Will Donald Trump's shakeup matter?

Story highlights

  • Lewandowski's exit may speed up Trump hires
  • Many Republicans see Trump as his own biggest hurdle

(CNN)Donald Trump may be done with Corey Lewandowski. But the problems surrounding his embattled presidential campaign won't be so easy to toss aside.

In an operation where Trump clearly answers to no one but himself, there's no guarantee that Lewandowski's exit can help right a campaign that has been in free fall because of an undisciplined candidate, meager fundraising and minimal infrastructure.
    The challenge facing Trump's campaign became clear late Monday when reports filed with the Federal Election Commission revealed presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had $42 million in the bank -- compared to just $1.3 million for Trump.
    Even through the rockiest stretches of the campaign -- including accusations that Lewandowski had grabbed and bruised the arm of a female reporter at a rally -- Trump seemed to value Lewandowski's loyalty above all else. But that changed as Trump's poll numbers have trailed Clinton in recent weeks, and his family forcefully stepped in to argue for a course correction.
    Over the past two days, Trump's children, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his campaign chairman Paul Manafort all urged him to fire Lewandowski, sources said. Ivanka Trump and Manafort threatened to bow out of the campaign if Lewandowski was allowed to remain.
    They succeeded -- but the problems facing Trump are still immense.
    With four weeks until the Republican National Convention, the real estate mogul faces the growing possibility of an embarrassing delegate revolt in Cleveland that could leave him weakened. He is struggling to win over key donors who have been mystified by the campaign's disorganization. And his effort is already being widely outmanned by Hillary Clinton's ground organization across the country as some of his advisers openly scoff at the notion that they need to build a traditional campaign.

    Dip in enthusiasm

    There has also been a noticeable dip in enthusiasm for Trump's candidacy at some of his recent events. During a weekend event in Arizona, for example, the venue was half full.
    A CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday finds Clinton leading Trump 47%-42%.
    While firing Lewandowski was an unexpected move by Trump, there was broad skepticism in Republican quarters Monday that the tenor of Trump's campaign would change overnight, largely because so many of the candidate's recent errors have been self-inflicted.
    If the campaign manager was the root of those problems, said Republican strategist and CNN political commentator Kevin Madden, voters would see a rapid change in the pace of Trump's fundraising or the level of organization in key swing states over the coming days and weeks.
    But given Trump's management style, Madden said that kind of campaign transformation was unlikely to take place.
    "The fundraising isn't going to change," said Madden, a former adviser to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. "The organization isn't going to change. The candidate is still going to say outrageous things — and we'll have dealt with two days of atmospherics and cosmetics."
    He went on: "Because every organization is a reflection of its principal. The chaos, the fundraising problems, the organizational problems -- all stem from a candidate that thinks none of that matters, and what matters is driving big national news cycles."
    Spencer Zwick, who led the fundraising efforts for Romney in 2008 and 2012 and stays in close touch with donors, noted that the Trump campaign is far behind in that effort and some donors are clearly discontent with the management of the organization.
    But beyond that, Zwick noted, "Corey Lewandowski is not the one who said that a federal judge couldn't do his job because he was Hispanic. Corey Lewandowski isn't the one who made offensive comments."
    "Particularly this campaign, you can't point to the campaign manager as the person that's guiding the message of the campaign," Zwick said. "That's on the candidate."

