From the moment in May when Donald Trump all but sealed the Republican presidential nomination, he has been faced with a nagging question: when will he pivot?
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When would a new Trump emerge – a candidate able to appeal to more than the angry base who propelled him to primary victory over much more seasoned politicians?
In the Republican establishment, the wait for the pivot began after Trump forced his remaining opponents out of the race, in Indiana four months ago. It continued through the convention in Cleveland in July. Once he had been formally nominated, the thinking went, maybe then the pivot would come. It didn’t.
On Monday, the first presidential debate against Hillary Clinton takes place, at Hofstra University in New York. As Trump prepares to face the largest audience of the cycle thus far, the fabled pivot is nowhere in sight.
Urged by those who reluctantly embraced him to tone down his rhetoric, Trump has in recent weeks attempted to show he is capable of discipline. After doing without teleprompters for much of the primary, he turned to reading from scripts written by advisers brought in to save a sinking campaign. He also embarked on an “outreach” effort aimed at some minority communities, suddenly incorporating into his stump speech lines about the plight of African American voters.
But Trump’s platform, his slate of signature policies, chief among them his ultra-hard line on immigration, has remained exactly the same. And at the debate, some opposed to Trump worry, such details may be lost. Behind a podium, on primetime TV, appearance and style, not policy, often dictate who wins and who loses.
“The fact that his base, even his ardent white nationalist supporters, are not complaining about his message pivots is a clear sign that his policies remain substantively the same,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration reform advocacy group America’s Voice.
On immigration, Sharry said, Trump hinted for weeks at a “softening” – and secured commensurate media coverage. Then he delivered a speech in Phoenix that “doubled down on his radical proposals”, such as deporting the roughly 11 million undocumented migrants who live in America today.
“That’s not a policy pivot, it’s a Kellyanne Conway-inspired messaging pivot,” Sharry said, referring to the Republican pollster hired in August as Trump’s campaign manager. “The idea was to make it sound like he was ‘softening’ in hopes of bringing home suburban voters, mostly women, who are uncomfortable voting for a racist.”
A similar tactic was employed regarding Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration, which was widely criticized even among Republican elected officials. Trump rebranded the plan as “extreme vetting”, rooted in an ideological test, but when asked directly plainly denied he was walking back the Muslim ban and said he was in fact strengthening it.
Last week, Donald Trump Jr once more revealed the campaign’s thinking, tweeting a photo of a bowl of Skittles as a metaphor for refugees from Syria. If a few were poisoned and could kill you, he asked, would you want any at all?
Trump’s first television ad, released last month, depicted immigrants streaming across the border. The commercial claimed that under a Clinton presidency, “Syrian refugees flood in. Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crime get to stay – collecting social security benefits, skipping the line.”
Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist and leader of the Never Trump movement, made a similar assessment to Sharry’s. If there had been any strategic change from the Trump campaign, he said, it was only done to find ways for the nominee to mollify undecided voters uncomfortable with his comments about Latinos, Muslims and other demographics.
“There’s been no real pivot on immigration and there’s been no real pivot that he has any desire to communicate with Hispanic voters,” said Wilson, who also cited Trump’s efforts to discuss the concerns of black voters.
Donald Trump can give a hot damn about African Americans, but he comes out and says, ‘I want to help inner cities’
Rick Wilson, Republican strategist
“Donald Trump can give a hot damn about African Americans, but he comes out and says, ‘I want to help inner cities,’” he said. “That’s not really about African American voters, but about white suburban voters.”
While Trump has discussed the challenges facing the African American community, he has largely done so in the company of his own supporters or in the comfortable confines of Fox News.
When he did travel to Flint, Michigan, the site of a crisis over water poisoned by lead, Trump praised the executives implicated in the scandal and criticized a black pastor who interrupted him when he made a political speech at a predominantly black church.
Last week, Trump made headlines for saying African Americans were in their “worst shape ever”, an echo of his claim that black voters have nothing left to lose, because they lack jobs and education and are disproportionately affected by crime, and should therefore vote for him.
“He’s a crafty enough salesman and a crafty enough conman to know that he cannot confuse the object with the subject,” said Wilson.
There may be no pivot, but the strategy of appearing to make one, to some of the people some of the time, is paying electoral dividends. Despite there being no indication that minority voters will turn out in the Republican’s favor, polling has tightened.
In Philadelphia recently, Stacye Mccollum braved the late summer heat to watch Barack Obama stump for Clinton. An African American voter from Manayunk, Pennsylvania, she stood a dozen steps away from the first black president. Trump’s latest so-called “pivot” had not gone unnoticed.
She considered “the one comment he had made [about how], ‘I don’t understand why African Americans are voting for Democrats, because Democrats haven’t do you well. You have no job, you’re low poverty …”
Mccollum said she had only one takeaway from Trump’s version outreach.
“I found him to be very condescending,” she said.