Former President Trump’s latest White House campaign appears more disciplined than his previous bids for the Oval Office, strategists say, making moves that have surprised some observers as savvy.
Trump’s 2024 presidential bid was initially criticized as sluggish and disorganized after his launch last November, but since then, the campaign has appeared relatively streamlined, even as he faces legal battles that could complicate his run.
The former president took many off guard when he preempted President Biden with plans to visit Detroit amid the auto strike. And he has beefed up his ground campaign considerably in Iowa and other early-voting states in the hope of undercutting top rivals, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
“His approach is still that renegade cowboy, loose cannon approach — it’s still what makes Trump, Trump — but the fact that there’s an infrastructure beneath him that is following up, making sure they do all the detail work, handle all those details is a very important factor,” said Saul Anuzis, a GOP strategist and former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
Trump, who boasts a major lead over the GOP presidential field, skipped the first and second debates in Wisconsin and California, respectively, pulling attention away from those events in the process, first with an interview with Tucker Carlson and then with counterprogramming in Michigan.
Turning down the chance to get in front of the cameras on stage “would have been counterintuitive” to Trump’s earlier campaigns, said GOP strategist Brian Seitchik, “but it was clearly to his benefit not to be there.”
“I don’t think that’s something that Trump would have identified before,” Seitchik said.
Strategists noted Trump’s appearance at a nonunion factory in Detroit as solid counterprogramming. Biden then announced he’d also visit the city the day before Trump’s visit, making for back-to-back appearances in a state that could prove pivotal in next year’s election.
Trump’s team this week called for the Republican National Committee to cancel its third debate scheduled in Miami next month after reports the former president won’t attend. His absence has loomed large over debate stages so far as his competitors scramble to stand out and catch up with him.
“Overall, I do think that they’re more sophisticated this time around,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak of the Trump campaign, adding that the “elevated” strategy seems reflected in Trump’s formidable lead over the rest of the field.
Trump’s successful 2016 bid and failed 2020 run were both characterized by chaos — and Trump is still “sometimes undisciplined,” Mackowiak noted. But the operatives around the former president this time, like senior advisers Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles, appear to be steering him more strategically as he vies again for the presidency.
Compared to Trump’s earlier runs, the 2024 bid has seen fewer media leaks about “internal campaign drama” and infighting among campaign staff, advisers and consultants, said Florida-based GOP strategist Justin Sayfie.
“That’s probably the most apparent example of a more organized, more professional campaign,” he said.
The campaign has picked up pace since its post-midterms November launch and slow rollout — even as Trump’s legal battles, which include multiple criminal indictments, have intensified.
But Trump’s campaign has cried “witch hunt” and capitalized on his legal woes, moving swiftly to fundraise off developments like his arrest and mug shot in Georgia. He made a voluntary court appearance in New York on Monday, drawing further media attention.
Trump has also been upping his presence in Iowa, the first state to vote in the GOP nominating process next year. Iowa has long been seen as key to giving momentum to top candidates and narrowing the field.
The former president is making another visit to Iowa this weekend in an effort to quash his competitors ahead of the caucuses there in January.
“The really tough part” of Trump’s campaign is going to be the run-up to Iowa, Mackowiak said. “That’s where we’re really going to see, organizationally, how Trump stacks up to DeSantis.”
Seitchik likened the Trump campaign at this point in the 2024 cycle to where his prior bids were at the end of their respective races. The bulk of 2016 and 2020 were “chaotic” but shored up as leadership shifted, he said.
“The campaign is working with Trump, not coming behind him and trying to catch up. And I think that’s the big difference. There’s certainly a professionalism to the campaign now and a sense of order,” Seitchik said.
But several strategists stressed the air of increased discipline from the campaign doesn’t mean the former president will sail smoothly to victory in 2024.
“The Trump campaign is starting to look wiser than years past. But he continues to have weak message discipline. And it’s hard for a tiger to change his stripes or leopard to change its spots because he’s accustomed to impulsive decisions, rather than strategic decisions,” said GOP strategist Mark Weaver.
His campaign could also get weighed down with court appearances and legal obligations — and some contend Trump’s decision to skip the debates could also backfire, giving his competitors more space to make their case and come after him.
Anuzis said Trump’s legal woes are likely why some candidates struggling for second place behind him are sticking it out, in the event that the front-runner’s campaign is derailed by courtroom complications.
Barring that, Trump’s formidable lead over his GOP competitors indicates that his campaign’s strategy is working well. But polling also suggests a tight matchup with Biden — and Trump would likely have to win back voters he lost in his previous presidential runs to win a general election.
“I kind of wonder sometimes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. His first two campaigns were pretty darn successful,” Sayfie said.
As “disorganized or chaotic” as Trump’s earlier campaigns were, his 2016 campaign took him to the Oval Office and his 2020 run brought him close to Biden “during a global pandemic after he had been impeached.”
“It remains to be seen whether a better structured, better organized, more professional campaign operation will be as successful as version 2.0 than the first iteration of Trump’s campaign,” Sayfie said.