How Many Hats Is A Billion?
There has always been a single powerful signifier in the myth of Donald Trump, whether as a developer, a casino operator, a reality TV host, a branding pitchman or as a Presidential candidate. That signifier is that money, and the belief in Trump’s billions has had a powerful shaping effect on the 2016 race.
The idea that Trump is wealthy to the tune of his oft-claimed $10 billion dollars, combined with his utter lack of transparency regarding his fantasy financial statements left little to go on. For political professionals, due diligence required we assume he could bring serious cash to the game.
By August of last year, I was working to convince major donors that Trump would be a destructive force and likely throw the race to Hillary Clinton. One moment from that period sticks with me as a turning point in my thinking about Trump’s money; a major Wall Street donor laughed when I told him we’d need to mount a serious and fully-funded effort to take on Trump if he chose to self fund.
My friend scoffed at the very idea that Trump was worth even a quarter of the mythical $10 billion, much less that he was liquid to the tune of more than $200 million. “He’s not a billionaire. I’m a billionaire. He’s a clown living on credit.”
However, in a year of voter disenchantment and outsider cachet, mythic tales of Trump’s business prowess and his alleged wealth deeply impressed his fans and convinced them that Trump was an unalloyed business success, a man of global financial consequence uncorrupted by the venal horrors of the campaign finance system. His claim to being self funding was a home run in campaign focus groups. By now, everyone in politics has heard a variation of this message a hundred times in interviews and on social media; “Mr. Trump isn’t a politician. He’s rich and no one owns him.” Because 35% of the GOP believed the marketing of the Trump brand (amplified by America’s addiction to reality television), the power of Trump’s alleged billions cast a long political shadow.
The specter of Trump’s money haunted the other Presidential candidates in the Gang of Seventeen, who largely and until far too late pulled their punches, lest he unleash a media firestorm paid for from his own pocket. That fear of Trump’s resources sent Reince Preibus scurrying like a terrified hobbit to the Barad-Dur of the Trump empire to beg the Orange Lord to sign a pledge that he wouldn’t run as a third-party candidate. The thought that Trump could easily fund a third-party bid was a cheap form of political blackmail against the RNC, and it worked. It was a classic Trump con.
The evidence is mounting, and quickly, that his promises to fund his campaign are just one more Trump con; a shell, a hollow edifice of fake-it-til-you-make-it. Trump, is by the standards of 99.9% of Americans, a wealthy man, but he’s not liquid enough to fund an actual modern campaign. It’s not simply that he doesn’t have the money; it’s that his mythos requires that no one ever figure out that he doesn’t have the money.
There are a few big tells that Trump isn’t able to fund his own effort. First, Trump’s false claim that he is unable to release his tax returns under audit is risible; there is nothing in the tax code or statute that prevents Trump from releasing his returns. Nixon was under audit when he released his taxes from 1968 to 1973. His famous “I am not a crook” line referred to his tax status, not Watergate.
Trump told ABC’s George Stephanapolos that his tax rate was “None of your business” and refuses to even say he pays anything in taxes. Because of these refusals, two major strains of speculation have grown ever more intense. The first is that Trump isn’t nearly as wealthy as he claims, and the tax records would clearly demonstrate it. The second is there are some seriously dodgy tax games evident within that would be fodder for a million media stories of the “Trump doesn’t pay taxes” variety. Either way is a losing story for Trump. Even his fanfic financial statements don’t show enough liquid cash to run a full national campaign. Trump’s real estate assets would take time to move, and time is the one thing you can’t buy in a campaign.
As for his campaign, the last FEC report said he had $2.4 million in his account, and $44 million in debt. That debt, by the way, is to one Donald J. Trump, which is proof he’s not even self-funding the red-hats-and-tweeting phase of the campaign. The RNC had about $17 million on hand and $4 million in debt. They’re only about $970 million dollars short of the combined Romney/RNC/SuperPAC total for 2012.
