Campaign shake ups are overrated. This is especially true of a presidential campaign where the candidates have 100 percent name recognition. The real manager of Donald Trump’s campaign is Trump. He can hire Brad Parscale or Bill Stepien or Mother Teresa and it won’t make a bit of difference.
In this regard, the main reason for switching campaign managers (aside from Trump’s desire to self-soothe) is to change the narrative. This is a campaign that is desperately in need of reinvention—of a new start—and since you can’t fire the candidate, your first “go-to” move is to fire the manager and introduce a new “character” into this drama.
This is supposed to symbolize a new start for a campaign that is desperately flailing.
Aside from that, there are two more reasons why Stepien replaced Parscale as campaign manager. First, thank the Lincoln Project for their ad about how Parscale got rich off of Trump and owned a yacht and a Ferrari. “Don, you got conned … by your IT guy,” their accompanying Tweet gibed. Ouch.
Just as Trump was reportedly “annoyed” by then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s Time magazine cover, this video (probably created for an audience of one) serves as a reminder that Trump doesn’t like it when other people get attention, much less getting rich by trading on his name. A source tells Fox News that Stepien is the kind of operative who likes to “keep his head down and stay focused on the job.”
The second and better reason for the switch is the presumption that campaigns and their managers actually matter—which is why Trump was looking to trade-up and hire an "experienced operative."
In this regard, Stepien, who managed both of Chris Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns, is a vast improvement. Electing a Republican in New Jersey is no easy task. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his own baggage. During the Bridgegate scandal, Roger Stone compared him to a “scheming Chuck Colson.” But it is a tacit admission that experience, if not prudence, still matters—at least, when it comes to running a conventional campaign.
I say conventional because that’s one of the ways Trump’s 2020 experience is so different from his 2016 victory.
When you’re trying to do something unprecedented, being an outsider who is divorced from conventional wisdom can sometimes help.
There’s a story that says baby elephants are trained to stay put by being tethered to a stake in the ground. When they grow up, a stake keeps them moored because, psychologically, they don’t realize that they can now easily dislodge it.
But what if you were never a baby elephant? Prior to Trump, a lot of politics was governed by rules or norms that we grew up with and accepted. Trump and his team were not governed by these assumptions. In 2016, this benefitted Trump and Parscale, at the time his digital marketing guru.
But sometimes, political experience comes in handy. This is a conservative insight, but sometimes the rules (the assumptions) exist for a reason. Like when you find yourself managing an incumbent presidential campaign.
Case in point: The most fundamental rule in politics may be to under-promise and over-achieve. You lower others’ expectations of you so that you can surpass them. This is why Al Gore and George W. Bush both tried to cast the other as a great debater before they ever debated. Students of politics know this rule, as well as these sorts of examples. But Parscale must have missed that day at campaign school. He committed the cardinal sin of political malpractice: He over-promised and under-delivered.
Parscale hyped one million ticket requests for a rally in Tulsa. That part was fine and in keeping with Trump’s-own “fake-it-till-you-make-it” philosophy. The problem was that he didn’t make it. Only 6,200 people showed up. Failure is only OK if your last name is Trump.
That was the day Brad Parscale lost his job. He just didn’t know it yet.
Of course, the real question is do campaigns (and their managers) actually matter? Having been a close observer of politics for more than two decades now, I believe they do matter. But only on the margins.
This is not meant to diminish the work of political operatives. Competitive races are often decided on the margins. If a well-run operation swings 2 to 3 percent of the vote, that’s probably the difference for a congressional candidate between going to Washington or going home.
But it also means that 90-plus percent of a campaign is contingent on other factors like the candidate, the political environment, luck, etc.
Another variable is whether the campaign manager is actually empowered to manage the campaign. Many people assume that being a manager means you have power. In reality, it can be like managing a local McDonald’s franchise. It’s not necessarily as glamorous or powerful as it sounds.
In Michael Lewis' Moneyball, Art Howe (the Oakland A’s manager) decided which players to put in the lineup, but Billy Beane (the general manager) decided which players to draft or trade. The team’s owner controlled the purse strings and, thus, had the final say on everything. Even the most creative general manager couldn’t compensate for the lack of funds.
Parscale’s advantage (and the reason he will still make a killing) is that he understands the programming and data side of things. Knowledge is power, especially if you’re the only one who knows something. Completely replacing him would set the campaign back, even if the campaign technically “owns” all the digital infrastructure.
But outside that special niche, Donald Trump runs the show. If he wakes up and decides the key to winning in 2020 is billboards, then the campaign manager is going to be in the billboard business by noon… or until Trump has a new idea. “Every campaign manager has two lists,” an operative once told me. “The first list is the ten things he has to do today to win the election. The second list is the ten things the candidate thinks he has to do today to win.”
If campaign managers matter on the margins in a normal campaign, they matter even less in Trump’s world. Trump, having had his “gut” instinct reinforced by virtue of winning, cannot be guided, cajoled, or persuaded by mere staffers.
Does anyone think Parscale (assuming he had the sense to try) would have been allowed to downplay the estimated turnout at that Tulsa rally? Does anyone think they could go to Trump and explain to him that holding a rally in a pandemic is a bad idea?
Yeah, me neither.
At the end of the day, this election is about Donald Trump—and Donald Trump's campaign will be managed by Donald Trump. As fun as it is to talk about the palace intrigue, the best way to put this campaign shake-up in context is to understand this: He’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.