Why money can't buy Trump votes

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trump fundraising acosta dnt tsr_00002002

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    Trump trails Clinton by $40 million in fundraising

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Trump trails Clinton by $40 million in fundraising 02:16

Story highlights

  • Mark Schmitt: Trump's winning formula in the primaries won't work for a general election
  • To win, Trump must raise money to spend on a general election strategy to connect with voters, he says

Mark Schmitt directs the Political Reform Program at New America, a think tank and civic enterprise. He writes widely on politics and public policy and is the former executive editor of The American Prospect. The views expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Mark Hanna, the Ohio senator and political strategist of the late 1800s Gilded Age supposedly said, "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember what the second one is."

But as often as he's quoted, Hanna was wrong. Money does matter in politics, but not as much as -- or in the ways in which -- you might think.
    At the level of presidential or statewide elections, a candidate can be outspent by millions and still win. Especially when what campaigns spend their money on -- namely television advertising -- is a waste of cash.
    Mark Schmitt
    So how little money is too little to spend to win? In Donald Trump's campaign, we'll finally get a real test of this question. With about $1.3 million in cash on hand, Trump's campaign can't compare to his opponent, Hillary Clinton's, who has $42 million on hand, despite a tough primary challenge from Bernie Sanders that still hasn't officially ended.
    To put the Trump campaign's general election finances in perspective, try comparing them to the cost of a congressional campaign: If Trump decided, with the $1.3 million he reportedly has on hand now, to challenge Carolyn Maloney -- the member of Congress who represents the home district of Trump Tower -- he would still be outspent. Maloney spent about $1.4 million in her 2014 re-election campaign. Meanwhile, Trump's national staff of 30 people is only a little larger than the staff at an average Chipotle.
    Trump campaign spent 17% of cash on Trump entities
    Trump campaign spent 17% of cash on Trump entities

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    Trump campaign spent 17% of cash on Trump entities 04:03
    If he's a serious candidate, Trump will either raise more money or spend more of his own, assuming he really has it. (His loans to himself and the reimbursements to his own businesses, which make up a large portion of the campaign's spending, raise further doubts about that.) Still, he is likely to fall far short of the $1 billion that seems to be the standard cost of a presidential campaign these days. (Mitt Romney and Barack Obama each spent just under a billion in 2012, including their direct campaign spending and affiliated Super PACs.)
    In some ways, Trump's confidence that he can win without much money is justified. After all, he defeated 16 Republicans, including three (Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) who spent more than twice as much as Trump before they dropped out. He substituted free media and rallies for paid advertising and costly field organizing staff.
    By contrast, Rubio's campaign spent most of its $114 million on broadcast ads, revealing the futility of that strategy. Similarly, Romney's campaign and the Super PACs supporting him spent money on television ads in 2012 that many observers believe might have been better put to use connecting with Romney voters and getting them to the polls. In keeping his broadcast ads to a minimum during the primary, Trump might have hit on a winning formula for the future, especially for candidates who are well-known and likely to receive extensive media coverage.
    Ben Carson has more cash on hand than Trump
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      Ben Carson has more cash on hand than Trump

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    Ben Carson has more cash on hand than Trump 01:13
    If Trump is smart, he will avoid the consultants who will tell him to spend hundreds of millions on broadcast ads (they usually get a sizable cut of the spending), and to target the ads he does buy to specific voter groups. That could cut the cost of a national campaign from $1 billion down to half of that amount -- though he's still far away from having resources that rise to that level.
    But the rest of Trump's formula just won't work in the general election. Rallies are energizing, and they clearly get Trump's base and the candidate himself charged up for the fight, but what they don't do is engage new or undecided voters. The problem is that super-enthusiastic voters, and voters who barely pay attention, each only get one vote apiece. Those who attend Trump rallies are already Trump voters. It's the rest that he needs to reach, ranging from conservative voters who supported another Republican to suburban moderates and independents.
    Like the centrality of money in politics, Trump's campaign will test another old aphorism -- there's no such thing as bad publicity. The attention Trump gets from the media remains unprecedented -- one estimate put it at $2 billion worth of airtime. But the voters Trump needs to reach in November don't watch Fox News; they may not watch political or TV news at all. Meanwhile, more and more of Trump's media appearances and interviews have been negative, so how much are they really helping him?
    And the alternative to TV ads is not rallies. It's hiring staff on the ground, in all the swing states, who can identify likely or persuadable Trump voters, reach them in person, and get them to vote. It's tedious, shoe-leather work that requires an investment in data (which Trump rejects) and people. And it requires an infrastructure that most campaigns, including Clinton's, build months in advance of the election.
    So Trump's in trouble, all right, but not just because of the amount of money he has. His biggest problem is that he seems to think he can run and win without money, using a strategy that could only work in Republican primaries.
    The lesson of 2016 will not be, as Trump supporters hope, that money doesn't matter. The moral of the story will be that money matters, especially when you don't have it -- or a winning strategy to spend it on.