Republican candidate Donald Trump overhauled his struggling presidential campaign on Wednesday, hiring the head of a conservative news website to bolster his combative image but raising doubts about whether he can boost slipping opinion poll numbers.
Trump announced he had named Steve Bannon, head of the news website Breitbart News, as campaign chief executive officer, a new position. He also promoted senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to the position of campaign manager. She is expected to travel with Trump and advise him on the road.
The shake-up combines Bannon, a conservative flamethrower, with Conway, a measured, data-driven analyst who has the ability to broaden Trump’s appeal to women and independent voters.
It offers Trump’s team a chance to let him return to the “let Trump be Trump” style practiced by former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in defeating 16 rivals for the Republican presidential nomination for the Nov. 8 election.
Lewandowski, ousted in June, said on CNN that Bannon was “a street fighter” like himself. The campaign statement announcing the changes touted a Bloomberg Politics article that branded Bannon “the most dangerous political operative in America.”
Whether this style will work in a general election campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton is unclear, coming at a time when he largely has been unable to extend his reach beyond white middle-class voters who pack his rallies by the thousands.
The appointments amounted to a demotion for Paul Manafort, who was brought on as campaign manager this year to professionalize Trump’s campaign but has struggled to get the New York businessman to rein in his freewheeling ways.
Trump finds himself behind Clinton in national polls and in many battleground states, potentially facing a big defeat that could also cost Republicans congressional races.
Conway and Bannon may prove to be opposing forces in Trump’s campaign. Conway is analytical and numbers-driven and often offers a more pragmatic approach to winning campaigns. Bannon likes to push the limits of polite conversation and revels in taking the fight up a notch, strategists say.
“For Steve and I, we also recognise that we are different when we say we have different styles, but we have one vision,” Conway told reporters.
Bannon was a key figure in producing and promoting a movie called “Clinton Cash” that accuses Bill and Hillary Clinton of doing favours for high-dollar donors to the Clinton Foundation charity, a theme that Trump has been touching on in his campaign speeches.
“My guess is Bannon will be a bull in a china shop and Conway will be focussed on messaging and paid media,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
The Clinton campaign staged a conference call for reporters to comment on Trump’s moves.
“What’s become clear from this is no matter how much the establishment wants to clean Donald Trump up, get him on a teleprompter and get him on message, he has officially won the fight to let Trump be Trump,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said.
Bannon’s appointment suggested that Trump is aiming not so much to tone down his aggressive style but to be more disciplined in emphasizing themes that resonate strongly with the voters he is trying to court, such as his stances on illegal immigration and withering personal criticism of Clinton.
“I am who I am, I don’t want to change,” Trump told Wisconsin television station WKTB on Tuesday. “If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Trump in the past, said the candidate’s embrace of Bannon seemed to indicate he had no intention of changing tactics.
“He’s rejecting efforts by political professionals to professionalize his campaign and he’s going the route he went in the primaries: hard right. It’s proven to be a disaster in the general election,” Walsh said.
The shift to new leadership may not be a good sign at this stage of a campaign, but some Republican strategists stressed that it was not too late for Trump.
“I’ve thought for a while that they’ve needed more smart, senior people and it looks like they just got them,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black. “It’s only the middle of August. This race is going to be close in the end, but he does need to tighten up his performance.”
The change is expected to lead to shorter, more policy-specific campaign speeches from Trump like the one he gave in Milwaukee on Tuesday night. Instead of an hour-long, no-holds-barred performance, he delivered more focussed remarks about the need for law and order, reading from a teleprompter.
“You’ll see more of that,” said a Republican source with close ties to the campaign. “That is the type of messaging that Donald Trump wants to be giving and is comfortable giving.”
Conway told Fox News she was advising Trump, a former reality TV show host who has never held elected office, to “keep giving policy speeches,” saying voters want to hear more than “cacophony.”
She said she was also advising him to take “his case directly to the people.” Trump does not like people to tell him what to say and how to say it, she said, adding, “With Donald Trump, he is still his own best messenger because people see him as very authentic.”
A New Jersey-based pollster, Conway has worked in Republican polling since the 1980s, including for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. She also worked for vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in his earlier races.
Conway has worked to improve the Republican Party’s standing with women voters and to push back on the Democratic accusations that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”
Trump, who relishes revving up crowds with off-the-cuff remarks, drew criticism for comments insulting women, Muslims and Mexican immigrants during the primary campaign for the Republican White House nomination, which he formally accepted last month.
Since then, he has faced a barrage of criticism from Republicans over his campaign style and his refusal to stick to a policy message. In particular, he has been rebuked for his prolonged feud with the family of a Muslim U.S. Army captain who was killed in the Iraq war.
A campaign source said Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge fund manager and Republican donor Bob Mercer, played an integral part in presenting Bannon and Conway to Trump and his adult children, who have been influential with the campaign.
Trump’s family members were concerned that there was no one on the campaign staff that Trump trusted for advice on how to react to new developments.
The source said Bannon came on after it was clear both Trump and his children, especially his son-in-law Jared Kushner, trusted his advice and analysis.
Manafort, who will remain on the campaign but will see his influence scaled back, drew unwelcome attention this week when the New York Times reported that his name was on secret ledgers showing cash payments designated to him of more than $12 million from a Ukrainian political party with close ties to Russia. Manafort denied any impropriety on Monday.
The source also said Trump was less concerned than his children were about Manafort’s Russia ties. The news reports about Manafort’s relationship with Ukrainian officials could have been “the last straw,” but the biggest problem was Trump did not trust Manafort’s advice, the source said.
The current RealClearPolitics average of national opinion polls puts Clinton six percentage points ahead of Trump, at 47.2 percent to his 41.2 percent.