What about on-line? Trump’s Presidential-campaign-and-headgear-sales operation has moved a good number of his famous hats, which represents the majority of his online donations. Since he needs to raise a billion dollars, that means if he can move 50 million more hats at a $20 profit he should be home free. For you Trump University math grads, no one is selling 50 million hats, ever.
So where’s the money coming from? It isn’t coming from the major donor community, at least not yet. Aside from a few respectable catches like Sheldon Adelson, Trump hasn’t managed to convince the donor class that he should hae their support, and for a man skilled at the con he made a simple mistake early on by giving all of them an easy out; by repeating how wealthy he is as a political mantra, promising to self fund his campaign and scorning the donor class at every turn, he’s made it easy for them to smile politely and say, “Oh, Don’s got this. I’m focused on down-ballot races this cycle.”
What about pledges from the handful of GOP megadonors who have succumbed to Trump’s blandishments and committed to his SuperPAC? Oh…wait. There is a constellation of SuperPACs surrounding Trump at the moment, none of which bears the Trump gold-leaf stamp of approval. Donors have no idea where to go. One story from his first major fundraiser last week was telling; Trump left the event with $4 million in pledges. “Pledges aren’t checks” is the first rule of campaign finance. The RNC has hit GOP donors with daily Trump email appeals since he clinched the nomination, but their silence on the return on that fundraising a message in itself.
It’s not coming from the RNC, either. They simply don’t have the money to do it, and never will. Part of the reason Preibus rolled over so quickly was the thought Trump would stroke a massive check to the RNC, when Trump never intended to do so. I can imagine the Titanic sinking sensation in the pit of Reince’s stomach when stories hit this weekend that Trump’s campaign was broke. Even though Trump has farmed out all the voter contact, data and research operations of a normal campaign to the RNC, a national campaign (outside of the media buys) is going to cost at minimum $250 million dollars. This is for the invisible operational underpinnings of voter contact, data, targeting, legal compliance, field staff, headquarters, and so on, and the RNC has no path to raise that money independently.
Trump got away without these tools in the primary, but only a fool would look at the last election cycles and think Donald Trump’s earned media and Twitter account is a substitute. Hillary Clinton may be the least felicitous candidate in history, but she’s inherited every piece of Barack Obama’s data, digital, and field operations and they kicked our ass on those elements, twice. Those modern necessites cost money. They aren’t volunteer-driven or earned media operations. No matter how much earned media Trump garners, it won’t offset paid communications in the general election. The Democrats smoked Mitt Romney by having the resources to define his image in June and July when he was still sucking wind from a hard primary.
Hillary will have the cash. Donald won’t. It’s that simple. Given their continued propensity for magical thinking, wishcasting and a seemingly boundless desire to be scammed, the Trump horde will look at at the grim financial picture ahead and laugh it off. They’re largely immovable voters at this point, but when the Clinton wave of television ads begins rolling, those spots won’t target Trump supporters.
No matter how awful she is as a candidate, Clinton’s campaign and allies will have the data and the targeting profiles to start pushing Republican women in the affluent suburbs of cities like Atlanta, Philadelpha, Orlando, Cleveland, Washington DC, and Denver away from Trump. Those voters may never love Hillary, but with Trump already registering 70% disapproval ratings from women, it’s not the hardest assignment in the world to move them to her, or at least keep them home on election day. They’ll also consolidate her Hispanic support to record levels, and when Bernie finally disappears, she’ll bring a suitable fraction of his people home.
When the fights are on social and earned media, Trump is a master. When the fights are happening on television and mobile device screens, on targeted social media advertising and on voter contact, money talks and bullshit walks. Trump thinks he’s beyond advertising: he’s not. Donald Trump’s big scam for his voters is that his money empowers him to ignore the rules of political physics forever. They honestly believe he can offset a fully-funded campaign waged against him in domains that aren’t part of the visible spectacle of this election. They think rallies and red hats are more important than GOTV and voter communications.
They’re in for a rude awakening.