Go-it-alone fund-raising might limit Donald Trump in fall
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump hasn’t just shunned wealthy Republican campaign contributors. He has mocked them ruthlessly and blamed them — and the candidates who take their money — for corrupting the political process.
“The reason they’re not loving me is, I don’t want their money,” he said at a debate leading up to the New Hampshire presidential primary. “I don’t want their money. I don’t need their money.”
But with Trump closing in on the Republican nomination, there are growing questions over how he would come up with the $1 billion or more that is generally needed nowadays to run a presidential campaign, particularly one against a well-oiled Democratic fund-raising machine.
Republican Party elites, who are slowly warming to the idea of Trump as their nominee, are increasingly concerned about the billionaire real estate and entertainment mogul’s unconventional approach to campaign finance after a primary in which he raised and spent relatively little money.
Trump, who has pumped about $36 million of his own money into the primary race, may need to become much more of a high roller on the campaign trail. But if he intends to pour in a lot more of his money, he could be challenged by the fact that much of his fortune is tied up in real estate and might be difficult to quickly transform into cash.
And if he plans to raise the money from campaign donors, not only would that undermine a central tenet of his campaign, but he is also way behind on the fund-raising calendar. What’s more, many frequent fliers in the world of GOP finance are likely to keep their wallets closed rather than contribute to a candidate many of them still loathe.
“He’s going to have to jump-start it very quickly in order to raise the money to be competitive,” said Fred Malek, a longtime Republican donor who is the finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
“He definitely faces challenges beyond which a Republican presidential candidate normally faces,’’ Malek said. “He has alienated some groups. He has shown an intolerance that will keep people on the sidelines.”
Trump has been moving toward making his campaign more professional. He has started beefing up his policy chops by adding more advisers, and he has brought on experts to help him secure uncommitted delegates at the convention.
But Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in a Globe interview that the campaign has not yet formed a finance team to reach out to wealthy contributors and begin blasting out fund-raising appeals.
“Right now we are focused on running a competitive race for the Republican nomination . . . and Mr. Trump is self-financing his campaign,” Lewandowski said in an interview. It is unclear, he said, how much of his own money Trump would put into a general election campaign or whether he would seek large donations for his campaign fund.
Lewandowski would also not rule out the campaign using public financing — although that system would significantly limit his spending.
“We haven’t even had a conversation,” he said. “Until we’re the nominee, and until we have the official nomination at the convention, we haven’t had those discussions yet.”
Lewandowski did say that the campaign would probably enter a joint fund-raising agreement with the Republican National Committee and would help raise money for other down-ballot contests. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney’s campaign spent $450 million while the RNC kicked in $386 million and outside groups nearly $420 million.
“That’s something we have looked at, and he has pledged that if he’s at the top of the ticket, everybody will have the resources necessary to be successful in November,” he said. “Obviously there is a lot of value in working with the party so that we can raise as much money as possible.”
Usually campaigns by this point are catering to donors, holding weekly conference calls to go over strategy, or hosting exclusive donor retreats with access to the candidate and the campaign team. Trump himself was one of those whom Romney brought as a special guest for one of his contributor events held at the Intrepid Museum in New York.
Trump’s lack of attention to the usual demands of fund-raising has evidently freed up his schedule — he calls in to news networks far more frequently than he calls to court donors — but it could also put him at a severe disadvantage heading into a general election.
Trump has reported 4,275 individual donations of at least $250, for a total of $2 million. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has received 94,453 donations, for a total of nearly $106 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That gap means that Clinton has already identified a huge swath of likely donors, giving her the ability to go back to them for more cash for the general election.
Some top donors are planning to ignore the presidential race and instead turn toward another challenge: preserving the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. But others are eager for Trump to display a willingness to open up his own checkbook.
“If he wants to win, he’s going to have to put a substantial amount of money into this,” Malek said. “If he secures it, I think he should plan on making a big loan to the campaign right off the start from his own money. The loan could be paid off over time as he revs up the fund-raising apparatus.”
But Trump could face challenges in that regard as well. Forbes magazine estimates that Trump has $327 million in liquid assets as of September 2015. He has significant wealth in real estate. Trump Tower is worth an estimated $530 million, according to Forbes. Another building, Niketown, is valued at $442 million. He has more than a dozen golf courses valued at nearly $370 million.
Trump has said he is worth at least $10 billion overall, while Forbes has placed his net worth at $4.5 billion.
Trump has run a thrifty operation in the primary, with a tight-knit group of campaign staff and a budget that spent far less money on TV ads than even Trump initially predicted. By the end of March, he had spent $47 million, while his chief rival, Senator Ted Cruz, had spent $70 million. (Clinton had spent $155 million.)
But the general election will prove far more costly. While the RNC has been hiring staffers in battleground states and working on building a more effective list of likely Republican voters, Trump’s campaign will also have to build a network across the country.
His strategy of dominating broadcast news cycles, effective during the nomination race, may be more difficult in a one-on-one matchup, requiring him to pour money into expensive media markets in a variety of swing states.
Trump’s approach is markedly different from that of Romney, who spent years cultivating a far-reaching group of donation bundlers and big individual donors that enabled him to be financially competitive with an incumbent president.
David Beightol, a lobbyist who was among Romney’s top contribution bundlers, said that Trump would have difficulty wooing members of that network.
“He’s been flip with all these people, or they’re turned off by him,” he said. “He’s just so immature. I don’t know another adult in any profession that I’ve come across that’s that immature. It’s just not presidential timbre.”
Instead, Beightol and others predicted, donors would turn toward other Republican groups in the hopes that they could help GOP governors, senators, and representatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been setting up a fund-raising network that includes several of Romney’s top finance team members, including Spencer Zwick and Mason Fink.
One risk for Trump is that raising big money cuts against his campaign message. He has accepted small-dollar donations but has shunned the big fund-raising dinners that attract party insiders.
“I’m self-funding. I’m putting up my own money. I don’t have special interests telling me, ‘Here’s money, Donald, and by the way I hope you remember me in two years,’ ” Trump said in a video he posted Feb. 29 on Facebook. “It’s something I don’t know that I’m given proper credit for, but you know what, I feel better about it because nobody has me. I’m working for you.”
John Jordan, a California winemaker and big Republican contributor, said if he were advising the Trump campaign, he would urge it not to change course now.
“You’re casting away one of your biggest advantages, and you’re muddying the waters for what?” he said. “What does $20 million get him? Not much. But what does it cost him? It costs him his legitimacy.”
Trump has proven ability to dominate media coverage with his provocative attacks and outlandish policy statements, which means his campaign doesn’t have to spend as much to air ads.
He also has a large social media presence that he can use to cheaply but effectively fire up his base of supporters. Several times in recent months Trump has driven news coverage simply by posting a video on his Instagram account.
“We’ve been conditioned to think you must raise big money to have a big chance. I think that relationship is breaking down,” Jordan said. “There’s been a paradigm shift in how money works in politics.’’
One option for Trump would be to accept public financing, something no candidate has done since John McCain accepted it in his 2008 race against Obama. In order to accept public money — nearly $100 million — Trump would have to agree not to accept contributions. It would also cap at $50,000 the amount of money from his personal funds that he could use.
Trump’s candidacy has triggered a wave of efforts by moneyed interests to stop him. But several donors said the antipathy toward Trump is overstated, and is bound to evaporate after the primary is over.
“I don’t think he’ll have any trouble raising money,” said Robert Grand, an Indianapolis lawyer and lobbyist who raised more than $1 million for Romney during the 2012 cycle. “I know a lot of people, myself included, who have said if he’s the nominee, we’ll support him.”