One of the most extraordinary moments in Donald Trump’s characteristically hyperbolic primary victory speech in Florida this week was his riff on the “vicious” and “horrible” barrage of “mostly false” TV ads attacking him, which he said carried a price tag of “over $40 million.”
The actual total spent by the half-dozen conservative groups assailing Trump was closer to $35.5 million, but Trump was right about one thing: Amidst the ad blitz, his poll numbers went up. Even as he described the “disaster” of presiding over a golf awards ceremony as anti-Trump ads blared in the background, Trump marveled at the ads’ reverse effect: “I don’t understand it.”
Neither do many of the GOP leaders, operatives and donors now casting about for a Plan B in their thus-far futile and costly campaign to stop Trump. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who came close to beating Trump in Missouri but fell just short, is openly courting supporters of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who dropped out after losing his home state. Our Principles PAC, the leading anti-Trump organization, may now shift its focus from TV ads to GOP delegates. The buzz in GOP and political circles is now over whether Trump can be blocked from winning enough delegates at this summer’s GOP convention to become his party’s nominee.
Trump’s success, of course, stems in no small part from the attention lavished on him by the news media. In political campaign parlance, news coverage (as opposed to campaign advertising) constitutes “free,” or “earned” media. Trump’s free media total so far in this campaign adds up to $2 billion, according to The New York Times—about the same amount that the two parties’ nominees and their backers spent on the entire presidential campaign in 2012. Cruz, in his own speech following Tuesday’s primaries, railed against the “millions in free advertising” that “network suits” have bestowed on Trump.
The free media gravy train has both blunted the anti-Trump attacks, and spared him the trouble of having to spend much on ads himself or even devote considerable resources to a campaign infrastructure. Trump and his backers have spent just $25.8 million so far in this election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, compared with $62.3 million spent to elect Cruz, $81.8 million to support Bernie Sanders, and $110.9 million to back Hillary Clinton.
Trump may be reaching the point, though, where his unconventional campaign-finance strategy stops working its magic. To mount a credible general election campaign, Trump will have to dramatically ramp up his fundraising and his ground game. In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney spent $336.4 million, and the outside groups supporting him spent another $805 million, for a grand total of $1.1 billion in pro-Romney expenditures.
Trump claims to be worth $10 billion, but Forbes estimates his wealth at closer to $4.5 billion. Either way, Trump has only about $327 million in liquid assets, according to Forbes, meaning that he would essentially have to spend all his cash to match Romney’s 2012 campaign spending total. Trump has made his self-funding and his rejection of super PACs a major selling point of his campaign, boasting that special interests have “no control” over him.
But there are signs that Trump knows he has a political money problem, and that he may soon start to finance his campaign more like other candidates. Trump plans to pivot and start raising money for the general election if he wins the GOP nomination, according to CNN. A pro-Trump super PAC dubbed Great America has hired veteran GOP strategist Jesse Benton and has a $15 million primary fundraising goal.
Though many big donors have until now spent money to defeat Trump, there are reports that some deep-pocketed contributors may come around if he emerges as his party’s nominee. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, for one, replied “Why not?” when asked earlier this year at a resort gala whether he would support Trump. Even the Republican National Committee, which until now has given Trump something of a cold shoulder, is said to be gearing up to help Trump with data and field staff if he emerges as the nominee.
Trump may still be stopped, of course, either by Cruz or by some surprise candidate who emerges from what looks increasingly likely to be a contested GOP convention. Cruz has proven himself a formidable fundraiser and enjoys the backing of a half-dozen well-funded super PACs. Clinton, of course, is a champion fundraiser and has virtually her party’s entire establishment behind her. In a matchup with Clinton, some speculate, Trump might well find himself outspent.
So far, Trump has enjoyed an extraordinary political ride, fending off millions worth of hostile attacks, prevailing against opponents who out-organized and outspent him, and sparing himself the punishing grind of high-dollar fundraisers. He’s also gotten considerable political mileage out of his claim to be above the big money fray. It remains to be seen whether Trump can continue playing by his own rules, or whether he will be forced to get his hands dirty in the messy business of campaign financing—and answer for it to voters.