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How Donald Trump May Have Wasted A Monthlong Advantage Over Hillary Clinton

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a rally at the San Jose Convention Center earlier this month.
Josh Edelson
AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a rally at the San Jose Convention Center earlier this month.

Donald Trump has taken an unlikely path to winning the GOP nomination for president. And now he's taking an unusual approach to campaigning for the general election that could cost him dearly.

The billionaire businessman effectively clinched his party's nomination a full month before Democrat Hillary Clinton did the same. But Trump spent much of the month of May campaigning in states that won't help him win the 270 electoral votes he needs in November.

Yes, the California primary and contests in other Western states still loomed. But he was unopposed in those GOP contests, and many Republicans wished he had taken the head start to pivot to the general election — and start focusing on critical swing states. Instead, Trump seemed obsessed with a notion that he could run up the score and expand the map — putting into play states that haven't gone for Republicans in almost three decades.

"The Trump campaign starts the general election at an organizational disadvantage," said Ryan Williams, who was a spokesman for Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign. "This is a candidate who won by the sheer strength of his personality and bluster instead of through a well-organized campaign effort."

Bucking the things that have worked for presidential campaigns

NBC News detailed in a news story last week just how skeletal Trump's campaign apparatus really is — absent many positions usually seen as critical, essentially one media contact and with no rapid-response team.

He fired Rick Wiley as national political director, a seasoned GOP operative who was a key liaison to the Republican National Committee, reportedly after clashes with Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski. And he continues to maintain an aversion to data and analytics — the backbone of any modern campaign, especially one for the highest office in the land.

President Obama's sophisticated campaign broke the mold on data and analytics in 2008, fueling both of his wins. Republicans have been trying to emulate it ever since and had made big strides in recent years — until now.

All those potential problems could be rectified in the next five months. But what Trump can't get back is the month-long advantage he had over Clinton. Clinton has now effectively sealed the Democratic nomination, is campaigning in targeted swing states and has begun running tens of millions of dollars in television advertising in battleground states to try and bolster her image and undermine Trump's.

These past few weeks — some of the worst of Trump's campaign — haven't inspired confidence that his approach will change anytime soon. His foreign-policy speech in the wake of last Sunday's deadly shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando was panned on both the left and right. Congressional Republicans have twisted themselves into contortions to avoid even answering questions about their party's standard-bearer, and even some of his early endorsers now sound frustrated with his recent performance.

Gravity kicking in?

Trump has continued to sink in polls against Clinton, and, on Friday, even tweeted out a survey in which he was losing to Clinton by 2 points.

More respected polls have shown Trump faring much worse — CBS News/New York Times gave Clinton a 6-point advantage, Reuters/Ipsos showed her up 9, and a Bloomberg survey from respected pollster J. Ann Selzer showed Trump trailing Clinton by 12.

How bad has it gotten since Trump made his comments about the judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case, whom Trump accused of being biased because of his Mexican heritage?

Consider: In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, Trump now has an unfavorable rating of 70 percent and is now viewed more negatively than positively among white men, a switch from just a month ago.

What's more: In the CBS/New York Times poll, 41 percent of respondents said they thought Clinton had done something illegal with the private email server she used as secretary of state. But Trump was pulling just 37 percent against Clinton in the head-to-head matchup. That means, he's not even getting all of the people who think Clinton did something illegal. That 41 percent should be his floor, and he's underperforming his floor.

Trump, somewhat surprisingly, acknowledged to the New York Times that he's trailing Clinton. His argument, however, was: "I haven't started yet."

Most Republicans, in turn, are wondering, "What are you waiting for?"

Trump has made an already late start even later

June is late for any recent GOP nominee to kick into high gear. In 2008, Republicans settled their primary a full three months before Democrats. And GOP nominee John McCain began using that time to his advantage, turning his focus to battleground states and putting in place infrastructure for the long campaign ahead.

"In our campaign in 2008, we took advantage of the time to do some planning and also beefing up the staff some to get coordinated fully with the RNC and continue fundraising," said Charlie Black, a top adviser to McCain's campaign eight years ago. "We stuck to the states that were going to be in play or swing states."

And McCain lost.

Black — who worked for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran against Trump during the primary — expressed optimism that Trump would eventually turn things around. He pointed out that, unlike McCain who had to work to stay in the headlines amid the 2008 Clinton-Obama slugfest, Trump has never had that problem.

Trump has indeed returned to a somewhat more traditional travel schedule this month, once the primary season officially wrapped up. He's made stops in battleground states like Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and has been picking up the pace from the last month.

But he's also campaigned in Atlanta, Phoenix and Houston (though some of those stops also coincided with fundraisers). Those are states Republicans haven't typically had to worry about in recent elections, but polls have shown a tightening in places like Arizona and Georgia. Arizona could be in play because of a rising Hispanic population upset with the way Trump has talked about Latinos. And Georgia has seen rapidly changing demographics. (Georgia is now just 54 percent white, down from 65 percent in 2000 and 70 percent in 1990.)

He's also said he will campaign in Utah. The state is usually a reliable GOP stronghold, but Trump may need to do just that to shore up the vote. A poll there this month had Trump and Clinton deadlocked.

The very fact that Trump may have to worry at all about those states underscores the urgency of a detailed campaign plan aimed at swing states. Trump has boasted of his smaller campaign size, saying it's more efficient. But Republicans worry that he isn't taking seriously enough how big an undertaking trying to win the presidency is, including the need for a massive number of on-the-ground staffers to organize.

Trump has also boasted that he will return to California to campaign, a state which Republicans haven't carried since 1988 — and a changing demography make that a near-impossibility. He even hired a pollster to specifically help him contest his home state of New York. That pollster is the same pollster, John McLaughlin, who got the Eric Cantor race wrong. Cantor, then GOP House Majority Leader — and in line to be the House Speaker — was ousted by a little-known, underfunded, Tea Party-backed college professor. No GOP nominee has won New York since the 1984 landslide.

Trump also pledged to a crowd in Oregon, "In November, we are going to carry your state. Some people say it's inclined toward the Democrats. And then they tell me, 'Mr. Trump, you have something we've never seen before. You're going to win this state.'"

Republicans haven't carried Oregon since 1988 either.

Black said such optimism isn't unusual from Trump. "This guy believes he can sell ice to Eskimo, and he probably could," Black said, "so in his mind he thinks he can win any state."

Black said he belied, however, that eventually reason would likely win out. "When he sits down with his advisers," Black said, "he'll realize there's not enough time or money to run in every state, and their priorities will turn out like they should."

But that could still mean a lot of wasted time.

"Trump's campaign should be telling him that it is impossible to win deep-blue states like California or New York, and he shouldn't waste his time campaigning there," Williams, the former Romney aide said. "This isn't an opinion. It's math."

Next week, Trump is traveling to Scotland for the re-opening of one of his golf courses. Lots of presidential candidates make overseas trips in an effort to bolster their foreign-policy credentials. McCain did so shortly after clinching the nomination. Romney did later in the summer of 2012 (though his didn't turn out as planned.) Barack Obama spoke before hundreds of thousands at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany in 2008.

This isn't that. Trump's trip is predicated solely on a personal interest.

Williams scoffed at Trump's relatively light schedule so far as compared to his former boss's.

"We literally had months where Mitt Romney never had a down minute on the campaign since he became the nominee," he said. "There is supposed to be no down time when you become the nominee. It seems like Trump is not up to that level, and time is ticking."

But Romney lost. And that only fuels Trump's (perhaps incorrect) belief that the power of his personality can overcome political gravity. He has a lot of work to do.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.