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Beset by pandemic, Trump plots new way to reach voters — through landline telephones

Francesca Chambers, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Unable to hold the in-person rallies that were expected to be a signature of his campaign, President Donald Trump is working the phones and holding "tele-rallies" with swing state supporters as his new campaign manager Bill Stepien experiments with pandemic programming.

The campaign has targeted households with landline telephones in southern Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, central North Carolina and Iowa so far. Those contacted typically receive a phone call at home, telling them the president is about to have a tele-rally and inviting them to stay on the line to hear from him.

Trump's campaign says the calls, which are not publicized beforehand, have reached "tens of thousands" of homes in battleground communities and more than a million people have streamed sessions of Trump delivering remarks on Facebook's video platform.

Stepien's brief time as campaign manager has been accompanied by significant changes in Trump's approach to campaigning, including the five "tele-rallies" he has held since Stepien's promotion earlier in July. In the new campaign manager's first week on the job, Trump resumed coronavirus briefings, urged the public to wear masks and canceled the Republican National Convention gathering scheduled for Jacksonville, Florida, at the end of August.

"There's a rapport and comfort level with the president," Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to Trump at the White House, told McClatchy.

Stepien is taking on the challenging task of forging a path to victory for the embattled incumbent president during the global health crisis that has limited Trump's ability to attend fundraisers and campaign against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has topped his Republican opponent in donor dollars since May.


Trump campaign operatives aggressively contest public polling that shows the president trailing Biden by double digits in critical battleground states. However, some confidantes of the president conceded that the reelection campaign was in bad shape before Trump tapped Stepien to be campaign manager in mid-July.

They say that Stepien, a political strategist known for orchestrating Chris Christie's gubernatorial successes in New Jersey before he joined Trump's campaign in 2016, will reinvigorate a campaign that had become indolent when Brad Parscale was in charge at a time when it should have been shifting into overdrive.

In interviews with more than a dozen current and former administration officials, campaign aides and Trump advisers, Stepien was almost universally described as a sharp political tactician who understands the value of metrics and consistency. He has helped to calibrate the president's message so it reaches the right voters at the right time, they said, and he has improved the campaign's swing state operations, zeroing in on areas that have seen increases in Republican voter registration over the last decade.

"Bill is a no-nonsense, detail-oriented guy who wants to know down to the neighborhood what's happening on a campaign," said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Trump campaign's joint committee with the Republican National Committee, who first worked with Stepien on John McCain's presidential campaign.


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