunday, Trump made his first real push for down ballot voting, a plea that indicated a desire for party unity.

"If you elect me along with a Republican House and Senate, we will immediately repeal the Obama-Clinton defense sequester and rebuild our badly depleted military," Trump said Sunday at a rally in Florida, just a day after vowing to "drain the swamp" of career politicians entrenched in Washington, D.C., while he was speaking in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

"Go out and vote, and that includes helping me re-elect Republicans all over the place," he added. "I hope they help me too! It'd be nice if they help us too, right?"

That appeal comes in stark contrast to the feud Trump has waged against the Republican National Committee and establishment Republicans.

“For a long time in this race, Donald Trump thought he could win the presidency completely on his own,” Panagopoulos says. “I think he’s now finally realizing that it takes more than just one person to win a presidential election.”

But it might be too late for Trump to realign himself with the GOP. Just two weeks ago, he tweeted that he was grateful the “shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to,” a sentiment that created further discord within the party. 

“The dynamic that’s set in motion by the 'unshackled' comment is potentially very damaging because it means that lots of on-the-ground efforts that are going on with other decentralized camps are no longer mentioning Trump,” Dr. Green says. “They’re very pleased to have him encourage down-ballot Republican voting. Whether it’s an effective strategy down the home stretch is really unclear. It might be effective. This is certainly the time to do that.”

Lacking some of the more conventional paths to a presidential victory, Trump’s best bet may be to use the national media to re-assert his policy plans and leadership style, tactics that Conway has encouraged him to employ.

“He has got to make voters feel more comfortable with who he is, both in terms of substance and style,” Panagopoulos says. “I think that might be more of a positive message that he has to put out rather than attacking Hillary Clinton.”

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