How Trump’s Billion-Dollar Campaign Lost Its Cash Advantage

Laveta Brigham

President Donald Trump’s new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, with the president aboard Air Force One following a reelection campaign rally in Londonderry, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times) Money was supposed to have been one of the great advantages of incumbency for President Donald Trump, much […]

President Donald Trump's new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, with the president aboard Air Force One following a reelection campaign rally in Londonderry, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Donald Trump’s new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, with the president aboard Air Force One following a reelection campaign rally in Londonderry, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Money was supposed to have been one of the great advantages of incumbency for President Donald Trump, much as it was for President Barack Obama in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2004. After getting outspent in 2016, Trump filed for reelection on the day of his inauguration — earlier than any other modern president — betting that the head start would deliver him a decisive financial advantage this year.

It seemed to have worked. His rival, Joe Biden, was relatively broke when he emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee this spring, and Trump and the Republican National Committee had a nearly $200 million cash advantage.

Five months later, Trump’s financial supremacy has evaporated. Of the $1.1 billion his campaign and the party raised from the beginning of 2019 through July, more than $800 million has been spent. Now some people inside the campaign are forecasting what was once unthinkable: a cash crunch with less than 60 days until the election, according to Republican officials briefed on the matter.

Brad Parscale, the former campaign manager, liked to call Trump’s reelection war machine an “unstoppable juggernaut.” But interviews with more than a dozen current and former campaign aides and Trump allies, and a review of thousands of items in federal campaign filings, show that the president’s campaign and the RNC developed some profligate habits as they burned through hundreds of millions of dollars. Since Bill Stepien replaced Parscale in July, the campaign has imposed a series of belt-tightening measures that have reshaped initiatives, including hiring practices, travel and the advertising budget.

Under Parscale, more than $350 million — almost half of the $800 million spent — went to fundraising operations, as no expense was spared in finding new donors online. The campaign assembled a big and well-paid staff and housed the team at a cavernous, well-appointed office in the Virginia suburbs; outsize legal bills were treated as campaign costs; and more than $100 million was spent on a television advertising blitz before the party convention, the point when most of the electorate historically begins to pay close attention to the race.

Among the splashiest and perhaps most questionable purchases was a pair of Super Bowl ads the campaign reserved for $11 million, according to Advertising Analytics — more than it has spent on TV in some top battleground states — a vanity splurge that allowed Trump to match billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s buy for the big game.

There was also a cascade of smaller choices that added up: The campaign hired a coterie of highly paid consultants (Trump’s former bodyguard and White House aide has been paid more than $500,000 by the RNC since late 2017); spent $156,000 for planes to pull aerial banners in recent months; and paid nearly $110,000 to Yondr, a company that makes magnetic pouches used to store cellphones during fundraisers so that donors could not secretly record Trump and leak his remarks.

Some people familiar with the budget noted that Parscale had a car and driver, an unusual expense for a campaign manager. Trump has told people gleefully that Stepien took a pay cut when the president gave him the job.

Critics of the campaign’s management say the lavish spending was ineffective: Trump enters the fall trailing in most national and swing state polls, and Biden has surpassed him as a fundraising powerhouse, after posting a record-setting haul of nearly $365 million in August. The Trump campaign has not revealed its August fundraising figure.

“If you spend $800 million and you’re 10 points behind, I think you’ve got to answer the question ‘What was the game plan?’” said Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who runs a small pro-Trump super PAC, and who accused Parscale of spending “like a drunken sailor.”

“I think a lot of money was spent when voters weren’t paying attention,” he added.

Parscale, who is still a senior adviser on the campaign, said in an interview that the Trump operation invested heavily in attracting donors to erase the large advantage that Democrats had built digitally after the Obama years. “We closed that gap,” he said, crediting early spending as “the only reason Republicans are even close” in terms of online fundraising.

“I ran the campaign the same way I did in 2016, which also included all of the marketing, strategy and expenses under the very close eye of the family,” said Parscale, who was the digital director, not the campaign manager, in 2016. “No decision was made without their approval.”

