When news broke last week that there had been yet another “shake-up” in GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign, the lion’s share of attention was focused on how he had brought on Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon, a move that formally closed the illusory distance between the candidate and his most ardent cheerleaders.
It seems we’ve finally gotten around to discussing the other part of that shake-up: the elevation of pollster/adviser Kellyanne Conway to the role of campaign manager. The media is endlessly hunting for the vaunted “pivot,” after all. Is she the pivot? Have we arrived, at last, in Pivotlandia? Well, if by “pivot” we mean “giving a shiny new wrapper to Trump’s old theories about how he wins the election,” then, hey, maybe!
It’s certainly good enough for many in the media, who’ve already taken to characterizing Conway as Trump’s only hope to right his foundering campaign. “Kellyanne Conway is Trump’s last chance at winning,” writes The Guardian. “Can Kellyanne Conway Stop the Trump Train From Going Over a Cliff?” asks the Daily Beast. “Meet the woman tapped to help save Trump’s campaign,” invites CNN. After all, a day without political consultants being heralded in the media for their potential genius is like a day without sunshine. (Fun fact: Political consultants spend most of their careers losing elections.)
But among Trump’s coterie of advisers, consiglieres and help-mates, Conway stands out in significant ways. She hasn’t been plucked from obscurity and had a presidential campaign thrust upon her, like Hope Hicks. She hasn’t recently emerged from some remote periphery of American politics, like her predecessors, Paul Manafort and Corey Lewandowski. She is a fairly mainstream player, with a back catalogue of big-name clients and a decent track record of success. (She is perhaps, a better model of a “winner” than the candidate she is now endeavoring to “save from himself.”)
Amid a clear-eyed assessment of her skills, Time magazine’s Alex Altman and Zeke Miller write, “[While] Conway isn’t the first professional operative to be handed the role [of campaign manager], she seems—at least so far—to be breaking through in ways her predecessors could not.” They go on to present various testimonials from various people, about Conway’s ability to craft a message and tailor it to a candidate’s strength ― something Trump’s allies have said is sorely needed at this point.
As Ed Rollins, who heads up the Trump-affiliated Great America PAC, recently told radio show host Laura Ingraham:
...you’ve got to shift it back to [Hillary Clinton]. So far, it’s been all about [Trump], and, kind of, with his ego he kind of likes that. But at the end of the day, it’s got to be about her. He’s got to make her the unacceptable alternative to this country and that he’s the real leader.”
Naturally, Rollins says Conway is the “great talent” that’s going to give Trump “a chance” by sharpening the campaign’s message. Except Conway’s first foray into messaging has been a very confusing one. I’m speaking, of course, about the “shy Trump supporter theory,” which holds that there’s an “undercover” pool of dedicated Trump supporters who will not identify themselves to pollsters.
As The Guardian reports, Conway explained all of this during an appearance on the U.K.’s Channel 4, the obvious destination for anyone trying to reach hidden American voters:
Conway insisted that Trump’s support was not reflected in polls because of the perceived social stigma of supporting the Republican nominee. “Donald Trump performs consistently better in online polling where a human being is not talking to another human being about what he or she may do in the elections … it’s become socially desirable, especially if you’re a college educated person in the US, to say that you’re against Donald Trump,” said Conway.
“People who are supporting Donald Trump, who have not voted Republican in the past, who have not voted in quite a while, are so tired of arguing with family and friends and colleagues about their support of Donald Trump that they just decided not to discuss it.”
This is an interesting theory, if for no reason other than the only shared quality among Trump supporters seems to be a world-historical level of “not-shyness.” Pollsters have already contended with this theory, and they find it wanting. You can read an in-depth analysis from The Huffington Post’s own Sam Stein and Ariel Edwards-Levy on the matter here, to which The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump has provided further insights.
But remember: The premise of the “shy Trump voter” theory is that Trump’s supporters are impossible to properly quantify, which means all of the countering arguments you throw at it are, by definition, improperly founded.
That’s what makes this theory so great. But great as it may be, it’s not new. Conway is just repackaging the same contention that animated Trump in the first place ― that he represents the “silent majority” ready to shake up America’s landscape. Winning so many votes during the primaries was supposed to serve as de facto proof of his unique ability to animate the GOP base in ways his former rivals could not. It used to be the observation he’d present when he was going on the offense against Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, et al. He wasn’t just going to bring new voters to the Republican Party ― he was going to bring new voters to voting.
So Conway hasn’t exactly blazed some new fascinating trail here. She’s just trying to make Trump’s old argument interesting again. And hey, it’s working! Last week, everyone mocked Trump’s aide-de-camp Michael Cohen for his “Says who?” encounter with CNN’s Brianna Keilar. This week, Conway has successfully repositioned the same argument as something with which to freshly contend.
So what, if anything, is Conway adding to the “shy Trump voter” argument? Let’s return to her Channel 4 interview, as reported by The Guardian:
Conway insisted: “We give people a comfortable way to express that maybe they don’t want to vote this year and why that is.” She described her method as “proprietary”. She said that as a result, she could reach these undercover voters “in many different ways”. She said: “We go to them where they live, literally.”
So, if I have this right, Conway says the Trump campaign is able to identify “undercover voters” that no one else can find, through a means that no one else has, that results in “literally” showing up at their homes. This flies in the face of some of the things we know about Trump’s campaign, which, as Bump points out, include the fact that he’s only belatedly built out a digital infrastructure and “isn’t spending money on field campaigning.” Field campaigning, by the way, is the part where literal humans go to literal doors to meet literal voters and literally convince them to come vote for you, as Conway insists is happening ― indeed, has been happening all this time.
And, no, I’m not sure what she could mean when she speaks about a “proprietary” technology that’s capable of doing what the nation’s polling experts seemingly cannot do: find these undercover voters. They could be using divining rods. Maybe they’ve got Samantha Morton in some kind of oracular milk bath, spitting out little red balls with names on them. Who knows? Perhaps they’ve stolen Charles Xavier’s Cerebro!
Hey, I guess Conway’s point is that the Trump campaign knows a lot more about voters and their desires than anyone else does. And that might be true! But if her contention is just that a whole lot of people are going to suddenly emerge from the ether of the unknowable and deliver the election to Trump in an event that will leave the experts stunned and befuddled, then you have to ask: Why do they need to “go to them where they live”? Why do they need some sort of “proprietary” method of seeking these voters out? Really, why do they even need super-genius Kellyanne Conway? These aren’t even her ideas. They’re Trump’s.
I don’t mean to startle everyone with a shocking revelation, but there seems to be a remote possibility that Donald Trump prefers to surround himself with yes-(wo)men.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.