Why Trump abandoned his cheapskate campaign

Donald Trump had apparently thought his spare campaign operation was enough. Now, he's making moves that suggest he's realized it might not be.

Seth Wenig/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves his apartment building to vote in New York's Tuesday primary. =

Like a business tycoon whose building project is late and over budget, Donald Trump is shaking up his campaign staff in an attempt to improve results.

Lots of media coverage has focused on the personnel aspects of this reorganization. And why not? That’s the juicy part. Plus, it’s easy to follow.

But it’s the monetary changes that may be the most important. It looks like Mr. Trump is abandoning his radical cheapskate style of campaigning for a more expensive, traditional approach.

Trump’s hired some veteran GOP operatives, Paul Manafort and Rick Wiley, to lead the way in upcoming states and navigate through the thicket of GOP delegate allocation rules. This is a signal that The Donald realizes he’s going to fall short of a winning delegate majority unless he develops a more traditional political operation.

This means existing campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has been effectively demoted. One report went so far as to say Mr. Lewandowski’s now basically an advance person and scheduler with a big title. 

Lewandowski himself is still in the operation but at least one of his loyalists has quit. National Field Director Stuart Jolly, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who’s worked with Lewandowski in the past, resigned on Monday. Mr. Jolly’s resignation letter to “Mr. Trump” was pretty positive, but it did end with this line: “My hope is that you will continue to listen to those who have propelled you to victory”.

Translation: “We got you this far. Those new people haven’t done anything for you yet.”

However, the new people may have more cash to play with. According to reports, Trump plans to plow about $20 million extra into his campaign for the crucial months of April and May. If true, that’s huge.

Why? Because Trump has run a surprisingly inexpensive effort so far. In some ways it’s seemed a revolutionary new style of campaigning.

Trump hasn’t paid for any internal polls, for instance. He’s relied on free media polls instead. He’s paid for very little campaign advertising. In its place he’s benefited from an enormous amount of free media attention. He has had few actual campaign employees – as was widely noted a few months ago, through December he had spent about as much on hats as he did on payroll.

Through the end of February, Trump’s campaign committee has spent a grand total of $33 million during the 2016 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission reports. In contrast, Ted Cruz has spent $58.5 million during that same time period. Hillary Clinton has spent $129 million.

(As an aside, we’ll note that about 70 percent of Trump’s funds consist of loans from the candidate, which can theoretically be paid back at some point. The rest are contributions from individuals. He is not totally self-funding, as he often claims.)

But Trump’s lean, mean, free media machine may have reached the limits of its capabilities. It can get Trump on all the Sunday news shows simultaneously, but it can’t do the hard work of organizing delegate efforts at the Wyoming state GOP convention.

Will even a $20 million infusion be enough? That’s debatable. It may be too late to build a viable ground game in California and other remaining primary states. Paid ads will only go so far. If Trump falls just short of the 1,237-delegate threshold, and then loses a contested convention, he may be the first presidential aspirant in modern history to have lost a nomination he would have won if he’d spent a bit more of his own money.

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