Donald Trump isn't building relationships with party leaders in early voting states
Strategy reflects Trump's unique approach to the presidential campaign
Donald Trump does everything on a grand scale.
On the campaign trail, the Republican presidential candidate gives longer speeches than his opponents. He spends money lavishly and likes to brag about it. And he attacks fellow Republicans more harshly, as he did over the weekend when he upended the GOP primary race by questioning John McCain’s war hero status.
But Trump is surprisingly stingy in one notable way: his outreach to local party leaders in the early presidential states.
Republican leaders in early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are used to getting the full-court press from presidential candidates. But they say they’ve heard little from Trump. Without durable relationships in the early states, Trump could find himself especially vulnerable to shifts in the news cycle that move national opinion. One day, he may be popular for harshly denouncing illegal immigration. The next day, his image – both nationally and in the early states – can be overwhelmed by comments like his widely condemned attack on McCain.
When the businessman travels to Bluffton, South Carolina, on Tuesday for a “kickoff rally,” he will have had minimal contact with Matt Moore, the state’s Republican Party chairman.
“I met Mr. Trump for 30 seconds on May 9. Gave him my card. He hasn’t called me thus far,” Moore told CNN.
Moore said that he has been in constant contact with many of Trump’s competitors, exchanging numerous text messages, for example, with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
“Many of the candidates reach out frequently,” he said. “They seem to understand that the chairman of any state is a nexus to communicating with thousands of people across the state.”
‘You don’t win the presidency that way’
Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann said while he’s bumped into Trump several times in recent months, the real estate mogul is the only candidate in the crowded GOP field who has not initiated a phone call or asked for a meeting.
“He does seem to be taking it to the people, seems to be doing it primarily through the media. That’s one strategy,” Kaufmann said. “But I can tell you that you don’t win the presidency that way, because you have to have the party organization and party apparatus and local party leaders to win the presidency.”
Trump’s strategy of bypassing prominent local leaders even as he addresses enormous crowds in their states is just one example of his atypical campaign operation. Eschewing the traditional political process, including actively wooing party officials, is key to Trump’s efforts to brand himself the ultimate outsider with no obligations to the GOP establishment.
In New Hampshire, state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said he had not heard from Trump once this year, but has been in touch with most of the other GOP candidates.
Political veterans say Trump’s campaign also shows that the basics of presidential campaigning are in flux, particularly as candidates now have more ways than ever to reach voters directly.
“The old model of 30 years ago of getting the top 10 county chairs as the baseline of your organization – I think that’s one way to do it, but I don’t think that’s the only way to do it,” said Steve Duprey, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist and former McCain adviser. “When you’re running the kind of campaign like he is, it’s possible to skip that whole effort and go directly to the voters.”
Trump advisers pushed back on the suggestion that he has neglected one-on-one outreach to local leaders. For instance, Trump’s Iowa state director Chuck Laudner said the businessman hasn’t reached out to Kaufmann because the party chair is “neutral.”
“Why would I meet with a guy who’s going to be neutral?” Laudner said.
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, said the real estate billionaire has had numerous meetings with GOP officials that have simply not been made public.
“He does one-on-one and two-on-one meetings all the time,” Lewandowski said. “We just don’t report on it, while everybody else does.”
According to Lewandowski, Trump has met privately with Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and has also had “multiple private meetings” with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
But asked about the governor’s contact with Trump, a Branstad spokesman said Trump and the governor met “very briefly” at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, but that there has been no contact since then.
While most of the Republican candidates have so far trained their ire on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Trump has also shown little restraint in dishing out harsh insults to fellow GOP candidates like Rubio, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Not ‘an ordinary politician’
His open hostility has made some party leaders uncomfortable, and Trump’s remarks about McCain over the weekend seemed to push some of his GOP colleagues over the edge.
The real test for Trump will be whether this distinctive style wears well over time in the early states following an initial boost in popularity. In two national polls last week, Trump cinched first place among the GOP contenders, beating other top-tier candidates like Bush and Walker.
But if some voters find his booming speeches refreshing, plenty of others are unsure of what exactly to make of Trump’s style.
Vivian Wong, a well-connected Republican business leader in South Carolina, recalls attending a meet-and-greet lunch in May at a downtown Greenville hotel. Wong said Trump delivered a fiery speech that touched on two of his favorite topics – illegal immigrants entering the country from Mexico and China’s currency manipulation.
The performance drew mixed reactions.
“He delivered it in his own way,” said Wong, who has not yet aligned herself with a candidate this cycle. “It was not how an ordinary politician would deliver the message.”