The Coming Ad Barrage Against Donald Trump

The presumptive Republican nominee faces an onslaught of negative ads, without the cash or staff to respond in kind.

Christopher Aluka Berry / Reuters

Donald Trump is conducting an unprecedented experiment in running a barebones campaign, in which he is not only the candidate, but also his campaign’s top surrogate, rapid-response operation, de facto press secretary, and primary fundraiser.

Some of the problems with that approach are beginning to show. On a rhetorical level, his attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel was a disaster, suggesting his own self-interest and earning him harsh condemnation from fellow Republicans. His response to the massacre in Orlando—renewing his call for a moratorium on Muslims entering the country, and implying President Obama is a traitor—may endear him to elements of his base, but it has also frustrated many Republicans. The result is that the bottom has started to fall out of Trump’s poll numbers.

One culprit for this may not just be Trump’s own rhetorical indulgences. Trump is suddenly being hit with a lot of television advertising. Politico, not typically given to overwrought headlines, announces, “Clinton to unleash TV hell on Trump.” The Clinton campaign is about to spend “eight figures” in eight swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. All of those are swing states that Obama won twice, except North Carolina, which he won in 2008 but not 2012; the Trump nomination is considered by some forecasters to have put the state in play. Meanwhile, the buy excludes upper Midwestern states that Trump thinks he can win, but which Democrats apparently don’t think he can. Some of the ads are positive, but others are decidedly not.

Clinton is going on the air now, but Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that’s backing her, has already been on the air, not least with “Grace,” a powerful and hard-hitting ad that pounds Trump for his mockery of a disabled reporter:

Priorities is dropping a reported $20 million on that ad so far, which means a total spending of at least $30 million between it and the Clinton campaign. That’s nearly half as much as Trump’s rivals spent against him through mid-April, around $70 million, according to Kantar Media—and that was over the course of several months. Throughout the primary, Trump’s rivals hesitated to attack him, in part because they believed that he’d burn himself out and didn’t want to alienate his backers. By the time they realized their error, Trump was effectively unstoppable. Some of the biggest spends against Trump instead came from outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth.

That means that Trump is facing a barrage of concentrated advertising unlike anything he has faced before. The Priorities ads may already be helping to drive his polling down. His unfavorability has tumbled back to where it was last May, around 70 percent.

One way a candidate can blunt such an attack is to counterattack. But doing that by means other than tweets requires money, which is something Trump is notably short on. As of the last report, Trump’s campaign has $2.4 million cash on hand. As Gabriel Debenedetti points out, that means Clinton’s ad buy is at least four times as large as the figure Trump has in the bank.

In theory, Trump and his allies at the Republican National Committee recognize this problem. The RNC has been trying to shepherd Trump toward some semblance of a normal campaign, and it has taken up some functions with which Trump has decided not to bother. But getting Trump to take advice is a challenge. Although the campaign and the RNC established a fundraising operation, several members told The Wall Street Journal they hadn’t actually done anything yet, and officials are already dampening expectations of raising even $1 billion—an eye-popping sum, to be sure, but less than either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama raised in 2012, and less than Clinton is expected to raise. Politico reported Thursday on serious tension between Trump and frustrated RNC officials. For example:

While Trump had promised Priebus that he would call two dozen top GOP donors, when RNC chief of staff Katie Walsh recently presented Trump with a list of more than 20 donors, he called only three before stopping, according to two sources familiar with the situation. It’s unclear whether he resumed the donor calls later.

The increasingly serious need for cash has driven Trump to schedule campaign events in places where his campaigning is likely irrelevant. On Wednesday, he was campaigning in Atlanta—a heavily Democratic city, in the middle of a solidly Republican state that few Democrats are seriously talking about winning in November. On Thursday, RNC Chair Reince Priebus tweeted to debunk the Politico report:

But then again, the fact that Trump was headed to Texas, a state Republicans are certain to win in November, underscores the missed opportunities. The actual swing states remain neglected (though Trump was in North Carolina on Tuesday). Of course, Trump could theoretically cut his campaign a fat check from his own holdings, which he claims are worth more than $10 billion. But much of that value is on paper, in the form of reputed brand value, and anyway he’s shown no indication that he’s willing to do that.

For Democrats, unleashing harsh attacks at this stage in the campaign offers the chance for a repeat of 2012, in which they believe that an early barrage of ads from Priorities was able to “define” Mitt Romney in voters’ eyes, presenting him an image of a callous plutocrat that Romney helpfully encouraged with gaffes like his “47 percent” remark. Whether that really happened, or was simply a creation of the “narrative,” is a different question. Political scientist John Sides writes that he and his colleague Lynn Vavreck couldn’t find any evidence in polling data to show that the ads really “defined” Romney in any lasting way. Sides’s research suggests that negative television ads can hurt a candidate, but that they tend to wear off over time—so that an ad that runs in June or July is unlikely to have much effect in November.

What’s happening now may be most important not because it will affect what happens in November, but because it provides a potential template for the rest of the campaign. Trump is a candidate who hasn’t unified his party, can’t or won’t fundraise effectively, and offers negative admakers a lot to work with. Until he can solve some of those problems, he risks staying stuck in the same rut.