Donald Trump
Photograph by Ralph Freso Getty Images
By Daniel Gross
May 26, 2016

Donald Trump will storm into this summer’s nominating convention as one of the most unconventional politicians in recent history.

He has broken virtually every rule and norm that govern the way people run for office in this country. Candidate Trump has what might be charitably described as an unconventional approach to consistency in policy and substance. What’s more, he conceived and ran a campaign with a remarkable lack of convention: no consultants or in-house pollsters, no brain trust of wise men or women, minimal television advertising, a sparse ground game, and a distinctly un-huge fundraising apparatus.

The establishment looked on in amazement as Trump, buoyed in part by his own fleet or aircraft, instinct, and extremely small circle, won primary after primary. In fact, his refusal to play the game by the usual standards was one of his selling points. When a rival went the usual route of appealing to big-spending supporters like casino magnet Sheldon Adelson, Trump said it would make him a “perfect little puppet.” Holding big fundraisers and currying favors from Wall Street financiers? Trump slammed his last standing rival, Ted Cruz, by noting that Cruz’s wife had worked for Goldman Sachs. As challengers blew their cash on millions of dollars of attack ads, Trump garnered billions of dollars worth of free media. Trump himself, through early May, had raised just $12 million, mostly from small donors.

Since being named the presumptive nominee a few weeks ago, Trump has shown very few signs of pivoting in the general election and adhering to the convention. Rather than tack to the center and mend fences, he has continued, as he did with his now-vanquished GOP rivals, of tweaking opponents, coming up with new sobriquets for Hillary Clinton (“Heartless Hillary”), and intentionally alienating potential allies like Republican New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez in her own backyard.

But there is one area in which he is showing signs of becoming remarkably conventional: fundraising.

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Running for the general election is very different than the primaries. Instead of fighting in one or a few states at a time, you have to fight in all 50 at once. And instead of facing 16 weakly armed opponents, Trump will face a single opponent backed by a potent financial arsenal. Not running ads in the face of a nine-figure onslaught is politically suicidal. Any Republican who wants to win at the national level must staff up in swing states and invest capital to turn some blue states red. These are the simple realities.

In 2012, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the two major candidates each had about $1.1 billion in capital deployed in their campaigns: Obama raised and spent $721 million, supported by more than $420 million of party and outside spending. Romney raised $450 million and was supported by more than $700 million in party and outside spending.

And since Trump isn’t nearly rich enough (nor foolish enough) to fund a billion-dollar campaign on his lonesome, he has recently taken a bunch of very conventional money-related moves.

First, he appointed a conventional moneyman. Trump named Stephen Mnuchin to be his national finance chairman. Mnuchin is the son of a Goldman Sachs banker and a banker turned hedge fund manager himself. He’s also a Los Angeles-based film financier who has donated to Democrats and Republicans throughout his life. In short, Mnuchin is the personification of the bi-coastal conventional financial elite, and he has brought in other thoroughly conventional fundraisers like fellow hedge funder Anthony Scaramucci.

Trump, who aggressively eschewed Super Pacs backed by small numbers of donors during the primary, has quickly made peace with them. Every four years, big money outsiders contribute to the lessening of inequality by spending huge sums of money on campaigns. Sheldon Adelson has reportedly agreed to spend $100 million on Trump’s behalf.

 

And he is finding himself undertaking a conventional political task that Trump must find particularly distasteful: He has to be a supplicant, paying respectful visits to other billionaires and multi-millionaires (some of whom may be worth less than him). The New York Times reported that earlier this week Trump met with Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, and a major GOP fundraiser.

There are even signs that he is engaging in that most conventional of political undertakings: Pressing the flesh in exchange for cash. It’s possible to raise large sums of money online. Bernie Sanders, for instance, raised well over $160 million, largely through online donations. But in order to raise several hundred million dollars, you have to show up to events at which people expect to meet and greet the candidate. On Wednesday, the famously germophobic Trump flew to Los Angeles did a meet and greet at the home of real estate investor Thomas Barrack, where ordinary people who contribute $25,000 will get to meet the candidate and take a picture with him. (The money will be divided between his campaign and various Republican committees.)

Now, Trump is very accustomed to using other people’s money. That’s what real estate developers do. But they do so primarily with debt, which is easy to raise in one fell swoop. But political campaigns have to be funded primarily through equity, eventually. (Trump did fund his primary run by making a personal loan to the campaign.) Candidates have to convince people to plow cash into an uncertain prospect without a guarantee of return—the definition of an equity investment. And as anyone who has ever tried to raise a round of venture capital who’s not named Travis can tell you, that’s always a long and labor intensive process. There’s a reason they call it sweat equity.

Trump has mounted a successful guerrilla war on the Republican establishment, and politics in general. And he will continue to run an unconventional campaign—using the airwaves, social media, and large crowds instead of data analytics and get-out-the-vote operation. But when it comes to financing the campaign, he is likely to be thoroughly conventional.

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