Donald Trump has largely foot the bill for his White House bid in the Republican primary, and should he land the GOP's nomination, despite what you've read, he might be able to pull off the same in the general election.
On the campaign trail, the real estate magnate has often boasted that he is self-funding his run, which is, more or less, true. His campaign has brought in $25.5 million as of January 31, 2016, $17.5 million of which came from a loan from Trump himself, according to data from OpenSecrets.
He has also managed to run a rather frugal campaign, spending just $23.9 million and largely eschewing the help of outside groups like Super PACs that have paid for much campaigning for many of his rivals thus far. (Though, about $1.8 million in external funds have been spent on Trump so far. For comparison, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton's campaign and outside groups have spent a combined $110.9 million, and fellow GOP contender Ted Cruz's camp and others a combined $62.3 million.)
According to his personal finance disclosure, filed at the outset of his campaign with the FEC, he has a little over $300 million in cash and marketable securities. Considering that in the 2012 election, about $1 billion was spent on each candidate, it appears that Trump's on-hand cash won't be enough. Such an argument has been madebymany.
That would certainly be the case with a traditional candidate, but traditional Trump is not. And if anyone could self-fund a campaign (well, besides Michael Bloomberg), it would be him. How? The media.
First, it's important to understand that over half of the billion or so dollars that each candidate might spend in 2016 will likely be spent on buying media. That's what happened in the last election, according to 2012 data from OpenSecrets.
But Trump doesn't have to spend money on media like other candidates. Trump has received nearly $2 billion in free media over the past year, according to data from tracking firm mediaQuant. That places him lightyears ahead of all of his competitors, with his closest rival, Clinton, running a distant second at about $750 million.
Trump gets about $400 million in free media coverage each month, and as he barrels on toward Election Day, the numbers will continue to add up. Paul Senatori, chief analytics officer at mediaQuant, estimates the real estate magnate could rack up another $1-to-$1.5 billion in free "earned" media coverage by November.
"In some ways, Trump went viral starting in June of last year, and it hasn't stopped," he said.
Trump's earned media domination isn't limited to one channel -- it stretches from print to broadcast, national to global, social to search. "He's getting it consistently across all media segments," said Senatori. "Even looking over at Asia and in European media sources."
"I think he can run completely through earned media," he added.
Senatori is not alone in that assessment. When asked whether she believes, based on Trump's media prowess, that he could self-fund his entire campaign, Tracy David, a social media expert and chief marketing officer at analytics site Shareablee, responded: "Absolutely," adding that in recent months, Trump's social momentum has only increased.
In the first two months of 2016, Trump reached 64% of his total engagement in the entire second half of 2015 on Twitter. On Facebook, he's done even better, hitting 71% of total engagement in January and February compared to the last six months of last year.
"It keeps growing," she said.
Trump's social media presence -- he boasts nearly seven million followers on Twitter, 6.5 million on Facebook and 1.1 million on Instagram -- provides him with what is essentially a one-on-one marketing tool to connect with fans that is headline-driven, keyword-driven and topic-driven. All free of charge.
"He is using social, really, as his primary messaging vehicle or advertising vehicle, and he has gained the most engagement, he has gained the most fans since the time he [announced his candidacy]," David said. "He knows what the hot buttons are, and he knows how to push them."
"He is the fulfillment of our fragmented media environment," said Vincent Harris, a Texas-based digital strategist who has previously worked with Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz.
Trump's social reach also gives in an unprecedented ability to react nearly immediately to any less-than-flattering coverage or commentary -- he regularly trashes media outlets, competitors and others online. And the media's eagerness to cover him only amplifies that, giving him free airtime to rebut any attacks launched.
"He countered the attack ads by going to media outlets instead of running his own attack ads," said Senatori. "He was able to leverage a credible source going after a non-credible source. If there's anything less credible than general advertising, it's political advertising."
A Self-Funded Run Won't Be Easy
In recent days, Trump has appeared to open the door to accepting outside money for the general election, an indication that even if he could pay for his general election bid, he might not want to.
The general election is a very different beast than primary season, if for no other reason that there are fewer candidates in the field. It was relatively easy for him to stand out from a Republican crowd that was once 17 contenders strong, but when it's down to just him and the Democratic nominee, the game will change.
"He's been able to run a guerrilla campaign, an isometric campaign against [competitors]," said Kip Cassino, executive vice president at advertising tracking firm Borrell Associates. "When it's just him against one competing candidate, that's not going to be the case anymore. Theoretically, either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton could get just as much free public time on the media as he does."
This could force Trump to at least spend some more than he has been on traditional television and radio advertising, especially in response to negative ads that will certainly be run by his opponents. Not everyone, after all, is on social media, and he will need to reach the same targeted audience -- swing voters in swing states -- as the Democratic nominee.
"To the extent that one side uses a lot of negative attack ads and has the money to pay for them, the question is does the other side have to come back and reply in kind?" Cassino said.
The 2012 election saw Republican contender Mitt Romney slayed by attack ads, destroying his character and going as far as to essentially paint him as a murderer. This election cycle has demonstrated television ads have lost some of their punch -- Jeb Bush's Right to Rise super PAC and the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC spent millions of dollars on ads trying to elevate Bush and stop Trump, both to no avail, and Cassino said Borrell has seen a 6%-to-7% drop on ad spending during this primary season already. However, he still thinks the most ad spending is yet to come. "It's still going to ramp up some. In total, we're going to see around $1.5-to-$1.7 billion," he said.
Trump can certainly decide to run a campaign in the general election that is similarly frugal to the one he's orchestrated in the primaries, but cutting corners may be complicated.
"I'm very skeptical that he could run a winning frugal campaign," said Travis Ridout, professor of government and public policy and graduate studies director at Washington State University, adding that the hotly-contested fight for the GOP nomination that will likely last until the party's convention in July may not help. "He is in many ways going to be entering the general election somewhat a battered candidate."
Even If He Does Want Outside Money, Can He Get It?
In the event that Trump decides he does want to accept outside help funding his campaign, he will have access to numerous avenues to get it -- the Republican Party, donors and even super PACs (some pro-Trump PACs are already forming, even though he says he doesn't want them). But will they be willing to shell out? Some have their doubts.
"We'll see how much appetite there is among billionaires to try to get Donald Trump elected," said Ridout, adding that some of the wealthiest donors may prefer to hold onto their cash or direct it toward securing seats in the Senate and the House.
"He's going to get some help from the party," said Cassino, but it may not be as much as his rival. "I don't think he will get the kind of money that [George] Soros and others are going to give Hillary Clinton. I don't think the party is going to be funded as much to help him on the PAC side as the Democrats are likely to be."
In other words, it may not come down only to Trump's own wealth limiting his campaign spending -- it may depend on the willingness of others to pitch in.
But not everyone agrees. "If he can't pay for it, he has rich friends," said Harris. Maybe his good friend Carl Icahn will lend a hand.