10 min read

Is Donald Trump running a good campaign?

No, not particularly. But it doesn’t really matter.
Is Donald Trump running a good campaign?
Former President Donald Trump with Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sen. Joni Ernst. (National Archives)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, July 12, 2023. The 2024 elections are 482 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Donald Trump has an Iowa problem. And no, it’s not just because he asked “what the hell is a Blizzard?” at a Dairy Queen in Council Bluffs.

Six months before the state’s all-important first-in-the-nation caucuses — which were recently scheduled for January 15, 2024 — Trump is picking fights with some of the most powerful Republicans in Iowa.

He targeted Gov. Kim Reynolds, the state’s popular GOP executive, in a Truth Social post this week, criticizing her for remaining neutral in the presidential primary — even though that is the traditional stance for Iowa governors.

“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won,” Trump wrote. “Now, she wants to remain “NEUTRAL.” I don’t invite her to events! DeSanctus down 45 points!”

Trump has also thumbed his nose at a series of conservative cattle calls in the state, which Republican candidates typically attend to curry favor with Iowa voters and activists. Eight GOP candidates attended Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual “Roast and Ride” fundraiser last month, but Trump was nowhere to be found.

This Friday, six candidates will attend a summit put on by The FAMiLY Leader, a leading conservative Christian group in Iowa. Each of the attending candidates will participate in a forum moderated by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson; the group’s president, Bob Vander Plaats, announced yesterday that Trump’s campaign had declined the invitation.

Vander Plaats is exactly the kind of Iowa operative that presidential candidates usually fall over themselves to court before the caucuses. He also has a history of picking winners in Iowa: his preferred candidates came out on top in the last three contested caucuses (Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, Ted Cruz in 2016).

Trump, as usual, is playing the game differently, opting to offend Vander Plaats instead of flatter him. “The rationale for Trump not coming is that it’s a scheduling conflict,” Vander Plaats told The Messenger. “But in presidential campaigns, another word for ‘scheduling conflicts’ is ‘choices.’ And he made a choice.”

Rival campaigns and top Iowa Republicans are taking notice as Trump commits his Hawkeye State faux pas.

Several GOP presidential candidates have rallied to Reynolds’ defense since Trump attacked her, including Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who shares a chummy relationship with his Iowa counterpart.

“Kim Reynolds is a strong leader who knows how to ignore the chirping and get it done,” he wrote on Twitter.

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, another Republican contender, went even further in her praise: “Kim Reynolds is the best governor in the country,” she told Fox News. (The statement had the added benefit of packing a one-two punch against not just Trump, but DeSantis as well.)

Leading Iowa operatives also criticized Trump over his Reynolds attack. Cody Hoefert, the former co-chairman of the state GOP, wrote on Twitter that he’s “out on the former president” after the comments. David Kochel, who helped lead Jeb Bush’s campaign in 2016, added that Trump’s “penchant for self-destruction” has been on display in Iowa, calling his assault on Reynolds “insane.”

“Stupid as is stupid does,” Vander Plaats wrote of the Truth Social post heard ’round Iowa. He appended his tweet with a noticeable message: “#ChooseWell2024.”

The bigger picture

This Iowa brouhaha was on my mind as I was reading a Substack post this week by Chris Cillizza, formerly a top analyst at CNN and the Washington Post.

“Donald Trump is running a very good campaign,” Cillizza’s piece was headlined. Cillizza laid out the significant polling evidence that Trump is the heavy favorite for the Republican nomination, writing:

If any other Republican candidate was in such a position or close to it — in the primary and the general election — we would be raving about the way he (or she) had effectively turned what once looked like a competitive race into a coronation. And praising the candidate — and the people behind the candidate.

Cillizza makes many good points, including noting all the ways Trump has learned from his past mistakes: building a better ground game, having an actual delegate strategy, avoiding (so far) the infighting that plagued his previous bids. As Cillizza notes, instead of the relative novices that ran his 2016 effort, Trump’s campaign this time is being helmed by a pair of political pros, Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles. Impressively, despite that two-headed leadership structure, there hasn’t seemed to be much friction or drama inside Trumpworld’s 2024 operation.

