Biden is out-spending him and Trump can’t find a killer line
Donald Trump is famously so poor that he only paid $750 in federal income tax in 2016. His campaigning in 2016 was similarly economical. In that election, Trump raised and spent only just over half the total of his opponent: Hillary winning the funding battle by $1191m to $647m. In the end, of course, that didn’t matter; Trump won the election.
He did so partly because Hillary was just a bad candidate and advertising can only work so far on a fundamentally flawed product. But a greater part of it was that the media effectively gave him a lot of advertising for free. He created controversy, they reported it – and his name and his policies gained endless publicity. Not everyone liked them but that wasn’t the point. You don’t need everyone to like you to be elected; indeed, in a US presidential election, you don’t even need most voters to do so.
However, that only works if the media is putting out the message that you want – or perhaps more accurately, if it’s putting out your message in a way that will be effective. In 2016, that was certainly the case in the primaries and sufficiently the case in the general election to overcome being so heavily outspent on direct advertising. It’s not the case now.
Trump probably assumed that being president would give him even more licence to play the same game, as indeed it should have. What the president does and says is news in a way that it’s not if Joe Biden said it (within limits – if Biden said some of the things Trump has it’d be more newsworthy because it’d be more unusual but on a like-for-like basis, higher office commands greater newsworthiness).
And we shouldn’t have been surprised that Trump should have tried doing much the same: making statements that played to the base while riling liberal opinion in a way that spread his message free of cost. By making them so obviously the enemy, their disdain of his ideas and actions should of itself have been enough to commend what Trump said and did to those on his side. And to an extent that’s true. The problem is that his base isn’t large enough for him to be able to win without others too.
In 2016, he was able to make up the difference because Hillary’s ratings were similarly dire. Enough of his attacks on her hit home because there was enough material to work with already in the public domain and Hillary’s record was already patchy. That’s not the case with Biden. Yes, there are questions as to whether, at 78, he has the physical and mental endurance for a four-year term but then that question looks at least as pertinent with Trump as its subject (and at 74, Trump would become the oldest-ever president to be inaugurated should he win).
But the ‘Sleepy Joe’ jibe has never really gained traction, claims about dementia weren’t borne out by Biden’s behaviour in the debate, the Obamagate allegations are wild, unfocussed, unfounded conspiracy theories and hit the wrong person anyway, and the criticism that Biden has hidden in his basement looks ill-judged now that half the White House has contracted Covid-19.
By contrast, where is the equivalent to ‘build the wall’ or ‘make America great again’? Those were soundbites that were both positive policy or vision, and played into the rest of his election narrative. This time, his messaging has been all over the place and his behaviour even more erratic that usual – which is not how you get the media to put across election-winning campaign highlights.
So back to the traditional route of advertising – whether on social media or more traditional channels? Perhaps, but therein lies the problem with money, namely that Biden is far outraising Trump.
In August, Biden raised an astonishing $365m; close to double Trump’s $210m. US media reports are that the Democrat pulled in even more money in September. If that’s accurate – and we should exercise a little caution: leaks like this can be aimed at disrupting the opponent’s strategy – then Biden could significantly outspend Trump in the last few weeks across a wide range of states.
Indeed, that may well be what’s happening. Reports are that Trump’s campaign has pulled more than $12m of advertising from Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, while ramping up spending in Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. Now, the decisions about Minnesota and Nevada make sense: Trump didn’t win the former in 2016 and is way behind this year, while the latter looks like a possible gain. However, it’s all-but impossible to see a path to victory for him without the other Mid-West states.
So what gives? Well, he clearly is vulnerable in those Sun Belt states but as mentioned, this isn’t an either-or: he needs both (or most of them) to keep hold of the White House. The only other sensible conclusion is that the Trump operation doesn’t have the cash it needs. Not for the first time.
There is a potential cycle of decline here. If donors feel that Trump is a lost cause then some will prefer to donate to alternative Republican candidates standing for Congress of state elections. The risk is that a lack of funding means less advertising, a further loss of support, and a further loss of funding – and so the vicious cycle repeats. Trump can break that cycle if he can reverse his decline in the polls but the question is how? The second debate has been cancelled and campaign rallies are likely to just go over old ground. What he needs is for the news media to give him that advertising for free again but he can only make them do that if he can give them the right stories. For now, in the middle of a pandemic he doesn’t have a credible good news story on, he can’t.
Money isn’t everything but in America especially, with its extraordinarily expensive elections, it does count for a lot if well-spent. Along with the polls and the disproportionate return rate of early ballots, this is another sign that Biden is very likely to win, with a decent chance of winning big.