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Consultants aren’t losing sleep over the stripped-down spending model Donald Trump is employing in his presidential effort.
The Republican candidate has opted for a strategy of minimal engagement with traditional vendors and consultants, a strategy’s that’s earned him few friends in the campaign industry.
He doesn’t use a pollster, and he has yet to make an actual TV buy. He parted ways with Roger Stone, his longtime political advisor, in August. While he does have former FEC chairman Don McGahn on his payroll, his biggest campaign expense thus far has been reimbursing himself for private flights, according to the New York Times.
Trump’s early success without a full consulting team has come at a time when rival candidates and their allies are spending millions on exactly that, but dropping or remaining static in public polling. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a robust primary campaign apparatus but dropped out in the fall after failing to raise enough money to sustain it.
Moreover, an analysis by Reuters found that Right to Rise, a Super PAC backing Jeb Bush, had spent $42 million on advertising by mid-December. Bush meanwhile, has seen his public support erode from 8 to 3 percent as those ads have run.
This has raised the question: If Trump can go it alone by relying on debate performances, phoned-in media appearances and Twitter, why can’t another big-personality candidate do the same? It wouldn’t be the first time a presidential campaign became an industry model. Consultants who worked for President Obama, for instance, routinely get asked to run an Obama-style campaign for even down-ballot candidates who have little in common with the president.
Some outside the political industry have hailed Trump’s campaign spending habits as a way to dispense with Washington-centric consultants. But those inside the campaign industry told C&E they’re not worried, in part, because despite his numbers in public polls, they still believe he has no real path to the presidency.
“From the perspective of those of us in the industry, this is just something you look at amusedly because this hype has nothing to do with what’s going to happen when the election takes place,” said Art Hackney, a Republican media consultant and chairman of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC). “That’s been shown again and again over the years with people who are ahead [in the polls]. What actually gets you over the finish line is the quality of the political organization you have in place, which gets back to a good, old-fashioned ability to execute a grassroots campaign that identifies and turns people out when you need them.”
Now, Trump has started to flesh out his organization. He recently hired his first staffer in Michigan, which has a March 8 primary, and his campaign is working to get precinct captains trained in Iowa. He’s also hired a Florida-based advertising agency, albeit not a political shop, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told the Times.
Still, Hackney’s confident there’s no chance Trump will become a model for other candidates. To wit, he pointed to Tom Fink, who was elected mayor of Anchorage in the mid-1980s with the help of a series of quirky ads Hackney produced.
“Ever since then I’ve had candidates come to me to say, ‘can you do for me what you did for Tom Fink?’ And I say, you’re not Tom Fink. You can’t just do it for other people,” said Hackney. “Anyone who tries to use Trump as a model, it only works if you’re Donald Trump. You’re not going to get a lot of [candidates] who can follow that.”
Leading Democratic pollster Mark Mellman argued that it’s not Trump’s irregular campaign model that has help vault him to national attention.
“He’s a multi-billionaire, which there are not too many of. He’s also a celebrity who starts out being known by everybody,” said Mellman. “There aren’t too many people who meet all of those criteria who are in a position to replicate what he’s done. And if people think they are [they can run], but they’re not going to be very successful.”
Mellman added: “I’m concerned for the country. I’m not concerned for the industry.”