“He looked FAR more vulnerable to a primary challenge in January than he does today,” Cillizza writes. “And that’s a credit to the campaign he has run.”

With respect to Chris, although there’s no doubt that the first sentence in that statement is true, I’m not sure I’m sold on the second.

It seems to me that Trump’s standing is less a credit to an effective campaign than to the unique, almost untouchable position he holds — and seemingly will always hold — in our political ecosystem.

After all, as Cillizza acknowledges, Trump’s campaign in 2024 has not been error-free. In fact, it’s been littered with classic political fumbles, most recently the ones I chronicled above in Iowa.

It’s just that Trump — after eight years on the political stage, two impeachments, and two indictments — still rarely pays a price for any of them.

Recall, for example, the crop of stories back in April about DeSantis and his difficulties attracting endorsements from Republican members of Congress, after his team ignored many of them for years and failed to conduct basic political outreach. (I wrote my own version of that story, titled “The art of the schmooze.”)

Then read these excerpts, tucked near the end of a recent New York Times article on Trump and Reynolds:

Last month, Mr. Trump skipped the signature “Roast and Ride” event organized by Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa. His campaign had expressed interest in sending videotaped remarks, and Ms. Ernst’s operation then rented large screens for the purpose of showing them, but he never sent a video — leaving Ms. Ernst’s team without a recording, and the cost of the equipment to cover, according to five people briefed on the incident.
Ms. Ernst’s team had planned on using the chance to win a motorcycle helmet signed by all of the Republican candidates as a lure to sell tickets to the “Roast and Ride.” They sent the helmet to Mr. Trump, who returned it later than expected and had added the numbers “45” and “47,” signaling he would be the 47th president, the role everyone else is also running for, according to two people with knowledge of the episode. They never used the helmet.

DeSantis had to suffer through a whole news cycle for making missteps like this, and likely would again if anything like this about him were to come out. Instead, for Trump, those damning anecdotes weren’t even the main thrust of the story they were revealed in.

Or consider the recent flap over the DeSantis campaign’s bizarre video promoting the Florida governor’s hardline anti-LGBT stance and, at one point, comparing him to fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman. Again, the video sparked a bruising DeSantis news cycle, including days of Republicans criticizing him for posting it.

But Trump has laid out his own extreme policy positions in the 2024 campaign, including on LGBT rights, without attracting much blowback or attention. His campaign also churns out more than its share of mystifying videos (remember the one they edited to sound like Hitler joined DeSantis’ presidential launch? No?) but such posts never seem to make a splash if they don’t come from “DeSantis War Room” on Twitter.

It was less than a year ago that Trump dined with two of America’s leading anti-semites, something you never hear about anymore; it was only two months ago that a federal jury found him liable for sexual abuse, another in a long list of offenses quickly memory-holed. How long would Ron DeSantis last if either of those stories were about him?

Trump is, as ever, graded on a curve, in the 2024 campaign as much as he was in 2016. No, none of this is new. “Teflon Don” has been the reality for years. But I do think it offers an explanation — more than any impressive campaign tactics — for his enduring strength among the Republican electorate. And it tells us something about the unique status Trump still holds in our politics and our minds, with his misdeeds so frequent, so nonchalant, somehow still so novel and hard-to-categorize, that our psyches remain numb to them, eight years on. We clock them and quickly discard them, in a way we do for few other public figures.

Some commentators thought after 2016 that the era of political scandal was over, that Trump’s rise meant politicians would be able to get away with anything. That hasn’t been the case. Instead, we’ve seen other politicians fall away in disgrace, while Trump uniquely has remained standing through it all. (Then again, still no one has emerged who is quite as shameless or carefree about their scandals as Trump.)

This continues to hold true in 2024: while many of his rivals are new enough to the national stage that any misstep can be fatal, Trump remains so known and beloved by the Republican electorate that he is immune to nearly every mistake he could make. That, I think, has been the essential ingredient fueling his bid, more than anything he or his team has done in his favor.

Perhaps Trump has been running an effective campaign behind the scenes. But the truth is, at least in public, he’s barely been running a campaign at all: in addition to skipping the aforementioned cattle calls in Iowa, Trump is off the campaign trail much more often than he’s on it. Per Axios, since February, DeSantis has campaigned in 52 cities. Trump has visited 20.

