WASHINGTON – A new brain trust in place, Donald Trump on Thursday moved to invest nearly $5 million in battleground state advertising as the Republican presidential contender took modest steps to address daunting challenges in the states that will make or break his White House ambitions.
The New York businessman’s campaign reserved television ad space over the coming 10 days in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to Kantar Media’s political ad tracker. While Democrat Hillary Clinton has spent more than $75 million on advertising in 10 states since locking up her party’s nomination, Trump’s new investment marks his first of the general election season.
Election Day is 81 days away, with early voting in the first states set to begin in five weeks.
The step into swing-state advertising, which came after Trump’s second staffing shake-up in as many months, did little to alleviate the concerns of Republican officials frustrated with Trump’s refusal to adopt the tools of modern-day political campaigns.
“We may have reached the point of no return for Donald Trump,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, a senior aide to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign.
Earlier in the week, the Republican nominee tapped a combative conservative media executive, Stephen Bannon, to serve as CEO of his presidential bid. Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway filled the campaign manager position left vacant since Trump fired his former campaign chief almost two months ago.
Conway insisted Thursday that the new team would help re-focus the nominee, without sacrificing the authenticity that fueled his successful primary campaign.
“We’re going to sharpen the message,” Conway told CNN. “We’re going to make sure Donald Trump is comfortable about being in his own skin – that he doesn’t lose that authenticity that you simply can’t buy and a pollster can’t give you. Voters know if you’re comfortable in your own skin.”
Rarely do presidential campaigns wait to advertise, or undergo such leadership tumult, at such a late stage of the general election.
Yet Trump has struggled badly in recent weeks to offer voters a consistent message, overshadowing formal policy speeches with a steady stream of self-created controversies, including a public feud with an American Muslim family whose son was killed while serving in the U.S. military in Iraq.
He now trails Clinton in preference polls of most key battleground states. And his party leaders, even at the Republican National Committee, have already conceded they may divert resources away from the presidential contest in favor of vulnerable Senate and House candidates if things don’t improve.
Trump’s advertising plans highlight his shrinking path to the presidency.
Although Trump claims his popularity with white, working-class voters could translate to victories in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine or Connecticut, there’s little evidence to back that up. His first major ad buys shows him focused on more conventional battlegrounds.
Trump is spending at least $1.4 million in Florida, $1 million in Pennsylvania, about $831,000 in North Carolina and $746,000 in Ohio, according to Kantar Media. His biggest single-market investment comes in the Philadelphia area.
“That is the most direct route to 270,” said Chris Young, RNC field director. “Those states are critical on that pathway.”
Trump was on the ground Thursday in North Carolina, where he stopped by a local gun range before meeting with police officers in Iredell County.
“I gotta say this man can shoot,” county Sheriff Darren Campbell said of Trump, who is licensed to carry a hand gun in New York.
Clinton met with law enforcement leaders in New York City days after Trump accused her of being “against the police” following a police shooting in Wisconsin.
Making no direct mention of her opponent in her opening remarks, Clinton called on Americans to be “clear-eyed” about the country’s challenges.
“We need to work together to bridge our divides, not stoke even more divisiveness,” Clinton said at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Clinton’s campaign has spent more than $75 million on ads in the weeks since she effectively locked up the nomination in early June, according to Kantar Media.
Trump’s campaign has benefited from outside political groups. One, called Rebuilding America Now, has spent about $9 million in the past few weeks. The National Rifle Association’s political arm has put more than $4 million into anti-Clinton messages.
But those amounts pale in comparison to the $31 million the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA has spent on air since mid-June. And that’s just one of several groups helping her.
As a sign of confidence, Clinton’s campaign recently paused advertising in Virginia and Colorado, while Priorities stopped ads in Virginia and plans to pause them in Colorado and Pennsylvania at the beginning of September. Clinton and her allies have also put field staff in the traditionally red states of Arizona and Georgia, hoping to capitalize on shifting demographics.
Trump has struggled so far with women, minorities and young voters.
“His performance with those voters is so dismal that it puts other states potentially in play in an offensive way for Democrats,” said Jeremy Bird, who ran field operations for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and is now advising Clinton’s operation.
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