This Monday, the Donald Trump campaign fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. This was apparently the result of three major, long-brewing concerns in the Trump inner circle: 1) A desire for a change in messaging to make Trump more mainstream and palatable to the big donors and leaders in the Republican Party, 2) A desire for more professional management of the technical aspects of the campaign, particularly in staff, finances, and ad buys, and 3) Public incidents involving Lewandowski, and behind-the-scenes conflicts between him and members of the Trump family.
The first manifestation of these concerns was when the campaign hired long-time GOP man Paul Manafort in March. However, it became clear that adding Manafort was not enough to assuage concerns. So this Monday, the campaign upped the ante by firing Lewandowski. This was a mistake. But let’s start by looking at a couple reasons one could offer for firing Lewandowski, and see if they hold water.
The Reasons for Firing Lewandowski Aren’t Great
First, there was the (in)famous incident where he was accused of assaulting reporter Michelle Fields by pulling her arm and guiding her away from Trump as she aggressively tried to interview him. Yet the state of Florida declined to prosecute Lewandowski due to a lack of evidence (it’s worth noting that the prosecutor is a registered Democrat and Hillary supporter).
Indeed, looking at the admittedly low-quality security footage of the incident, it looks much less like an assault than a campaign manager firmly pulling a zealous journalist away from his candidate. I’m willing to bet that if someone had grabbed my arm and pulled me in the same fashion, I would have been laughed out of the room if I tried to file charges. Considering all this, the Fields incident can’t be a legitimate reason for dismissing Lewandowski.
Then there were indications Lewandowski did not get along with the husband of Trump’s daughter Ivanka, Jared Kushner, who was apparently attempting to influence the campaign. In response, Lewandowski did as any properly trained campaign manager is supposed to do: reassert control and keep things on track. In fact, overzealous family members are often one of the biggest recurring issues any campaign manager must deal with, and can sometimes even derail a campaign.
However, it appears that Ivanka and Trump’s other children did not take well to their voices being sidelined, so convinced their father to get rid of Lewandowski. Trump has little training in politics, but if he did, he would have known that the campaign manager is the guy who runs the campaign, not the son-in-law and other family members, and complaints from the latter shouldn’t be cause to fire the former.
Reasons to Keep Corey Lewandowski
Now let’s look at some reasons for keeping Lewandowski. When Trump announced his candidacy last June, the pundits, the GOP, and the media said he wouldn’t make it through summer 2015. Then they said he wouldn’t make it to Thanksgiving. They said he wouldn’t make it through the New Year, and soon New Year became summer 2016. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. They said when he talked about cocaine and criminals coming over the Mexican border, those comments were racist and would sink him. They were wrong. They said “Build The Wall!” was crazy and would doom his campaign. Wrong again.
Why? Because Trump and Lewandowski’s two-pronged strategy of: 1) Letting Trump run with his popular, unorthodox message and 2) Using the media for free advertising instead of expensive TV ad buys was a winning strategy. How do I know this?
GOP man Jeb Bush, who raised more than $150 million and was loved by the establishment, had a calm, non-offensive, brainy, conventional message and ran his campaign by the textbook. Yet Trump clobbered him despite being outspent by nearly $100 million. The same is true for fellow establishment candidates Marco Rubio and John Kasich. In fact, when viewed as dollars spent per vote gotten, Trump spent massively less than all of the other GOP primary contenders—in some cases 100-fold less—yet still handily beat them all. Apparently there’s some truth to the old adage “Money isn’t everything.”
Some might argue, “That was the primary, this is the general. Things are different. Lewandowski is not cut out for a national general campaign.” Yet despite currently being out-staffed and outspent by enormous margins by Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton—indeed, Hillary raised nine times more than Trump in May alone—Trump is polling competitively against her in most states that are in play, including being up by one point in Florida, tied in Pennsylvania, and down by just three in Virginia. He hasn’t even started campaigning against Mrs. Clinton in earnest yet, with the big efforts still to come after the GOP convention in July, Trump says. Indeed once Trump puts his full guns against Clinton, the Lewandowski strategy may prove a winner yet again. And just wait until the debates.
Face the Wind
Still, a word of caution. Although the Lewandowski strategy of using free media coverage for Trump in lieu of expensive TV ads has worked thus far, it would be advantageous to begin fundraising efforts in earnest very soon, which I suspect has already happened and will be reflected in the June numbers. These funds will be helpful in get-out-the-vote and other initiatives that require more local staff.
Yet when fundraising, it is critical that Trump sticks to his core DNA of eschewing help from the typical big-money donors, and instead looks at a grassroots strategy that raises smaller amounts from a huge rank-and-file base, so he can maintain his popular unorthodox platform without being forced to change it by billionaires’ whims.
Thus, though Lewandowski has already been let go, I urge Manafort and the Trump campaign leadership not to abandon the strategy that has brought Trump this far, but rather strengthen what has been shown to work: relentlessly define the opponent on Trump’s terms (see “Low-energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” etc.), use the media, and stay focused like a laser on the core message while keeping it unorthodox.