Why Trump Would Get Outspent by Clinton
For a guy who bases his self-worth on his net worth, Donald Trump may be on the verge of the biggest humiliation of his life: getting vastly outspent in the general election.
Today, Trump is taking pride both in largely self-funding his primary campaign and winning on the cheap. But if he becomes the Republican nominee, self-funding will no longer be feasible. In 2012, the two candidates, and their super PACs, each raised more than $1 billion for the general election. Estimates for what’s needed in 2016 range between $1.5 billion and $2.5 billion.
Can’t the New York billionaire just write himself a check to cover whatever he needs? Nope.
Trump’s net worth is in the billions (he says $10 billion, Forbes says $4.5 billion). But most of that is not liquid. What he has in cash is about $300 million. If he spent every dollar he had, he would get swamped anyway. (Even now, the frugal Trump is mostly loaning money to his campaign fund, not contributing to it.)
But, you say, Trump doesn’t play by your Washington rules! He doesn’t need money because he is the master of “free media.” He makes his own news and doesn’t need a lot of ads. He inspires voter turnout and doesn’t need a traditional get-out-the-vote operation.
That strategy has proved sufficient for the primaries. But you can win primaries by appealing to small niche of voters. They tend to be low turnout affairs that, in a crowded field, can be won with pluralities.
Consider that as of Friday, Trump has earned the votes of 3.4 million people in 15 states. Mitt Romney, in the general election, won 18 million votes in those same states. He won just under 61 million votes overall. And he lost.
A general election campaign is a much bigger beast. You need to reach people who are not eager consumers of political media. You need to defend yourself against a blitzkrieg of attacks online, on TV, on the radio, and in the mail. You need to squeeze out every voter you possibly can with the help of cutting-edge data technology in the hotly contested swing states. Nobody wins 65 million votes on bluster alone.
I am not telling you anything Trump does not already know. CNN reports that the front-runner’s people are already spreading the word to the donor class that he plans to “reverse course and raise money” for the general election.
Trump’s problem is that he is a year behind probable opponent Hillary Clinton in building a presidential-caliber fundraising operation.
“The online stuff is so easy to get up and running these days,” Erin DeLullo told me. She is a Republican strategist and fundraising consultant who has worked with campaigns from the presidential level to state AGs. “But what is going to be hard for him is doing your traditional high-dollar fundraising.” (Remember, Barack Obama, who had millions of small donors, still only received one-third of his money from them.)
“I’m sure [Hillary Clinton] has hundreds of people committed to bundling six figures for her, in hard dollars, and he has nothing like that. And that doesn’t happen overnight,” DeLullo explained. “You have to have staff hold those people’s hands [and] keep track of them. You’re doing events. Your big surrogates do events. … I don’t know that he will able to catch up.”
If Trump can’t go toe-to-toe with Clinton on bundlers, he could structure a campaign more reliant on super PACs, which, unlike the candidate’s campaign, can accept donations in unlimited amounts. In theory, a relatively small number of generous tycoons could help Trump match Clinton dollar-for-dollar in total spending.
To do so, he would have to renounce what he said in October: “I have disavowed all super PAC's, requested the return of all donations made to said PAC's, and I am calling on all presidential candidates to do the same.” This would not be the first flip-flop of the Trump campaign, but it would cut hard against the image he has tried to convey of a man beholden to no one.
If he did reverse course on super PACs, would he be able to locate enough tycoons willing to collectively put more than $1 billion on the line? At least some longtime GOP donors will not be on board. The New York Times reported that the Koch brothers’ “political advisers characterized Mr. Trump’s record as utterly unacceptable.” Other donors are in the midst of funding an anti-Trump super PAC.
He’s not getting much help from his political allies. “The people who are endorsing Trump,” says DeLullo, “aren’t people who have strong financing networks.” Gov. Chris Christie won’t be able to transfer his financial operation to Trump; the New Jersey governor’s finance director told the New York Times he was “shocked and dismayed” by Christie’s endorsement. A top funder, Meg Whitman, accused Christie of “political opportunism.” Ken Langone, another major Christie backer, decamped for the John Kasich campaign.
Even if a billionaire cavalry arrived, there is a downside to relying heavily on super PACs: They can’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign whatsoever. Jeb Bush, whose failed presidential campaign was dominated by a very flush super PAC, expressed his frustration as his campaign was floundering: “This is a ridiculous system we have now where you have campaigns that struggle to raise money directly and they can't be held accountable for the spending of the super PAC that's their affiliate.”
Jeb wasn’t the first Republican to learn that super PACs don’t automatically save the day; Romney was only able to match Obama in fundraising thanks to his super PACs, but they proved ineffectual in the end.
The fundraising challenges for Trump are many, and even if he cruises to the GOP nomination, the days he has to overcome them are few. Don’t be surprised if the man who claims to know everything about money, and everything about winning, finds that his checkbook isn’t big enough to win.