Donald J. Trump enters the general election campaign laboring under the worst financial and organizational disadvantage of any major party nominee in recent history, placing both his candidacy and his party in political peril.
Trump began June with just $1.3 million in cash on hand, a figure more typical for a campaign for the House of Representatives than the White House, and trailed Hillary Clinton by more than $41 million, according to reports filed late Monday night with the Federal Election Commission.
He has a staff of around 70 people — compared with nearly 700 for Clinton — suggesting only the barest effort toward preparing to contest swing states this fall. And he fired his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, on Monday, after concerns among allies and donors about his ability to run a competitive race.
The Trump campaign has not aired a television advertisement since he effectively secured the nomination in May and has not booked any advertising for the summer or fall. Clinton and her allies spent nearly $26 million on advertising in June alone, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, pummeling Trump over his temperament, his statements and his mocking of a disabled reporter. The only sustained reply, aside from Trump’s gibes at rallies and on Twitter, has come from a pair of groups that spent less than $2 million combined.
Trump’s fundraising for May reflects his lag in assembling the core of a national finance team. In the same month that he clinched the Republican nomination, Trump raised just $3.1 million and was forced to lend himself $2 million to meet costs. Some invitations to Trump fundraising events have featured the same short list of national Republican finance volunteers regardless of what city the event is held in, suggesting Trump has had some trouble lining up local co-hosts.
A spokesman for Trump did not respond to an inquiry about the campaign’s spending plans. During an interview on Monday on CNN, Lewandowski defended the candidate’s bare-bones approach.
“We are leaner, meaner, more efficient, more effective. Get bigger crowds. Get better coverage,” Lewandowski said. “If this was the business world, people would be commending Mr. Trump for the way he’s run this campaign.”
But the shortfall is leaving Trump extraordinarily dependent on the Republican National Committee, which has seen record fundraising this campaign cycle and, long before Trump even declared his upstart candidacy, had begun investing heavily in a long-range plan to bolster the party’s technical and organizational capacity.
In a first for a major-party nominee, Trump has suggested he will leave the crucial task of field organizing in swing states to the Republican National Committee, which typically relies on the party’s nominee to help fund, direct and staff national Republican political efforts. His decision threatens to leave the party with significant shortfalls of money and manpower: On Monday, the party reported raising $13 million during May, about a third of the money it raised in May 2012, when Mitt Romney led the ticket.
“It’s like a waterfall,” said Brian O. Walsh, a Republican campaign strategist. “There are things that have to happen, and someone has to pay for them.”
Trump’s cash crunch marks a stark reversal from the 2012 presidential campaign, which seemed to inaugurate a new era of virtually unlimited money in U.S. politics, buoyed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision two years earlier. By the same point that year, President Barack Obama and Romney were raising tens of millions of dollars per month with their parties.
And while Romney faced a larger deficit overall against Obama in June 2012, he was raising far more money than Trump is now, with big donors flocking to his cause.
“The campaign has got to be the entity that’s out there driving the fundraising car,” said Austin Barbour, a lobbyist who served as national finance co-chairman of the Romney campaign. “And it better be a big old Cadillac.”
Trump has defied conventional wisdom before, clinching the Republican nomination with a small organization and modest outlays on television. And Republican officials believe they are well prepared to compensate for Trump’s late start. The Republican National Committee has more than 500 field staff members on the ground in swing states, far more than in 2012, and a robust digital and data operation.
Allies of Trump say they believe the tide is already turning. On Tuesday, Trump will appear at a high-dollar fundraiser in New York City hosted by some of the most prominent names on Wall Street.
Fundraisers for Trump, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal discussions, said they were now hoping to raise up to $500 million in joint efforts with the Republican National Committee, or an average of $100 million a month from June through October. He is now reliably raising between $5 million and $7 million in each city where he raises money, those donors said.
A joint fundraising effort with Trump and 11 state Republican parties yielded the Republican National Committee $3 million in just five days at the end of May. Some of the largest checks came from a handful of wealthy Trump supporters who are not party mainstays, suggesting Trump could tap new sources of campaign money.
But Romney was also backed by expansive network of deep-pocketed super PACs and other outside groups that collectively spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to elect him. This year, the Democrats are leading in outside money. Priorities USA Action, a group focused on advertising in support of Clinton, announced on Monday that it had raised $12 million in May and had $52 million on hand — a huge reserve.
The outside spending effort to help Trump, by contrast, has been chaotic and underfunded, hampered by a profusion of competing groups, one of which has spent only $1 million so far on Trump’s behalf.
The most prominent group, Great America, is advised by Ed Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign, and other more seasoned Republican operatives. But it, too, has had difficulty persuading big donors: On Monday, it reported raising just $1.4 million during the month of May.
Fundraising efforts for Trump have been hampered by the candidate’s own erratic public comments. He has repeatedly said he will pay for his own campaign even as his volunteers fan out around the country to solicit six-figure checks, confusing allies and potential donors alike.
“Two days ago, he said, ‘I may fund it myself,’” Rollins said. “Donors are all being cautious about what’s going to happen here.”