But, of course, he doesn’t need to campaign at a frantic speed like his rivals do. Trump has the luxuries of an uber-frontrunner, one whose name ID is 100% and who comes with a pre-set aura of invincibility. It’s not that Trump is running a particularly impressive campaign or playing error-free ball; it’s that his errors (or, for that matter, his campaigning) never count for anything. He could be running a good campaign, a bad campaign, or effectively no campaign: in the Republican primary, at least, it largely doesn’t matter, which is the real reason his advantage is so large.

That’s why he can skip events in Iowa, and even tangle with the state’s Republican power players, without much consequences. Republican voters are so inured to his missteps — and long ago decided that his benefits outweigh his flaws — that they make little difference. There hasn’t been much polling from Iowa yet this cycle, but so far, there’s no evidence his clashes with Reynolds, Ernst, or Vander Plaats will move the needle.

There are other factors behind Trump’s dominance too, of course. We in the media no doubt play a role, both by over-covering Trump and simultaneously under-covering him. His rivals have often treated him with kid gloves, and, DeSantis especially, made a number of tactical errors.

The latest tactical error, in my view, has been DeSantis’ response to Trump’s Iowa fumbles, taking the opportunity to hype up the stakes of the caucus contest. “Trump’s snub of Iowa conservatives should come as no surprise,” the DeSantis campaign recently wrote in a fundraising email. “Over the last two months, it has been one misstep after another for Donald Trump in Iowa.”

Language like that has led several media outlets to report on Iowa as a do-or-die event for Trump’s rivals, or even one where they hold an advantage because of Trump’s mistakes. Based off the current polling data, that’s a very dangerous rhetorical game for DeSantis to play.

Now, if Trump wins Iowa (as polls suggest he will), it will be viewed as doubly impressive. He pissed off Kim Reynolds, and he still won! the narrative will go. Just like in 2016, Trump will be the triumphant slayer of Republican establishment figures; his rivals will be left in the dust.

DeSantis can ill-afford to up his expectations in Iowa, which means he boasts about Trump’s fumbles at his peril. Especially after the latest flaps, if Trump does win there in January, it will likely send him cruising towards the nomination. And, from what we know about Trump, it’s hard to see these latest dustups leaving much of a mark.

More news to know.

Prices rose in the U.S. by just 3% in June compared to a year ago, the lowest level of annual inflation the country has seen in more than two years.

Learning gaps created during the pandemic are not closing, a new study found: they are only growing.

The Biden Justice Department has reversed itself and decided to no longer defend Trump in the latest lawsuit brought by writer E. Jean Carroll.

“White nationalists are racists,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) affirmed to reporters on Tuesday, one day after he refused to make such a statement in a CNN interview.

President Biden skipped last night’s dinner with NATO leaders, as the 80-year-old has done at previous international summits. “The president has four full days of official business and is preparing for a big speech tomorrow,” a U.S. official said as explanation.

Desperate to make the debate stage, Trump’s 2024 rivals are trying out a range of novel fundraising gimmicks, from offering gift cards for donations to promising bundlers 10% of the contributions they raise.

A series of Biden administration officials are traveling to China this summer, hoping old-fashioned diplomacy can succeed in cooling tensions.

The day ahead.

President Biden is in Vilnius, Lithuania for the annual NATO summit. Earlier this morning, he attended meetings as part of the summit, including a one-on-one with Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskyy. Later today, he will deliver remarks at Vilnius University on supporting Ukraine.

Vice President Harris will meet with civil rights leaders and consumer protection experts to discuss the societal impact of AI.

First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Columbus, Ohio, to attend the launch of the city’s “Workforce Hub,” and to New York City to attend the the first convening of the Global First Ladies Academy at Columbia University. First ladies from across Africa will also attend the multi-day training program.

The Senate will vote to confirm three nominees: Tiffany Cartwright (to be a U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Washington), Myong Joun (to be a U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts), and Kalpana Kotagal (to be a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

The House may begin consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024, although the package has yet to advance out of the Rules Committee amid internal GOP debates.

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