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has overseen the campaign from his position as a senior White House aide, had posed for a Forbes magazine cover as the person who ran the 2016 campaign soon after the election.

“Any spending arrangements with the RNC since 2016 were in partnership with Ronna McDaniel,” Parscale said, referring to the party chairwoman, “who I consider a strategic partner and friend.” Parscale said on Twitter that the campaign spent less than $11 million on the Super Bowl ads, after moving one of them to the postgame portion of the telecast.

Nicholas Everhart, a Republican strategist who owns a firm specializing in placing political ads, said the $800 million spent so far shows the “peril of starting a reelection campaign just weeks after winning.”

“A presidential campaign costs a lot of money to run,” Everhart said. “In essence, the campaign has been spending nonstop for almost four years straight.”

Reining in the Budget

At the top of the whiteboard in Stepien’s office are the latest numbers on the campaign budget, and Stepien has instituted a number of changes since he was promoted from deputy campaign manager. A proposal to spend $50 million in costs related to coalitions groups was cast aside. An idea to spend $3 million for a NASCAR car bearing Trump’s name was discarded.

The number of staff members allowed to travel to events has been pared back to avoid what one senior campaign official described as “sponsoring vacations.”

Trips aboard Air Force One, popular because they enable aides to get face time with the president — but which have to be compensated by the campaign — have been slashed.

“The most important thing I do every day is pay attention to the budget,” Stepien said in a brief interview. He declined to discuss budget specifics but said the campaign had enough funds to win.

Most visibly, the Trump campaign slashed its August television spending, mostly abandoning the airwaves during the party conventions. In the last two weeks of the month, Biden’s campaign spent $35.9 million on television, compared with $4.8 million for Trump, according to Advertising Analytics.

“We held on to cash to make sure that we’ll have the firepower that we need” for the fall, said Jason Miller, a senior Trump strategist, who contended that airing ads during the conventions would prove a waste for Biden. “We want to make sure that we’re saving it for when it really matters, when it’s going to move the needle.”

Miller defended spending money on television ads earlier this spring and summer, calling it a “tough” decision necessary to keep Trump competitive as the nation suffered through a pandemic and its economic fallout. “We had to claw our way back,” he said.

One of the reasons Biden was able to wipe away Trump’s early cash edge was that he sharply contained costs with a minimalistic campaign during the pandemic’s worst months. Trump officials derisively dismissed it as his “basement” strategy, but from that basement Biden fully embraced Zoom fundraisers, with top donors asked to give as much as $720,000.

These virtual events typically took less than 90 minutes of the candidate’s time, could raise millions of dollars and cost almost nothing. Trump has almost entirely refused to hold such fundraisers. Aides say he does not like them.

Door-Knocking to Win Over Voters

There is some disagreement in the extended Trump operation about the depth of any potential cash-on-hand shortage. Some officials believe that plenty more money will come in during the last two months from online donors and that cutting back on TV advertising in August was shortsighted. The campaign announced a combined $76 million haul with the party during the four days of its convention.

Others said the campaign had expected the low-dollar fundraising to continue at the same pace, and were also counting on a significant number of $5,600 checks, the limit for direct campaign giving, that did not materialize; that was in part because they rely on in-person events, which was more difficult with the virus.

Some party officials defended the early spending as prudent, including money devoted to the expansive ground operation and an online network of donors that was setting fundraising records. The GOP has more than 2,000 staff members across 100 offices and claims that volunteers knock on 1 million doors per week; the Biden campaign has forgone door-knocking so far during the pandemic.

“The Biden campaign is hoarding money and hoping that fall TV ads help put them over the edge,” said Richard Walters, chief of staff for the RNC. “But when a state comes down to 10,700 votes like Michigan did in 2016, we think that direct voter contact — those millions of door knocks and phone calls we make each week — is going to be critical.”

The Trump campaign has undertaken its own financial review of spending under Parscale. Among the first changes implemented was shutting down an ad campaign that had used Parscale’s personal social media accounts to deliver pro-Trump ads. More than $800,000 had been poured into boosting Parscale’s Facebook and Instagram pages; those ads ceased the day after he was removed as campaign manager.

