Trump’s Free Ride–And the Money Blitz to Come

It’s certainly well established that heavy media coverage has played a big role in the shocking success of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy so far; Nate Silver’s characterization of The Donald as “The World’s Greatest Troll,” irresistibly luring those who hate covering him to cover him, still makes sense.

But a little-discussed side benefit of this phenomenon is that Trump–who has made his independence from special-interest donors a big part of his Ecce Homo message–is not having to spend a great deal of his own money just yet. MSNBC’s Ari Melber has the story:

Many Republicans have tried and failed to win the presidential nomination without support from the party establishment. Donald Trump argues he is different from those hopefuls because his wealth enables him to fund an insurgent campaign all by himself. But for all the talk about his money, so far, Trump isn’t using it.

Trump campaign officials say he has only spent about $2 million – far less than fellow GOP candidates Dr. Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz, for instance. each spent $5.5 million just through July, according to the latest FEC reports. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, spent $18 million in the same period; that’s nine times Trump’s entire spending to date.

Politicos and reporters often cast Trump as a self-funded outsider candidate, assuming he will follow the pricey campaign model of businesspeople like Meg Whitman and Michael Bloomberg, each of whom spent $100 million of their own money on a single race. Three months into Trump’s unusual campaign, however, the evidence suggests his candidacy remains largely buoyed by his celebrity status and free press, not his actual wealth.

Oddly, Melber’s piece veers off into an argument that all the “free press” in the world won’t save Trump if he gets hit with multi-million dollar Super-PAC attack ads, and “is on a collision course with certain unavoidable costs of a long primary campaign.” Yeah, and the money’s he’s saved up until now will be available to deal with those challenges. Unless you think the man is just unwilling to spend his own money, then the “earned media” strategy is not a fetish but simply an expedient. So there’s no particular reason to think he cannot match anyone in the field dollar for dollar if he’s still doing well in the winter and spring. The big question for the GOP is whether they can afford to run the risk that he’ll survive as a viable candidate that long. So far just wishing and hoping he’ll go away hasn’t worked that well.

I’d be surprised if someone in the murky high regions of Republicanland isn’t developing a plan to pass the hat for a massive–we’re talking saturation ads–“independent” attack on Trump designed to make him a pariah right before the voting starts. If, of course, his support migrates to those who are just as scary as general election candidates–say, Carson and Cruz–it could be a pyrrhic victory, but I guess they can figure that out later.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.