May 18, 2023, 6:07am EDT

Could Donald Trump run a good campaign?

Donald Trump in Manchester, NH
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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The News

Donald Trump’s campaign launch last November reassured his enemies that he hadn’t changed: It was a noisy mess with no clear structure that was quickly swallowed up by a scandal fronted by Kanye West.

In December, a Trump campaign spokesman described the 2024 race as “a marathon” and assured Semafor that operations were being built out “to wage an overwhelming campaign that’s never been seen before.” The professional Republican class rolled their eyes.

Trump hasn’t become any more traditional or moderate in his rhetoric or positions since then. The CNN town hall his campaign celebrated last week included him mocking a sexual assault accusation, promising to pardon January 6th rioters, and delivering a lengthy defense of his “Access Hollywood” tape, all of which Democrats couldn’t wait to clip and save for future attacks.

But six months after his campaign bottomed out, Trump appears to be presiding over something new to his career in politics: A low-drama, high-functioning organization. They’ve flanked Ron DeSantis early on doing the grubby political work of congressional endorsements, logistics, and messaging. And rather than just letting Trump’s day-to-day pronouncements drive their work, they seem to have an actual focused strategy for dealing with DeSantis.

“They’re much more organized — versus 2016, they’ve got lists, they’ve got technology, they’ve got all that stuff already. They’ve got some good vendors that know what they’re doing, too, managing those things,” a person who worked on Trump’s previous campaigns said. “From an organization perspective, [that’s] huge.”

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Shelby's view

The biggest change this year that I hear mentioned in Republican circles is that Trump’s feuding crew of family members and political amateurs have been replaced by veterans of GOP politics dating back to the George W. Bush years.

“The caliber of the people is completely different,” a person close to Trump’s campaign said. “[Previous] campaigns — for a significant portion of the campaigns — were run by people who hadn’t run a campaign before.”

In particular, Susie Wiles, a former top DeSantis advisor, and Chris LaCivita, best known for his work on the 2004 “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” group and various senate races, seem to have actual control of the campaign mechanics for now. They’re also taking a less forward-facing role than prior top Trump officials and keeping their process largely behind the scenes, an approach that stands out versus many of their predecessors in senior roles (“First rule of Fight Club…don’t talk about Fight Club,” one Trump advisor texted me when I asked to chat about the subject).

The bar for success is admittedly low. One person close to Trump’s campaign acidly noted that Wiles and LaCivita are unlikely to be seen acting erratically on police body camera footage, as onetime campaign manager Brad Parscale was in 2020, or facing down accusations of grabbing a female reporter, as then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski did in 2016.

But campaign insiders say that, for now, a chastened Trump — at least as far as campaign operations are concerned — is listening to their advice (and yes, we know how that sounds.)


It might help that the campaign already had a near-death experience after the midterms when Trump was sharing the dinner table with a neo-Nazi, Mitch McConnell was pouring dirt on his grave, and the former president seemed unwilling to listen to anyone’s guidance on how to respond or empower anyone else to speak on his behalf.

One person I spoke with who worked on both of his prior campaigns said they’d personally told Trump that a win in 2024 wasn’t “a guarantee.”

“We’ve got to earn the votes again,” the person said they told Trump. “No one really wanted to hear that. But they’ve accepted that.”

The former president has been working early behind the scenes to cultivate support from powerful officials, something he was unable to do in 2016, and his team continues to build out operations in key states like New Hampshire and Iowa — they recently announced 150 endorsements at once, although DeSantis has an impressive slate of his own as well.

Perhaps most notably, the Trump team has been making a clear effort to knock out DeSantis early with what his close ally Michael Caputo described to Semafor as a “textbook crib kill scenario.” The campaign and its outside allies have stuck to a plan to paint DeSantis as too far right on issues like Social Security and Medicare and too personally unnerving to win over swing voters, both of which have gained traction in the press. DeSantis and his allies have been slower to unveil a clear, consistent message against Trump.


Alex Conant, who worked on Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2016, told Semafor that Trump’s campaign now versus then is a “night and day” difference.

“He didn't have a campaign in 2016, he had a phone,” Conant said. “He would just call media, he would call into TV shows, and his attitude was just — get all the media coverage you can and then tweet stuff out on his phone. As we got deeper into the primary season, it became more professionalized with advanced teams and stuff, but it was a constantly rotating cast of characters. I think this campaign, he’s got people who’ve actually run presidential campaigns or worked on presidential campaigns in charge, it’s not a family business.”

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Room for Disagreement

It’s still early in campaign season, and anything can happen, including a growing list of lawsuits and prosecutions. Combining a let-Trump-be-Trump plan for the candidate and a more buttoned-up approach to the campaign itself may not be manageable in the long term.

“Trump had a traditional campaign in 2020, but the candidate was not,” one staffer on an opposing 2024 team said. “The only thing different this time is Trump is hardly out there, so the campaign structure is operating as a traditional organization. Best of luck to them once Trump is back out there doing more frequent media, rallies, etc.”

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  • DeSantis doesn’t have a campaign yet to compare to Trump’s, but a super PAC supporting him, Never Back Down, has taken on the lead role supporting him from the outside. As Semafor reported last month, they’re hoping to build up DeSantis with positive spots about his biography, including his military service as a Navy lawyer, while laying the groundwork for future attacks on Trump.

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