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Trump's 2020 Re-Election Campaign Wants Order and Discipline, Down to Font Sizes

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 6/16/2019 Michael C. Bender, Rebecca Ballhaus, Alex Leary
a person standing in front of a crowd © Sean Rayford/Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Va.—President Trump’s path to a second term starts not in Florida, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, but in the pages of a corporate-style branding book developed inside a spacious and well-equipped campaign office.

The document, “Branding Guidelines for the Trump Presidential Campaign,” covers design minutiae such as font size, spacing and authorized colors—“Trump Red” and “Trump Blue” for logos, and “Trump Gold” for special occasions. It specifies which images of Mr. Trump to use to convey compassion, which to show strength and, in the case of a photo of the president pointing into the camera, when to let donors know they need to boost contributions.

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Four years ago, Mr. Trump launched a first presidential bid that flouted presidential electioneering norms. His re-election campaign is looking a lot more conventional. It revolves around corporate tactics such as branding and merchandising, a direct-marketing push that relies on collecting supporters’ cellphone numbers and a data-mining operation involving a yet-to-be-released smartphone app.

That is the kind of planning, predictability and attention to detail the president eschewed last time around, when his more impromptu and instinctual approach turned him into a political phenomenon and a cultural lightning rod. The challenge for his re-election operation will be reaping benefits from a more professional approach without damping enthusiasm among his supporters or interfering with the kind of seat-of-the-pants campaigning that has proven effective in the past.

The way his top campaign advisers see it, the key for his re-election is to push supporters to the polls, not to boost his approval rating or persuade skeptics. The campaign has plans to reach out to skeptical independents and Democrats, but advisers acknowledge those persuasion efforts are difficult with the president’s approval stuck below 50% in key states.

Mr. Trump continues to attack Joe Biden, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, to the chagrin of several advisers, who have preferred not to give any publicity to potential rivals. Some close to the campaign have suggested options to keep Mr. Trump away from Twitter when Democratic debates start, to avoid any running commentary.

The campaign aims to build a political infrastructure that can operate regardless of what Mr. Trump says on stage or on social media. Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed is spoken of as his own brand, separate from the campaign.

Democrats are taking the president’s campaign very seriously, said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “Congratulations to the president for having a functioning campaign this time,” she said, adding that Democrats plan to question his record on helping working-class Americans and lowering drug prices.

Four years ago, Mr. Trump’s campaign aides were shoehorned into an unused corner of Trump Tower, where drywall was never hung on some wood-framed walls and the few low-level aides on the payroll were crammed into offices so tight their knees touched. Aides used their own computers and cellphones for campaign business.

Now, dozens of staffers are spread out across a central campaign office that occupies the 14th floor of an Arlington, Va., office building, where conference rooms overlook the Potomac River. Some advisers say they hope Mr. Trump never visits the sprawling campaign office, worried he will disapprove of the size of the operation.

“It’s very Trumpian to be understaffed, underfunded and underestimated as an underdog,” said Kellyanne Conway, who was Mr. Trump’s final campaign manager in 2016 and is now a counselor in the White House.

Although the president and his family have signed off on plans to make corporate branding and digital marketing the axis of the re-election campaign, Mr. Trump’s closest allies say he could change his mind in a moment’s notice. The president sees his penchant for going off-message as a way to keep supporters excited and his rivals off-balance.

The campaign’s relationship with the Republican National Committee, so far, appears seamless, a far cry from the mutual distrust and skepticism that characterized the partnership in 2016. There is a bundling program for donors, which largely didn’t exist during the first campaign. At a recent meeting in Michigan with Trump donors, Mr. Parscale said he was so close to RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel that she was like a sister.

The campaign will have help from nine regional political directors and, so far, 13 state directors that have been hired by the RNC. Plans for the campaign’s Latino coalition—the men and women who will tailor the president’s message for Hispanic voters—was described by one campaign official as “bigger than our presidential campaign staff in 2015.”

Four years ago, Mr. Trump often pitted campaign aides against one another, encouraging internal rivalries. Now, Brad Parscale, a Kansas-born businessman who was the Trump campaign’s digital-media director in 2016, sits atop a 50-person operation with a traditional chain of command. An organizational chart delineates specific roles for staffers and allows little opportunity to freelance.

Mr. Parscale is running his first political campaign after two decades of web design and digital marketing. He has close relationships with the president and his family. Eric Trump, who was closely involved in spending decisions in 2016, had initially hired Mr. Parscale to do work for the family business, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and White House adviser, remains involved in major campaign decisions.

Mr. Trump has been focusing lately on which surrogates will speak on his behalf during the campaign rollout, and whether or not Facebook and Twitter are suppressing conservative news and viewpoints, according to advisers outside the campaign.