Parscale said the Facebook page was “not my idea” and the “family’s direct approval” had been sought on the program.

“I built an unprecedented infrastructure with the Republican Party under this family’s leadership since 2016,” Parscale said in a statement to The Times. “I am proud of my achievements.”

Some Trump-Pleasing Expenditures

Some spending choices appear devised, at least in part, to satisfy Trump, including the Super Bowl ads, which were purchased as part of an advertising arms race with Bloomberg. The two ads on game day cost more than the Trump campaign spent on local television through the end of July in four battleground states: Wisconsin ($3.9 million), Michigan ($3.6 million), Iowa ($2 million) and Minnesota ($1.3 million).

Another Trump-pleasing expense: more than $1 million in ads aired in the Washington, D.C., media market, a region that is not likely to be competitive in the fall but where the president, a famously voracious television consumer, resides.

Trump, who once joked he could be the first candidate to make money running for president, has steered, along with the Republican Party, about $4 million into the Trump family businesses since 2019: hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump’s club at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, lavish donor retreats at Trump hotels, office space in Trump Tower, and thousands of dollars at the steakhouse in Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel.

Many of the specifics of Trump’s spending are opaque; since 2017, the campaign and the RNC have routed $227 million through a single limited liability company linked to Trump campaign officials. That firm, American Made Media Consultants, has been used to place television and digital ads and was the subject of a recent Federal Election Commission complaint arguing it was used to disguise the final destination of spending, which has included paychecks to Lara Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the partners of Trump’s two adult sons.

Millions more followed to firms tied to RNC and Trump-linked officials, including more than $39 million to two firms, Parscale Strategy LLC and Giles-Parscale, controlled by Parscale since the beginning of 2017.

Parscale said that he had “no ownership or financial interest in A.M.M.C.” and that he had “negotiated a contract with the family for 1% of digital ad spend and after becoming campaign manager took no percentage.”

‘You Have to Spend Money to Make Money’

There is little question that Parscale helped the Trump campaign construct an unparalleled Republican operation to lure small donors online. He directed a nine-figure investment in digital ads and list-building that appears to have largely paid for itself. Some of the president’s advisers believe it will continue to pay great dividends in the final weeks, pointing to the $165 million raised by the president and his party in July — more than any month in 2016.

“You have to spend money to make money,” explained Walters, the RNC chief of staff. “We have had a big increase in revenue because of early investments we made in online fundraising and direct mail.”

Still, the costs of the GOP money operation have been enormous.

Since 2019, Trump, the RNC and their shared committees have spent $145 million on costs related to direct mail, almost $42 million on digital list acquisition and rentals (to expand their list of email addresses) and tens of millions more in online advertising for new donors.

Just procuring the Trump paraphernalia that supporters buy costs a lot. Two firms that make campaign swag were paid more than $30 million combined since 2019.

At Trump’s direction, the party has taken a spare-no-expense approach to donor maintenance, with the RNC spending more than $6 million in “donor mementos.” The spending has gone to stationery shops, the White House Historical Association ($538,000) and the Hershey Co., the chocolate-maker ($337,000), which cover costs for items such as the White House-branded M&M’s given away by administrations of both parties.

Trump has also accumulated many costs that are unusual for a presidential reelection.

Republicans, for instance, have been saddled with extra legal costs, more than $21 million since 2019, resulting from investigations into Trump and, eventually, his impeachment trial. The RNC also paid a large legal bill of $666,666.67 to Reuters News & Media at the end of June. Both Reuters and the RNC declined to discuss the payment. It was labeled “legal proceedings — IP resolution,” suggesting it was related to a potential litigation over intellectual property.

There have been other squandered costs driven by Trump’s sometimes mercurial desires. He switched his convention plans twice, incurring many expenses along the way. In July, for instance, the RNC made a $325,000 payment to the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island near Jacksonville for the convention that never happened there. The party is not expected to get that money back.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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