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.
The campaign did not make Stepien available for comment.
RNC Political Director Chris Carr said in an interview that while he had the "utmost respect" for Parscale, "who brought a lot of strength with his digital background" and built a great team, political staff see Stepien as "one of their own" and welcomed his suggestions on how to make the field program better.
Parscale drew praise from his colleagues for the ambitious data operation he built for the campaign. The data the campaign collected on voters under his leadership has proven particularly valuable in the campaign during the pandemic, they said.
But Parscale was seen as lacking the necessary experience of managing a field program for a presidential campaign, and his official residency was in Florida, which meant he was away from Washington throughout the pandemic.
The coronavirus exacerbated the situation for Parscale. One former administration official said that while he had a good personal relationship with the Trump family, "He would only basically come up when he was meeting with a member of the family in the office."
Parscale was fired as campaign manager several weeks after Trump's last and only rally this summer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Prior to the rally, Parscale said that more than 1 million people had requested tickets for a 19,000-seat arena; about 6,200 people showed up for Trump's speech.
But that was just the latest problem. The president is said to have grown frustrated with the attention that Parscale's tweets were getting and articles detailing how firms Parscale owned were profiting off the Trump campaign and Republican political committees. An attack ad produced by the anti-Trump group The Lincoln Project against Parscale and news stories drawing awareness to Facebook advertisements funded by the campaign that promoted Parscale's personal page also angered people close to Trump.
Several sources said the frustrations over the Facebook ads were unfair, because the campaign also tested out the promotion on the personal page of another staff member, senior adviser Katrina Pierson.
Campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh disputed that Parscale was an absentee campaign manager, was inaccessible to his employees and had failed at implementing a strong ground game. Parscale is still employed by the campaign, Murtaugh noted.
"The president has decided that he wants Bill Stepien steering the ship, but Brad's still manning the digital guns," Murtaugh said. "Running this campaign is who Bill is, and the president obviously trusts him to bring this home."
The late-game personnel change was reminiscent of Trump's decision less than 2 1/2 months from the 2016 election to replace campaign chief Paul Manafort. He named Conway campaign manager and brought in Steve Bannon as chief strategist and David Bossie as deputy campaign manager just before Labor Day that year. Trump was losing in most public polls then to Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Stepien had been deputy campaign manager prior to his promotion and has primarily turned to existing Trump campaign staff for senior positions rather than hiring additional advisers to the national campaign.
In one of his first acts as campaign manager, Stepien notified staff working at the campaign's headquarters that they should expect to work 18-hour days, including on the weekends, and be consumed by the campaign heading into the final stretch.
"There's some people in there that kind of fell into place, that don't necessarily even want to be there," one person said of the discussion. "It should be 18-hour days and it should be seven days a week. We're 100 days out. If not now, when?"
Many of the young aides had never worked on a presidential campaign before, and some had not intended to participate in one. The frequent staff purges in the White House resulted in some of the young aides working out of the Republican National Committee's annex in Arlington, Virginia, as an alternative to finding other employment, and they had not been told what to expect.
Stepien has made structural changes to the campaign, promoting Justin Clark to deputy campaign manager and making Nick Trainer director of battleground states, where the Trump campaign and the RNC have a combined 1,500 staff as of July. The alumni of the 2016 campaign left senior positions at the White House after the 2018 midterm elections and took roles advising the president's reelection campaign.
"It's putting people in the right places at the right time," said Marc Lotter, director of strategic communications for the Trump campaign.
In his new role, Trainer oversees engagement with elected Republicans, making sure they are looped into the campaign's activities. Meanwhile, Jason Miller, another Trump loyalist who served as a campaign adviser in 2016, rejoined the campaign in early June and is broadly overseeing strategy.
Miller is applying the messaging approach he took during Trump's impeachment trial, when he co-hosted the "War Room" podcast with Bannon, to attacking Biden. Miller starts each morning by sending a team email, outlining the themes he wants campaign staff and surrogates pushing that day, a person familiar with the emails said.
"If Stepien is the left brain of the campaign, then Miller is the right brain," said Andrew Surabian, Republican strategist and an adviser to Donald Trump Jr., who is a key force in his father's campaign.
"I think that Bill and Jason really complement each other and provide a nice yin and yang for the campaign," said Surabian, who worked closely with Stepien when they were at the White House. "Jason is there to be the ideas guy, to be the messaging guy, to be the strategic guy. Bill is there to be the political guy, he's the nuts and bolts guy, he's the operations guy."
One of the biggest problems that Stepien faces, aside from staffing, is how to put Trump in front of his supporters, with rallies in many battleground states out of the question for the foreseeable future. Trump has had to rely on much smaller White House organized events in swing states, in settings where every attendee is able to be tested for the coronavirus, social distancing can be implemented and staff does not have to quarantine for 14 days.
Campaign officials said they still expect the president to hold rallies, and they will continue to look for opportunities in states with low coronavirus transmission rates.
In the meantime, the campaign is hoping voters will tune into appearances that Trump is making in the states in his official capacity, in addition to the "tele-rallies" he's been holding and the appearances he has begun making again at the White House podium.
Trump has made peace with his new normal and enjoys addressing his supporters at the phone events, a Trump aide said, describing it as a good way to dip into a state and see what kind of reception he gets there.
Murtaugh said the campaign has made 68 million calls to voters since March 13 and has had close to 1.6 million volunteers.
In a virtual presentation to reporters last week, Stepien referred to the tele-rallies and emphasized a new strategy of having Trump drop into target states like Maine, which he lost narrowly four years ago, to announce federal action on key local issues.
"These are the types of hyper-local things that matter in an election year and a challenger can't do," Stepien said of the White House-organized events.
Stepien disputed public polling that shows Trump trailing Biden during the presentation, arguing that the surveys are inaccurate, because they do not take new voter registrations into account. The tactician insisted that changes in voter registration in states like North Carolina and Florida, two states that Trump won in 2016, show Republicans cutting in half the advantage that former President Barack Obama had.
"Unless you have a keen pollster following these registration changes, who's up, who's down, in what counties, in what regions, these trends are going to go unnoticed until election night. Like, we're right and they're wrong," Stepien said.
John Anzalone, the private pollster for Biden and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, told McClatchy that he is accounting for changes in voter registration. Anzalone said that every poll he has conducted in North Carolina in the last half year has Trump losing the state.
He cited a Fox News poll that showed Biden up by eight or more points in five swing states and noted that sites that produce rolling averages show Trump losing. "You can't talk that away. You can't wish it away. This isn't 2016," Anzalone said.
Several aides to Trump admitted in private conversations that Trump is losing to Biden. One of them blamed the president for spending too much time sparring with reporters during his earlier coronavirus briefings and not enough time empathizing with Americans affected by the virus. Trump further damaged his standing with the public when he talked about ingesting disinfectant to fight the virus, that aide said.
"The problem with the campaign was the candidate," the adviser said.
(c)2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.