One of the most unusual things about this unusual presidential cycle is the disconnect, especially on the Republican side, between campaign money and candidate performance. I discussed this topic in connection with Donald Trump’s strange candidacy at New York.
[C]andidates other than front-runner Donald J. Trump have spent a lot more money on themselves and against him than he’s had to expend, enabling him to pose as the guy too rich (and too popular with small donors) to be vulnerable to “bribery.” This was exemplified by the failed effort by Marco Rubio and an assortment of conservative groups to take down Trump in Florida. Anti-Trump “independent” ads alone in the Sunshine State cost an estimated $35.5 million. Total spending by Trump and his supporters for the entire campaign nationwide is at $25.8 million.
Trump’s difference-maker financially, of course, has been his massive advantage in “earned media” (or what used to be called “free media,” because it’s provided by media coverage free of charge). MediaQuant, a firm that measures and values unpaid media coverage, estimates that Trump has harvested nearly $1.9 billion in earned media this cycle. That’s about twice as much as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush combined have received, and within shouting distance of being twice as much as the two Democratic candidates combined as well.
But general-election campaigns are a lot more expensive than primaries. So it’s not surprising that Trump has hedged on repeating his “no special-interest contributions” pledge beyond the Republican Convention in July, and CNN is reporting that he’s already planning a big fund-raising blitz for the general election.
At The American Prospect, Eliza Newlin Carney puts all this together and suggests that total campaign costs are about to become too high for Trump to perpetually surf earned media to victory:
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.
But there are two factors that undercut this possibility. For one thing, Trump could liquidate some of his assets (estimated independently as having a value of about $4.5 billion) and self-finance to a considerable extent. And for another, this long nominating contest season in both parties is shortening the general-election campaign and the time and cost of any “air war.” Additionally, earned media is much easier to come by in presidential general elections than any other mode of politics, sometimes dwarfing paid media even when there’s not a wildly entertaining and galvanizing figure like Donald Trump in the fray. So it might make sense for Trump to wait and see if he even needs to spend a lot of money.
If he doesn’t, that means the news media’s fascination with Trump is still paying him dividends.