Last week, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump reported his campaign had nearly $1.3 million in cash on hand, a distant second to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whose campaign has $42 million on hand.
The fundraising tally is concerning if you’re a Republican — even if you haven’t gone all-in on a Trump presidency but would prefer him in the White House to Hillary.
But maybe things are different with Trump.
Trump has had lackluster cash numbers, a grand total of $66 million raised, throughout this campaign cycle. While that sounds like a significant amount of money, it pales in comparison to what all of his GOP rivals raised, including Jeb Bush ($154 million), Ted Cruz ($179 million), Marco Rubio ($113 million) and Ben Carson ($79 million).
Yet somehow Trump was still able to handily defeat all those candidates. Short-term history would seem to indicate that, at least in Republican presidential politics, money doesn’t necessarily equal votes.
That is not to say that phenomenon will hold true in this general election, but we don’t know that it won’t. Only time will tell.
The mistake being made by much of our political commentariat is that they want to apply the rules often associated with local and statewide elections to national politics.
In a contest with little to no media attention, saturating the airwaves with advertising will work. If you were anywhere in a media market that includes the state of Alabama, you likely heard campaign advertising that included, “I’m Richard Shelby and I approved this message.”
Shelby opened up the floodgates of cash in his bid to secure the Republican nomination for his U.S. Senate seat. To date he has spent nearly $12 million, according to his most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission. His most competitive opponent, Jonathan McConnell, barely broke $500,000.
When there isn’t the barrage of media coverage you see with a presidential election, and you’re facing an opponent who is a relative unknown — as was the case with the Alabama U.S. Senate GOP primary — dominating the fundraising and buying up all the advertising works.
Trump isn’t an unknown. You could argue he might be the most well-known GOP candidate at least since Ronald Reagan. So even if Clinton outspends him 10-to-1 in a swing state over the next few months, the impact won’t be as profound as it would be in a local or statewide election.
In other words, it might be a little premature to panic or celebrate, depending on which side you are on.
With Trump, you have to throw out the old playbook. He is drawing enormous crowds, which may or may not translate into votes. However, it shows a connection with his supporters that is very deep, almost to the point of an allegiance to a sports team.
If you’re Clinton, how do you beat that? It remains to be seen. While both candidates have some very high disapproval numbers, there doesn’t yet seem to be the same excitement, particularly in swing states, for Clinton as there is for Trump.
Will $42 million generate that excitement? Based on the precedent set in recent years, there is no reason to believe money alone will do that.
Much of the criticism aimed at Trump for his lack of campaign cash has come from the Beltway smart set in Washington, D.C., in many cases from within his own party. But it’s important to remember a lot of people in Washington make a living from the money candidates raise.
This also gives Trump an opening.
One of the political left’s favorite targets has been the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which prohibited the government from restricting some political speech protected under the First Amendment. With that decision, entities such as corporations and unions have been able to spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities, with the caveat that the money is spent independently of a party or candidate.
Since that decision, Democratic and even some Republican politicians have called for less money in politics. Clinton and her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), have been among those “money out of politics” voices.
In contrast to her rhetoric, however, Clinton has reportedly taken more money from Wall Street than any candidate ever. That defuses some of the arguments Democrats can make about Republicans being the party of the wealthy and the elite, despite the GOP’s last two presidential nominees having been worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
If Trump does somehow emerge victorious this November, it could turn the entire cottage industry surrounding presidential politics on its head. No longer will it take $1 billion in fundraising, as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each had to raise to win the highest office in the land. There is a path that doesn’t require an excessive amount of cash to win.
A lot of people probably won’t be happy about it, but it could wind up being a refreshing change to our politics when one of the key qualifications doesn’t involve a candidate’s ability to raise money.