Even if Donald Trump is “really rich”—as he reminds the world frequently—he doesn’t have nearly enough money to fund a general-election campaign, if he ends up being the Republican nominee for president.
Trump has made it this far mostly by self-funding his campaign, with help from donors who have sent in around $7.5 million in contributions of $2,700 or less. But that model won’t work in the fall if it’s Trump v. the Democratic nominee, most likely Hillary Clinton. “We’ll see an end to the self-funding if he becomes the nominee,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign. “He’ll have to raise in excess of $1 billion.”
Republican donors have plenty of money to give, but Trump is in a tricky spot because he has sworn off super PACs, the groups able to raise unlimited amounts from wealthy contributors. Trump says donors writing six-, seven- or eight-figure checks “have corrupted our politics and politicians for far too long,” and has vowed not to accept big donations.
But he’s going to need a lot of money from somewhere. Trump has said he’ll spend up to $100 million of his own funds on the campaign, while insisting he’s worth around $10 billion and has at least $600 million in liquid assets, should he need cash in a hurry. Some analysts say Trump greatly overstates his wealth, and he’s not completely self-funding his campaign, given the prominent DONATE buttons on his web site. Whatever the size of Trump’s bank account, he’ll need outside money to compete in the general election if all he does is fulfill his pledge of spending $100 million.
In the 2012 presidential race, each side spent around $1 billion, including outlays by the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns, super PACs supporting each, and the Republican and Democratic national committees that did a lot of politicking on behalf of their candidates. Trump has run a very thrifty campaign so far, spending about $25 million through the end of January. But the general election will be far costlier, with Hillary Clinton’s campaign saying it could spend as much as $2 billion.
What will Trump do? Here are three scenarios:
Embrace super PACs. It would be a flip-flop if he did, but maybe that won’t matter. “He could just change his mind, like he does with everything else,” says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It hasn’t hurt him so far.” And Trump could benefit from super PAC money while still keeping his distance from such groups. Though they’re often aligned with a particular campaign, super PACs must, officially, be independent, and they’re not even supposed to coordinate with a candidate. Democrat Bernie Sanders denounces super PACs, yet there’s at least one that campaigns on his behalf, without his approval. Trump could claim the same hands-off arrangement, saying he can’t control what other people do with their money.
In 2012, Romney hauled in about $316 million from big donors, most of it coming through super PACs. Obama raised $423 million from big donors. That money is crucial for funding attack ads, robocalls, mailings and other types of electioneering. Would the GOP’s moneyed donors pony up for Trump, who has smashed china in just about every chamber of the GOP establishment? “He can attract good GOP fundraisers,” says Fred Malek, a longtime Republican power broker. “They may not be wildly enthusiastic about Trump as a candidate, but there’s a desire to win and a fear the country has gone dramatically off track.”
Accept public funding from the government. Though it has fallen out of favor, the government still offers public funding—financed by the $3 donation taxpayers can make voluntarily when they fill out their tax forms—to presidential candidates in the general election who agree not to accept donations from other sources. The last presidential candidate to do this was John McCain in 2008, with Obama and Romney both deciding in 2012 to forego public funding because they figured they could raise more from donors (which they did). Still, this could be a shrewd tactic for Trump. The maximum amount of public funding available this year is $96 million. Trump so far has only spent about $18 million of the $100 million in personal funds he pledged to spend, so if he took the $96 million for the general election, to a large extent he'd be using public funds instead of his own. His campaignb wouldn't be able to raise money from ordinary donors, but nothing would prohibit super PACs and the Republican National Committee from campaigning on Trump’s behalf. So he still might have hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal, which Trump might be able to stretch pretty far, given his talent for generating free media coverage. .
Accepting public funding could accentuate Trump’s populist appeal and toss a curve ball to his Democratic competitor. “He’d have a real leg up on Clinton if he went the public funding route,” says O’Connell. Clinton is already battling the perception that she’s too cozy with Wall Street banks, and she’s got a well-funded super PAC that’s sure to get fatter as Election Day nears. Trump, by contrast, could portray himself as the champion of the $3 donor if he plays it right.
Continue to go it alone. Trump could reject all of these ideas and continue to run a thrifty campaign, mostly on his own dime, that’s heavily dependent on free exposure. For one thing, the conventional wisdom on the amount of funding needed to win the presidency might be wrong. “I don’t think you need a billion,” says Malek. “A lot of it gets wasted. At the end of the day you’re throwing money at some long shot states.” Trump already eschews the pricey consultants, sprawling ground operation and other trappings of traditional campaigns, so it’s not like he would have to downsize.
Trump might also turn out to be the first presidential candidate to replace conventional campaigning with vigorous social media activity. Social networks were a factor in 2012, but more people are on Twitter and Facebook now, plus Trump has pioneered a new tactic: Make provocative statements on Twitter that help him gain free airtime to explain what he meant to say (and anything else that’s on his mind). "Trump may be proving that a lot of the old truisms of politics are wrong," says Kondik. Trump said recently, for instance, that he’ll counter attack ads run on radio and TV stations in Florida by responding on Facebook and Twitter. Commercials cost thousands of dollars to produce. An account on Facebook or Twitter is free. Whether Trump succeeds may depend not on how much he spends, but on how little.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.