Jan 25, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Trump's exponential power surge

Former President Trump speaks at his victory rally in Nashua, N.H., on Tuesday night. Photo: David Goldman/AP

Something shocking — and telling — has unfolded beyond Donald Trump's onstage, online and courtroom theatrics: He's running a professional, well-managed, disciplined presidential campaign.

  • His 2024 operation is more sophisticated — dare we say traditional — than the slapdash improvisation of his White House and two previous runs.

Why it matters: Trump likely will wrap up the nomination in record time, with almost universal GOP establishment backing.

  • If he were to win — and run the White House like he has his campaign — he could reshape America and its government more quickly, and in more lasting ways, than he did during his first term.

Winning the nomination fast and decisively speaks only to his power with the activist GOP. Exit polling showed lots of New Hampshire Republicans won't vote for him, especially if convicted.

  • But his hand is a helluva lot stronger than most expected a year ago.

Between the lines: Many top Republicans assumed that, after the Capitol riot, no one sensible would go near him. The campaign would be fringe and cringe. Instead, Trump has rolled up the party even tighter than he did when he was president.

  • Now the GOP's biggest donors and power brokers not only figure he'll quickly become the nominee, they assume he'd beat President Biden if the expected rematch comes to pass.
  • Trump is the strongest politically that he's ever been within his party.

Reality check: Trump has surrounded himself with pros, but he's still Trump — an incendiary and chaotic messenger.

  • You see it in the unhinged, all-caps Truth Social posts. You saw it in his fuming rant about Haley on Tuesday night. He could say anything at any time.

Our conversations with Trump officials, allies and alumni reveal the off-the-rails public Trump has a more conventional, buttoned-up operation built around him. His advisers see this as a template for governing if he were to win.

  • Here's how he did it:

1. Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, the top two officials at the Palm Beach-based campaign, run a tight, lean ship.

  • Wiles is a former top political adviser to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who left on bitter terms. LaCivita is a former Marine with decades of brass-knuckle campaign experience. Along with well-connected Trump senior adviser Brian Jack, they put in place a methodical process for Republicans to seek Trump's endorsement for congressional and statewide offices. This machine gave Trump leverage with rising stars throughout the party, along with extensive data about their home-state political operations.
  • Trump campaign staff members get along, stay in their lanes and don't leak like sieves — all dramatic changes from his past operations.
  • The campaign saves endorsements for opportune unveiling times. Aides have spreadsheets to track what material they've sent to which reporters.
  • This is in stark contrast to the infighting and improvisational madness of Trump's first term.

2. The Trump team has methodically wired obscure state Republican delegate rules to his advantage. Operatives have worked state by state over the past three years to be sure he benefited from mechanics such as winner-take-all rules.

  • Trump also wined and dined state party leaders at Mar-a-Lago and his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey.
  • "This team is lean, efficient, experienced, eye on the prize — none of the backstabbing and gossip and drama," Charles Moran, president of the Log Cabin Republicans (the leading group of LGBT conservatives), and a member of the California Republican Party's rules committee, told us. "No divas. It drives [Trump critics] crazy."
  • Here again, Trump was greatly limited by disorganization and bureaucratic naïveté when he was in the White House. The Heritage Foundation and other groups are spending millions to make sure that doesn't happen again if he wins.

3. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump built extensive ground operations that helped cement him as a formidable front-runner in both states almost a year before voting began.

  • The campaign sent the Iowa GOP suggestions for caucus locations, and installed heavy-hitter surrogates across the state to speak on his behalf. Precinct captains in gold-embroidered hats, with a suggested 3-minute speech in hand, were at every precinct.
  • In New Hampshire, Trump officials — drafting off his background as a hospitality mogul — took a "customer service" approach that rewarded top volunteers with VIP rally tickets, signed Trump hats and even photos with the candidate.

4. The establishment opposition melted and proved much more amenable to his ways and plans.

  • The once-mighty Reagan-Bush GOP establishment, committed to a muscular foreign policy and unfettered trade, has given way to a Trump Republicanism that's skeptical of large companies and institutions, hawkish on trade and modest in foreign policy.
  • Nearly every person of consequence at the federal and state levels fell in line by New Hampshire. Even those who'd been ridiculed by Trump stood on stage with wide smiles.
  • Trump has long benefited from the dynamic that people either want his endorsement or want to avoid his taunts and wrath. Now, many of the party's up-and-comers also want to be his VP. Much of the party's younger talent has been campaigning for him in New Hampshire. And three of his former rivals appeared with him Monday night at his closing Granite State rally.
  • The shackles imposed on Trump in Term 1 are gone, especially in Congress.

5. Trump, who had flown solo his entire political life, allowed his allies to embrace the Heritage Foundation and other outside groups that are building talent banks and policy blueprints to help him swiftly staff the government to control and shrink what Trumpers call "the deep state."

  • Heritage's Project 2025 is prescreening thousands of potential administration appointees as part of a pre-transition effort that far exceeds what has ever been done for a party nominee, let alone a primary candidate.
  • Heritage president Kevin Roberts recently told The New York Times that he sees the think tank's role as "institutionalizing Trumpism."
  • Like his campaign, Trump would come into a second term with a much bigger — and more loyal and ready — governing army.

6. Maybe the biggest shocker: Trump took indictments on 91 felonies in four criminal cases — a death knell for any other candidate — and turned them into a net positive. Even many traditional Republicans see the prosecutions as piling on.

  • "I've been indicted more than Al Capone," Trump crowed at his final New Hampshire rally.

What's next: Trump will amp up his attacks on his prospective general-election opponent — President Biden — while still working to clinch the Republican nomination, likely in March. It's yet another way that Trump 2024 is way ahead of the usual campaign game.

  • Axios' Sophia Cai and Alex Thompson contributed reporting.
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