Trump spends less, but polls well. Does money still matter in politics?

Donald Trump is spending far less money than his opponents but is dominating the polls. Does this defy conventional assumptions of the post-Citizens United era? 

Steve Helber/AP
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a rally in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015.

In the time since the Supreme Court removed limits on campaign contributions from organizations like corporations and unions, the pervading notion about US politics is that money is king. The more money your campaign has, the more likely you are to win.

But in the current GOP presidential primary, Donald Trump is defying political gravity when it comes to campaign funding and success.

According to the Federal Election Commision, Mr. Trump has spent only about $4.2 million this past quarter, most of which came from campaign contributions and not his own wealth.

The reality star and billionaire real estate developer has virtually no experience in politics but is dominating the polls. His candidacy is not supplemented by a Super PAC, and he has suggested in the past that his bid would be entirely self-financed.  

Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was initially thought to be the front-runner, has slid to fourth place in the polls, but has spent $11.5 million this quarter, the second-most of any Republican candidate. Ben Carson spent the most in his field at $14.2 million.  

Mr. Trump has not held many fundraising events compared to his opponents, and is rarely seen asking for money, though his campaign website prominently features a donation button.  

So how can he be achieving so much traction with so little financial investment? According to Craig Holman, Government Affairs Lobbyist for Public Citizen, the celebrity came into the race with at least one major advantage.

“Trump has achieved through publicity and his television shows exactly what money buys. [This] does not reflect that money doesn’t matter; money matters a great deal. Donald Trump is able to make up what Jeb Bush and Ben Carson are spending because he’s been on television for years, so what Jeb Bush and Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are trying to buy with money Trump has already achieved,” Holman tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview.  

Holman added that he would have expected Trump to be investing more money early on to drown out Mr. Bush, but theorizes he has not done so because polls are already in the real estate mogul’s favor.  

And while spending little money seems prudent now, it may not be a successful long-term campaign strategy. Trump has neglected to build a robust campaign infrastructure in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and it is unclear how well supporters there could be mobilized.

“I don’t consider it a wise campaign strategy that Trump is pursuing here. He is relying on what he has always known: media sensationalism. And even though that does rally many of the rabbles, it isn’t going to set up that kind of structure in which he’s going to get recruits to spend time on his campaign. He should be making a better effort to set up a better campaign structure rather than relying on media and TV debates,” says Holman.  

He also cautions that it is very early in the election season, and Super PACs are still raising money and will only start to spend serious cash as the first primaries approach. When TV airwaves start flooding with Bush ads, that is when Trump could be most vulnerable if he neglects to invest more in his campaign.

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