Everything was supposed to change once Donald Trump became the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee.
He would stop with the barking and bickering and racist comments, hunker down in the dozen or so states deemed likely to decide the November election, and go on the sort of hiring and campaign-building spree that, history suggests, a candidate needs to seriously vie for the White House.
But the Manhattan business executive and reality TV star continues to defy expectations.
Rather than seek to unite the party, he keeps picking fights with fellow Republicans. He let go the strategist he had hired to expand his team in battleground states and devoted several days to campaigning across California, which he vows to contest in the fall — along with strongly Democratic New York — despite vanishingly small odds of success.
At a time he could be fundraising to replenish the GOP’s drained coffers, he plans to go abroad — not to meet with foreign leaders, but to promote his golf resorts in Ireland and Scotland.
In short, Trump continues to be Trump, an approach that accounts for a great part of his success to this point but represents a considerable gamble: a wager that the gravity-defying strategy that won him the GOP nomination can succeed under the far greater rigors ahead.
The candidate and his small, tightly knit political team have no lack of confidence.
“His ability to bring people out is unparalleled,” said Corey Lewandowski, the manager of Trump’s campaign. “What we have is an ability to expand the map and put states in play that a Republican has not had a chance to win since probably 1984.”
Others in the party are much less sanguine.
“Trump is a phenomenon, like nothing we’ve ever seen,” said Scott Reed, a political strategist for the Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “But the general election is a totally different ballgame.”
There is no denying that Trump took the usual presidential playbook — which suggests a candidate should be measured in tone, painstaking in detail, rigorous in field organizing and lavish in paid TV advertising — and ground it to a fine pulp. It could be argued that he won the GOP nomination against a large field of more practiced politicians precisely because he broke the perceived rules.
“Conventionality doesn’t work in this environment. To get ahead, you’ve got to be disruptive,” said Don Sipple, a media strategist whose range of political clients has included Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won California’s governorship in an unprecedented 2003 recall, and the state’s current governor, Democrat Jerry Brown.
Driving Trump’s campaign is a notion the election will be decided not by tactical maneuvering or granular targeting, but a larger force: discontent with the stultifying status quo, embodied by the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and the provocative promise offered by Trump’s raging bull candidacy.
“I’ve always felt it was overrated,” Trump told the Associated Press, referring to the data-crunching wizardry that so mesmerizes the political digerati.
Clinton has worked to re-create the Obama model, even hiring some of his campaign alumni, and used it to great success beating back a stern challenge from Bernie Sanders, most recently in Tuesday’s California primary.
“My best investment is my rallies,” Trump said. “The people go home, they tell their friends they loved it. It’s been good.”
He also minimizes the importance of other campaign conventions, such as bulking up staff in key states, saying he will rely on operations put in place by the Republican National Committee — even though the party is struggling with money and manpower issues, owing in part to qualms some donors have about supporting Trump.
In an interview with Bloomberg news service Wednesday, he went back on an earlier suggestion he would raise $1 billion for the campaign, saying he receives so much free publicity he could win the White House collecting much less.
He only recently hired a pollster — reluctantly, it would seem, after earlier calling such an expenditure a waste of money.
In effect, Trump serves as his own chief strategist, campaign spokesman and overseer of day-to-day operations, relying largely on the instincts he’s honed as a real estate developer navigating New York City’s tabloid media and jungle politics.
“Don’t believe the biased and phony media quoting people who work for my campaign,” Trump said in a recent tweet. “The only quote that matters is a quote from me!”
Yet, even though his unorthodox approach has been undeniably successful getting this far, some Republicans caution that certain fundamentals of winning a campaign — identifying likely supporters, communicating with them and, most importantly, ensuring they vote — have not changed.
By focusing on big rallies and a frothy Twitter feed and disparaging tools like polling and data-driven targeting, they say, Trump proceeds into the fall contest at his own peril.
“If you look at Hillary’s campaign and look at his campaign, she has, in the traditional sense, a lot of advantages,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist heading a pro-Trump political action committee. “She’s got a lot more people, a lot more research, polling, advertising all prepared to go.”
Trump, he said, “has a lot of things he has to put in play in a very short time.”
That kind of second-guessing could, of course, be ascribed to a consultant class that is very much a part of the political establishment that Trump promises to topple, threatening a long-standing and lucrative way of doing business.
There are, though, quantitative and measurable differences between a primary campaign and a general election.
The November electorate is vastly larger and far more diverse than the overwhelmingly white, largely male and mostly conservative voters who made Trump the Republican Party’s de facto nominee.
He starts at a clear disadvantage, if the last half-dozen presidential races offer any guidance. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the six contests going back to 1992 and carried 18 states and the District of Columbia each time, for 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
It will take a feat of political reengineering that could greatly benefit from advanced tools such as polling and voter profiling.
“The most important thing is allocating resources to make sure you’re precisely and effectively targeting persuadable voters who will decide the outcome of the election in a handful of states,” said Steve Schmidt, who worked for President George W. Bush’s successful 2004 reelection campaign and helped run the campaign of 2008 GOP nominee John McCain.
“Where do you allocate a candidate’s time? Where do you deploy key surrogates?” Schmidt went on. “How many rallies do you have in Pennsylvania vs. Michigan vs. Ohio vs. Florida?”
That said, if Trump’s political achievement proves anything, it is that he is determined to do things in his own fashion, which is often contrary to the way they have usually been done. Will his contrarian approach work in November?
“We don’t really know,” said Sipple, the longtime media strategist. “We’re all in a laboratory now, watching this experiment and seeing where it goes.”
2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Trump on Wednesday.
This article was orignally published at 11 a.m.