    Challenges of a two-person race

    During the primary season, Trump was able to pivot from one controversy to the next and still emerge ahead in a multi-candidate field. But that dynamic has not worked in his favor in his two-person contest with Clinton, who has fashioned herself as the steady, reliable candidate while she and Democratic allies from President Barack Obama to Elizabeth Warren have painted Trump as unfit to be commander-in-chief.
    Constantly at Trump's side on the campaign trail, Lewandowski was wedded to the philosophy of "Let Trump be Trump," which clearly worked well with Republican primary voters as Trump steamrolled through those contests.
    But his critics described him as a near-sycophant who was unable to steer Trump back on message as the candidate engaged with his latest foe on Twitter or waded into yet another controversy.
    Lewandowski, who will chair the New Hampshire delegation at the Republican convention next month, denied that dynamic in a gracious exit interview Monday with CNN's Dana Bash. While heaping praise on his former boss, he insisted that he had been unafraid to challenge Trump.
    Corey Lewandowski's full CNN interview with Dana Bash
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    Corey Lewandowski's full CNN interview with Dana Bash 28:51
    "It's important to push back on issues that are important. I think you have to be selective when you do that," Lewandowski told Bash. "Mr. Trump is an unparalleled success in the business world, and now an unparalleled success in the world of politics. And I think when he presents an idea, some ideas are very, very good and they should move forward; some are pretty good and should move forward; and the ones that I take exception to ... I let my opinion be known."
    "Anyone who knows me knows I don't just give a yes answer," Lewandowski said.
    But even in a campaign that has continually surprised and shocked the American public, Trump's effort in recent weeks has appeared to be careening off the rails.
    As news of the Orlando shooting tragedy was unfolding, Trump put out a self-congratulatory tweet about his own prescience. He found few defenders -- beyond those on his own payroll -- as he renewed his calls for a Muslim travel ban as part of an effort to curb terrorism.
    He was openly rebuked by leaders of his party -- including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker -- for targeting an Indiana judge for his Mexican heritage with rhetoric that Ryan openly referred to as a racist.
    In the latest stunner on Sunday, Trump said he was open to racial profiling during an interview with John Dickerson on CBS' "Face the Nation."
    "I think profiling is something that we're going to have to start thinking about as a country," Trump said. "I hate the concept of profiling. But we have to start using common sense and ...we have to use our heads...we really have to look at profiling."

    Not backing away

    While Trump has not backed away from any of those controversies, it became obvious that his campaign is adrift -- failing to drive a coherent message at a time when Clinton is clearly hitting her stride with her attacks on Trump.
    The CNN/ORC poll found that she holds an edge over Trump on handling several issues, including foreign policy, immigration, trade with other countries, nominating justices to the Supreme Court, and issues related to the rights of gays and lesbians. She's also seen as better able to handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief and to exercise good judgment in a crisis.
    For those Republicans rooting for a Trump rebound -- and there are many who are not -- Lewandowski's departure was the first positive sign that Trump is serious about building his skeletal operation into a formidable general election campaign.
    Manafort, who was initially brought on to wrangle delegates, had been helping guide the expansion of the campaign. But Lewandowski repeatedly blocked hires and slowed that process, according to numerous sources within the campaign or approached by the campaign as potential employees.
    With Lewandowski gone, the hiring process is expected to speed up significantly.
    "This should give the candidate the opportunity to staff up and run a real campaign," said longtime Republican strategist Charlie Black, who supported John Kasich during the primaries and advised 2008 Republican nominee John McCain. "He has shown in some stretches that he understands that he needs to talk about policy and be more disciplined, and maybe this will help him do that -- especially if you had somebody on the road with you who was a 'yes' person."
    "Every candidate needs to understand when they leave the podium if they just made a mistake," Black added.
    The structural problems and internal personnel drama -- particularly the tensions between Lewandowski and Manafort -- have been well documented in recent weeks, and were giving donors pause as they weighed whether to help fund Trump's fall effort.
    While Lewandowski loyalists admired him as a steely, hard-working operative, others described him as a brutal manager who was quick to anger. One report of a screaming match between him and campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks made it as far as the pages of the New York tabloids.
    "It's clear that there have been two camps that have been at war with each other, and it's hard for a campaign to focus on getting your candidate elected when there are inner campaign skirmishes every day for power," said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who was a spokesman for Romney. "Hopefully this move eliminates that and folks fall in line behind one leader, who seems to be Paul Manafort -- and the entire effort can focus on working with the candidate on a better strategy."
    But the campaign is widely seen as having lost the last six weeks -- a key period for positioning for the battle in the fall, particularly up against a machine as formidable as that of Clinton.
    "This aura of invincibility around Trump that some of his supporters have bought into seems to be dissipating," Williams said. "There is a palatable sense that the air is coming out of the tires here, and they need to pump it back up with something."