Donald Trump is not running a presidential campaign.
Sure, he is “running” for president, his name is on the ballot, and he’s likely to be the GOP nominee. But his campaign looks nothing like a serious presidential effort, and it’s one of the many reasons why it will be so difficult for Trump to win the White House.
First and foremost, Trump lacks a basic campaign infrastructure. He has no speechwriter, no pollster, a minimal press and policy operation, and a threadbare staff with no experience in a general election campaign. He is even dismissing the need for a data and analytic operation. “I’ve always felt it was overrated,” says Trump. “Obama got the votes much more than his data processing machine.” Not surprisingly, Trump appears to not understand that Obama’s sophisticated data operations — and its ability to mobilize volunteers and in turn voters — are one of the many ways he “got the votes.”
Of course, the cynic might argue that Trump didn’t have a data operation — or much of a ground game — during the Republican primaries, and he’s about to be the Republican nominee for president.
But running for the Republican nomination is not the same thing as running for president. Trump’s reliance on free media, his willingness to say practically anything, no matter how crude or offensive, and his well-established brand helped him to appeal to voters already inclined to support him. But reaching out to persuadable voters and mobilizing occasional voters require a more sophisticated operation than simply speaking at a big rally and relying on cable networks to broadcast your speeches.
As we’ve already seen in the past week, Trump’s misogynist attacks on Hillary Clinton speak to a candidate who appears to have little clue how to pivot his message to a less receptive audience. Moreover, as the likely GOP nominee, the scrutiny on Trump is only likely to increase and in ways that can do serious damage to his campaign.
During the Republican primaries, Trump joked that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would still vote for him. There probably is some truth to that. No matter how many negative stories that were run about Trump, his voters seemed immune to them. It won’t be like that during the general election. From all indications, Trump and his staff are completely unprepared for the rigors of a national campaign.
But this isn’t even Trump’s biggest problem. Ironically, his biggest problem is money, or more specifically, his lack thereof. He doesn’t have nearly enough — certainly not what he needs to compete with Clinton’s vast war chest.
Trump likes to brag that he’s funding his own campaign. In fact, Trump has raised $12 million from donations, but he hasn’t actually spent much of his own money. Instead, he loaned his campaign $36 million – and the thing about loans is that they can be paid back. Granted Trump could spend his own fortune in the general election, but from all accounts, he doesn’t actually have the kind of cash needed to run a serious campaign – a number that could be as high as $1 billion. And since he’s barely put any of his own money into the effort, it’s unlikely that he would be willing to take that step.
In fact, Trump has already backtracked on his self-funding pledge and has appointed a national finance director. His choice, Steven Mnuchin, has little experience as a political fundraiser, and his best contacts are on Wall Street and in Hollywood — two places that are unlikely to be excited about a Trump presidency.
That Trump has waited this long to appoint a chief fundraiser is unhelpful, particularly when you consider that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has already raised $213 million (and that’s not including her super PAC). But now Trump will have to raise money in an environment in which numerous big-pocketed donors, including the Koch Brothers and Paul Singer, the billionaire financier who bankrolled Marco Rubio, have made clear they don’t intend to support Trump. Considering that Trump lacks strong personal or political connections to the GOP donor class and has spent much of the past year harshly dismissing the Republicans establishment and Wall Street executives, he will face an uphill climb to be financially competitive in the fall campaign.
But even for those who are inclined to donate to Trump’s campaign, will they send good money after bad if he is trailing badly in the polls? Or will they devote their resources to House and Senate races in order to preserve the GOP majority in Congress?
This is not to suggest that Trump will be bereft. But Trump will soon face a torrent of attack ads from Clinton and her super PAC — as well as continued sniping from Republicans who refuse to support him. He might be a billionaire, but he will simply not have the money to push back on this. He will lack a unified party to speak with one voice in support of his candidacy, and he won’t have the resources to put in place a ground game that can compete with Clinton. In short, he is likely to be overwhelmed by a deluge of money and negative attacks, while entering the campaign with the highest negative ratings of any candidate for president in modern political history.
Other than that, he looks like a shoo-in for the White House.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.