He also has been asking his aides repeatedly about his chances in Minnesota, telling his team that he could have overcome his narrow losing margin of 1.5 percentage points in 2016 if he had just one more rally in the state. The campaign’s advisers want to focus more on the states where they had the narrowest margin of victory in 2016: Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Mr. Trump is kept abreast of every major campaign decision to make sure he is on board, campaign aides say. Few moves are made without a signoff from Mr. Kushner.

Mr. Parscale is a frequent visitor to the White House and often accompanies the president on Air Force One, where Mr. Trump is briefed on the latest polling data and asked make decisions on campaign issues such as strategies for Democratic debate nights and whether the slogan should be “Make American Great Again” or “Keep America Great.” (The answer: The campaign will use both.)

Although Mr. Parscale thus far has encountered little serious resistance to his authority, the re-election campaign hasn’t been drama-free. David Bossie, a deputy campaign manager in 2016, drew the ire of the president last month after a report that a political-fundraising group he heads used his connections to the White House to raise money.

Mr. Trump initially wanted the RNC to publicly rebuke Mr. Bossie, an RNC committeeman from Maryland, but settled for a statement from the campaign that didn’t name Mr. Bossie but made it clear that he has been sidelined, according to people familiar with the conversations.

The campaign holds Wednesday conference calls, led by Mr. Parscale, that include 2016 campaign advisers from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida—states crucial to Mr. Trump’s re-election. Also on the calls are Mr. Trump’s oldest son, Donald Jr., former 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Charlie Kirk, a 25-year-old conservative activist.

Mr. Parscale has said his only major blowup with Mr. Trump came in 2016, in the final weeks of the campaign. Mr. Trump expressed surprise at how much was being spent on digital marketing, much of it passing through Mr. Parscale’s companies. Mr. Trump accused his aide of getting rich off the campaign, according to those who witnessed the exchange. Mr. Parscale responded that reaching voters through Facebook—instead of television—was his best chance to win.

Now, Mr. Parscale is overseeing spending of roughly $2 million a month for what he calls “prospecting.” In the business world, that refers to identifying prospective customers, the first step in the sales process. Mr. Parscale uses the word to refer to accumulating the phones numbers of Trump supporters.

To drive voters to the polls, the campaign has been focusing to a greater degree than in 2016 on expanding its list of voter contacts, collecting that information in part through the president’s campaign rallies.

At the end of the 2016 campaign, the campaign had about 10 million voters on its list. Today it has more than 33 million, or about half of the number of Americans who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. Mr. Parscale expects to have 50 million, or possibly more, by Election Day. Those phone numbers enable the campaign to reach supporters immediately, without having to buy TV ads or rely on the news media.

Mr. Parscale is building a phone app that will allow supporters to communicate with the campaign. It also will offer them a way to enter campaign rallies, whose lines often snake around the block, as VIPs, and help put the Trump team in contact with friends who might back the president.

“It’s a potential way to get around the Palo Alto mafia,” Mr. Parscale said, referring to social-media companies that the president has accused of being biased against him.

The president’s fixation on social-media algorithms doesn’t mean the campaign won’t also rely heavily on those platforms. The Trump campaign has spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads in the last six months, according to Facebook’s ad tracker.

Democratic strategists have looked at the Trump campaign’s digital marketing approach with envy—and alarm. Facebook data analyzed by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a digital firm that worked for the Obama and Clinton campaigns, show that during the current election cycle Mr. Trump has outspent Democratic candidates in key battleground states.

While most of the Democratic digital ads are aimed at fundraising, Mr. Trump is talking to voters about immigration and tariff policies and producing online content that features people praising him for his hard work. Democrats, meanwhile, are focused on differentiating themselves from one another.

“The playbook of the Democratic candidates has us starting late to communicate a general-election message, especially online,” said Ben Coffey Clark, a founding partner at Bully Pulpit. “Because the Trump campaign has already been communicating with voters in swing states, the framework of this election is being set mostly by Trump.”

Mr. Parscale said getting the marketing right is essential, and that he has pushed to infuse corporate strategies into the campaign. “I have based many of my corporate years on Apple marketing strategies,” he said. “They have done a ton to revolutionize marketing.”

During the 2016 presidential election, the Trump campaign cycled through three leadership teams. Three years later, one former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is in prison. Steve Bannon, the campaign’s former chief executive, has been exiled from Mr. Trump’s orbit. And Mr. Lewandowski, the first campaign manager, is a political consultant in Washington

Mr. Parscale, who was named campaign manager in February 2018, has already lasted longer than any of them.

Write to Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com, Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com and Alex Leary at alex.leary@wsj.com

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