If You Liked Ben Carson's Fundraising, You're Gonna Love Trump's Fundraising

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Over at BuzzFeed, Tarini Parti and Rosie Gray have a great story on Republican donors’ hesitations about Donald Trump. I found these paragraphs at the end especially interesting:

A pro-Trump super PAC called Great America PAC, which has struggled to raise big money, recently brought on Amy Pass, a longtime fundraiser for Newt Gingrich. But the campaign still lacks any sort of real fundraising operation in the traditional sense, a reality Trump’s advisers are keenly aware of.

A senior adviser to Trump, Barry Bennett, said in a recent interview that the campaign could use online fundraising to make up for a lack of a traditional fundraising network. “He’s got 16 million followers on social media, much like Bernie Sanders, and when we turn that on, you are going to see Bernie Sanders–like fundraising,” Bennett said on a Bloomberg Politics podcast.

But whether a small-donor-based strategy can raise the amount of money Trump will need to fight likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is, at best, an untested theory, and Trump could find himself forced to pay his own way — in part because Trump’s repeated bashing of the donor class has not helped those making fundraising pleas on his behalf.

Conor wrote today about Trump’s decision to raise funds for the general election, rather than to self-fund, and in particular to do it with the help of big donors. Conor calls that a “betrayal.” What the BuzzFeed story suggests is that not only is Trump abandoning his “self-funding” fiction, but he’s following the pot-holed path of Ben Carson.

As I wrote, over and over, Carson’s fundraising operation looked to many people like a grift—so much so that by the end, even Carson was wondering aloud whether it had been a scam. Here was the basic shape: Carson focused almost entirely on small-dollar donors, building up a big list of grassroots supporters. He then plowed most of that money right back into fundraising, in the form of costly direct-mail and telemarketing efforts to get more money.

The scheme raised two questions: First, were those methods mostly a way for direct-mail and telemarketing companies to line their own pockets, rather than to build a sustainable campaign? (Many of them had connections to campaign officials.) Second, was the campaign preying on naive donors to fuel what wasn’t ever really a winning strategy?

In October, I asked Carson’s campaign about that. Then-spokesman Doug Watts gave me an answer that’s a lot like what Barry Bennett says here: He has grassroots support; he’s just got to keep building a list of small-dollar donors, because he’s not a traditional politician and has to start from scratch. The question for the Carson campaign was when they were going to stop prospecting for donors and decrease their high burn rate. Carson never got there—his campaign fell apart before that moment could come, assuming it was ever going to come at all. (His burn rate didn’t fall much over time.)

As it happens, Carson’s campaign manager at the time was none other than Barry Bennett. His national finance director was none other than Amy Pass, who BuzzFeed notes is now at Great America PAC. Before she joined Carson, she worked for a Newt Gingrich-affiliated PAC that had all the hallmarks of what’s known as a “scam PAC”: It raised huge amounts of money, more than $50 million, and yet still went bankrupt. “Campaign finance reports showed that much of that money went to pay for charter flights for Mr. Gingrich as he traveled the country, keeping his political profile high,” The New York Times reported at the time. Gingrich, as it happens, has been cozying up to the Trump campaign, too.

In other words, not only is Trump stepping away from his claims of self-funding. His strategy, and the staffing of his supporting super PAC, raise the prospect that he’s adopting some of the most questionable tactics in the fundraising world.