The first time Donald Trump won more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day was in his home state of New York, on April 18. Two weeks prior, he'd barely managed to get a third of the vote in Wisconsin, where Ted Cruz beat him by 13 percentage points. Until New York, Trump's support among Republicans seemed to be hitting a ceiling somewhere in the low 30s, even as other candidates dropped out. New York came late in the cycle and pitted him against only Cruz and John Kasich. His win there made his nomination seem inevitable (though it wasn't), and his win in Indiana shut the door.
Of the primary votes cast in 2016 for Republican candidates, Donald Trump won about 45 percent, according to U.S. Election Atlas's estimates. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won about 55 percent in hers — because she was running against one person, as Trump constantly notes.
It's not clear, though, that Trump doesn't have a ceiling, even now. With the exception of the brief spike he saw after the Republican convention, Trump hasn't been above 44 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average in 2016. Clinton hasn't been below 43.1. That's a big exception, of course: Trump spiked above 45 after his convention. But by the time Clinton finished her convention, that peak was gone.
As an effort to expand his base, Trump's convention seems to have failed. He gained some support among groups he was already winning but turned off voters who already viewed him skeptically. Gallup found that a majority of people it polled were less likely to vote for Trump after his convention — a first in the history of Gallup's post-convention polling.
So over the course of the 98 days between now and Election Day, Trump has to figure out how to break through with the electorate. His focus on attacking Clinton in the press and doing occasional campaign stops hasn't done anything yet to bump him up above that 44-percent ceiling.
On Tuesday afternoon, NBC reported that one thing Trump and his allies aren't doing is running TV ads. Clinton and super PACs supporting her have reserved $98 million nationally and in swing states over the next three months. A PAC supporting Trump has reserved $817,000. Trump's campaign has reserved $0.00.
Trump's most recent campaign filing, covering the month of June, lists 74 people on his payroll. Clinton has about 10 times as many staffers.
There are two factors at play. The first is that Trump is relying on the Republican Party to run a lot of the traditional ground operations in battleground states. (At the end of May, the party was well behind its targets.) The second is that Trump won the Republican primary battle despite not spending much and without running many ads. So Trump doesn't really want to run ads, it seems; he has lamented that he ran ads in Florida, where he beat Marco Rubio easily. But he also can't run many — or, at least, couldn't at the beginning of July. Trump started raising money only at the end of June and had far less to spend than his rival.
The reasons aren't important. What's important is that at some point Trump needs to do something that breaks through his ceiling again — and keeps him there. Maybe it's a debate. Maybe it's some flub by Clinton. But what couldn't hurt is actually running a campaign, running ads and reaching out to voters in battleground states. A few scattershot events and dominance of the cable news channels each night kept him above water long enough to win the Republican primaries, and it's keeping him in the 40-percent range in the polling average. But it seems clear at this point that he needs to do something else.
Like: campaign. It can't hurt. Maybe at some point in the next 98 days, Trump will give it a shot.