Government & Politics

Donald Trump builds lead without the tools of traditional campaigns

To propel his GOP campaign for president, Donald Trump is using far less money but plenty of social media and TV appearances.
To propel his GOP campaign for president, Donald Trump is using far less money but plenty of social media and TV appearances. The Associated Press

Karon Leggio of Osceola, Mo., is a Donald Trump fan. Other politicians are less impressive.

“What have they done?” she asks. “We put them in, but they haven’t done anything to change anything. I think he would be able to.”

If public opinion polls are accurate, thousands of voters in Missouri and Kansas agree with Leggio’s disgust with politicians and her fondness for the New York businessman. In virtually every public opinion poll, Trump has a comfortable lead among Republican voters as 2015 draws to a close.

Missouri is no exception.

In a major poll of likely GOP primary voters published Sunday, Trump led the Republican field with 33 percent support in Missouri. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was second, with 23 percent. Sen. Marco Rubio had the backing of 12 percent of those surveyed.

All other Republican candidates were in the single digits. Ten percent of those surveyed were undecided.

The poll was conducted by Remington Research Group for Missouri Scout, a private news service covering state politics.

Trump’s lead confounds some political consultants and experts. It’s been built, they say, through TV appearances and rallies instead of the tools and trappings of a major political campaign in Kansas, Missouri and most other states.

No major Republican figure in Missouri or Kansas has endorsed the businessman. GOP officials say they’re unaware of any Trump campaign organization in either state, even one staffed by volunteers. Trump has filed for the March 5 Kansas caucus and the March 15 Missouri primary but hasn’t held a campaign rally in either state.

Just as Trump has rewritten the rules on what candidates say, he may be changing how candidates say it. The traditional implements — TV commercials, fundraisers, get-out-the-vote phone banks, endorsements — are out, many experts think.

Cable news appearances, noisy rallies, social media and free media coverage, on the other hand, are in. The millionaire may be old enough to be your grandfather, but this isn’t your grandfather’s campaign.

“If you’ve got a brand name, and you’ve got a fan base who’s desperate because nobody is close to saying what you’re saying — it proves the limited value of money,” said Sam Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego and an expert on presidential politics.

In fact, Trump has built his formidable lead while spending far less than many of his opponents. Federal Election Commission records show Trump spent $5.6 million through Sept. 30, less than Jeb Bush, Rand Paul or Ben Carson — who has plowed $20.1 million into his candidacy.

Trump has run relatively few television ads, even in Iowa. He’s spent much more on hats, shirts and yard signs than on political consultants. He’s bought more plane tickets than radio ads.

Republicans in Kansas and Missouri say he’s a virtual nonpresence in their states, in contrast to a handful of other candidates who have started to assemble volunteers and campaign structures. Hillary Clinton has had a full-time office in Missouri for months.

Trump is spending some of his money on ground organization in the early caucus and primary states, local Republicans say, but not here.

To be sure, Trump’s parsimonious approach may be dictated in part by his fundraising strategy. He has boasted — inaccurately — of self-funding his campaign, but in truth his donations have fallen short of his rivals’, likely leaving him short of funds for a major push in Kansas or Missouri.

Through Sept. 30, Trump had raised just $12,849 from contributors in the two states. Carson had raised almost $385,000 from Kansans and Missourians, while Hillary Clinton had collected $1.1 million.

Chad Simmons of Leawood gave $250 to the Trump campaign in August. He isn’t worried that Trump is skipping some of the basic tactics of traditional campaigns.

“It isn’t necessary to do some of the things that conventional politicians have done because it’s all about getting results, and he is,” Simmons said.

Those results have come from a blizzard of TV appearances and speeches — and Trump’s high name recognition. In a recent survey on fivethirtyeight.com, a polling and analysis website, writer Nate Silver said Trump has received 54 percent of the media coverage of the GOP primary since July, far more than any opponent. That kind of free publicity saves the campaign millions of dollars.

Trump’s low-spending, low-fundraising approach may not eventually translate into votes, of course.

“Media-dependent candidates have considerably more volatility and uncertainty in their results once the voting takes place,” Silver wrote.

Yet it’s increasingly clear a nontraditional campaign based on tweets and baseball caps has at least a chance to succeed. Bush has gathered dozens of endorsements and has spent millions of dollars on organization and advertising, but he trails the field badly.

Nevertheless, most see Trump’s strategy as a gamble. Forgoing phone banks and TV ads can help a candidate reach 30 to 40 percent of the electorate, experts say, but that may not be enough to win the nomination next year.

“Perhaps Trump is as smart as he thinks he is,” said University of Missouri political science professor Marvin Overby. “But I suspect that at some point his lack of organization will prove a significant liability. Winning a presidential nomination requires more than just support in the electorate — it requires mobilizing those people who support you to turn out for the primary or caucus.”

Jim Jonas managed Greg Orman’s independent 2014 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas against incumbent Pat Roberts, a Republican.

Orman’s outsider campaign fell short in the end, suggesting there’s a ceiling for nontraditional candidates and campaigns.

“That is absolutely right, and a fair statement, and something that may come back to haunt Trump,” Jonas said.

The Trump campaign did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The first electoral test of Trump’s strategy will come Feb. 1 in Iowa at the Republican caucus. Motivating voters through organization and spending is much more important in a caucus state, where voters must attend an evening meeting and express a preference — it’s more than casting a secret ballot on the way home from work.

Kansas is a caucus state, like Iowa. Trump’s support in the state is growing, Republicans said, but he still has lots of work to do.

“I frankly don’t hear a lot of people voicing support for Trump,” said Johnson County Republican Party chairman Ronnie Metsker.

But the scattered Trump boosters in Kansas and Missouri seem unconcerned for now. There are lots of them, Leggio says, and they’re just waiting for a chance to make their voices heard.

“I went down to a gas station this morning, and there was a guy in there who was a Trumpian,” she said. “You talk to people, and they say, ‘Personally, believe it or not, I’m going to vote for Trump.’ A lot of people that you wouldn’t think are voting for Trump.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

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