Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump reset his political campaign this week, buying ads in crucial swing states and dialing down his hard-charging rhetoric in the hope of overcoming his weeks-long slump in the polls.
The change of pace came after a leadership shakeup in the Trump campaign early this week. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump elevated Kellyanne Conway, a veteran pollster and Republican campaign strategist, to the position of campaign manager, and hired Stephen Bannon, the executive chairman of the Breitbart conservative news network, as the campaign’s chief executive. And on Friday, embattled campaign chairman Paul Manafort—whose work with Ukrainian political leaders had sparked controversy—resigned from his position, reportedly telling Mr. Trump that he did not want to become a distraction from his candidacy.
In his first address since the campaign shakeup, Donald Trump pressed a remarkably conciliatory message, expressing for the first time “regret” for the times during which he “sa[id] the wrong thing” and “caused personal pain.” In another notable change, the speech established a positive narrative for his campaign, contrasting the lawlessness and corruption of a Clinton administration with the order and honesty of a President Trump.
“That’s why I am running: to end the decades of bitter failure and to offer the American people a new future of honesty, justice and opportunity. A future where America, and its people, always—and I mean always—come first.”
— Donald J. Trump
The trouble for Mr. Trump, however, will be sustaining this new course. He has attempted a reset like this before—back in March, he brought on the now-ousted Mr. Manafort to professionalize his campaign and squash anti-Trump forces at the Republican convention—but the transformation did not last long. And with every campaign reset, Mr. Trump risks appearing inept. That the Republican nominee has had to reorder his campaign again—with less than three months to go before election day—does not inspire much confidence in his ability to take the fight to Hillary Clinton and run an effective presidential campaign.
That said, if Mr. Trump hews closely to his new campaign strategy, he will be able to recover some lost ground. As I wrote last week, his poll numbers, once in free fall, have stabilized, and there are still some opportunities for him to engineer a stunning comeback. A strong performance in the first debate is crucial for him, but almost more important is the long-term battle which Mr. Trump must wage to convince voters who dislike both him and his opponent that he has the temperament to lead the country. Softening his rhetoric, as he did in his address on Thursday night, will go a long way toward selling his candidacy to these voters, as will putting forward a positive message.
Mr. Trump also made his first general election ad buy, dropping $5 million to air a national security-themed campaign advertisement for ten days in the critical battleground states of North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. This move marks the first substantial effort by the Republican nominee to fight back against Hillary Clinton’s virtual monopoly of the airwaves, where she has spent over $100 million so far.
Mr. Trump’s greatest challenge between now and Election Day will be to improve his abysmal favorability numbers, which currently hover in the low 30s. Favorability is one of the most important determining factors in an election, as affirmative support for a candidate is much more likely to turn out voters than mere distaste for the nominee of the opposing party.
Polling has borne out two major problems for Mr. Trump, both of which he will have to rectify in order to boost his likability among voters and expand his voter base. First, many voters are concerned with the Republican nominee’s temperament and, though perhaps agreeing with his policy views, feel that he is too unstable to be an effective, steady president. Strikingly, in a recent national YouGov survey, over three-fifths of respondents in the nationally-representative sample group agreed that the adjectives “crazy” and “dangerous” apply to Donald Trump. To change these numbers, Mr. Trump will need to control his outbursts on the stump and present himself as a reasonable and cool-headed alternative to Hillary Clinton.
Second, the same survey found that a majority of voters would not describe Mr. Trump as “capable” enough for the presidency. This is a big problem, as it signals that by and large, voters see the Republican candidate as unfit for the highest office in the land. Quashing this sentiment will take time, but if Mr. Trump can stay disciplined, avoiding the distractions which have dogged his campaign in recent weeks, and feed voters a steady diet of thoughtful policy proposals and razor-sharp attacks on Mrs. Clinton, he may be able to assuage voters’ fears and prove that he is ready to lead if elected president.