“We have much more money than we had at the same time in 2016,” Trump tweeted this week. “Also spending on other, and different, elements of the campaign.”
His advisers, meanwhile, have begun public and private efforts to fight back against the notion that the disparity between Trump’s and his Democratic challenger’s advertising spending showed any weakness for the president’s campaign, even as allies continue to frantically tell Trump advisers that they are being outspent on the air in key states. The campaign must report its cash on hand for the end of August by Sunday’s regulatory deadline.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien reassured his staff on Tuesday, telling senior aides during a meeting that they would have enough money to win the election and to expect more spending in upcoming weeks. In a news release the same day, advisers highlighted a long-planned increase in the ad budget this week of about 50 percent over last week.
The campaign has not responded to Trump’s weekend complaints by adding advertising spending beyond what was previously in the works. The three people who recounted the president’s unsettled response spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Stepien earlier had slashed spending on television ads, fearing a cash crunch that could leave the campaign in financial trouble in its final 30 days. The circumstances marked a sober reversal, with the Trump campaign, long a fundraising behemoth, facing tough budgetary decisions as the once-lean Biden campaign found itself flush with cash. Biden significantly outraised Trump in August, $364.5 million to $210 million.
The effort to put a positive face on the state of the Trump campaign comes as the two November rivals are pressing markedly different strategies with fewer than 50 days before the election. Like Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden is flooding the television airwaves at far greater levels than Trump, while he has all but abandoned in-person campaigning in the face of the coronavirus pandemic to try to ensure his safety and reinforce his message of abiding by health officials’ advice.
Trump, meanwhile, is leaning heavily on his massive ground operation, while returning to his 2016 strategy of attracting media attention with large rallies and frequent televised appearances. While Biden still goes entire days without a public event — his pace has picked up markedly lately, and he will hold a town hall event on CNN on Thursday night — Trump has been traveling the country and appearing frequently on national cable or network television. On Sunday, he defied state and federal guidelines to hold an indoor event in Nevada at which thousands cheered him, most of them maskless.
“We are running a comprehensive campaign to get the message out, combining people on the ground with advertising, while Joe Biden is making virtually no voter contacts and campaigning almost exclusively by buying television ads,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “We like our approach better.”
Biden is making voter contacts, albeit virtually, according to his campaign, which claims to have conducted 2.6 million “conversations” in August and sent more than 1 million text messages with the Democratic National Committee to encourage mail voting in Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
“Joe Biden is working to earn every vote with a groundbreaking campaign that meets this moment,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said. “And he’s doing it the way he would govern, by putting the well-being of the American families he would fight for first.”
Bates characterized Trump’s events as “divisive, vain super-spreader events at the expense of communities hungering to overcome the pandemic.”
The separate campaign strategies are informed by different target voters. Biden’s team is going after a population that is generally more averse to in-person interactions and more of his supporters are expected to cast ballots over the next month, either by mail or through early voting. The Trump campaign, by contrast, is expecting a bigger Election Day turnout, and is targeting a voter population that is generally more open to in-person interaction, even in cases where mass gatherings violate state guidelines.
Some Trump campaign officials have come to see the public health concern of the Biden campaign as an advantage for the president, potentially offsetting the damage done to Trump by the poor public response to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“They have, like, totally given up on trying to have an old-school campaign,” said a person familiar with discussions among the Trump campaign’s senior leaders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the campaign’s internal view. “They have no cost of ground operations. They are basically saying that they are going to spend every penny on television.”
Bates, the Biden spokesman, pushed back by insisting that the campaign’s ground operation is focused on communicating with Americans through their phones, and he said voters have been receptive.
“They’re in fact more reliant on their phones than ever, because Donald Trump botched the coronavirus response,” he said.
The Trump campaign is projected to spend nearly $16 million on television advertising this week, up from about $11 million last week, according to data provided by a Democratic firm. By comparison, the Biden campaign is projected to spent about $28 million this week, up from $27 million last week.
The Trump campaign’s television spending is scheduled to increase again next week, rising to about $21 million. The Biden campaign, however, is stepping up its spending as well, with $35 million in reservations for the week ending Sept. 28.
The inequities have been lessened somewhat by greater spending by Republican outside groups, although that could shift in the coming weeks, as former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg has promised to spend at least $100 million over the course of six weeks in Florida, a massive investment for a single state.
The Trump campaign refined its strategy this week, focusing more money on urban radio ads in Florida and Pennsylvania, hoping to lure Black voters with an economic message framed around the “Great American Comback.”
On Monday, the Trump campaign canceled its weekly television advertising in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, while partly cutting money from Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks the campaign’s television purchases. The latter five states are among those most competitive this year.
Most of the money was reinvested in four other states: Arizona, Florida, Maine and North Carolina. Clinton won three of Maine’s four electoral votes in 2016, while Trump won the three other states — but in them he faces a more difficult challenge this year from Biden, according to multiple polls.
Although Clinton consistently outspent Trump on the air in 2016, Trump committed far more money to digital advertising. A report by Kantar Media after the 2016 election found that Clinton spent 6 percent of her media budget on digital ads, compared to 40 percent for Trump.
Even with its current money worries, Trump’s operation has been far better funded this year than in his jury-rigged 2016 effort, rolling out such luxuries as nightly Facebook-streaming talk shows and Hispanic and Black community centers in key battleground states. Top officials now say the plan is to leverage the enormous investment they have made in voter data over the past three years to mount a massive turnout operation in the final weeks.
A Trump campaign official said that more than 2.1 million volunteers have taken some action for the campaign. The campaign has recorded 102 million voter contacts through phone calls and door knocks since it began, a category that includes unsuccessful attempts to reach people. And the campaign continues to outspend Biden on Facebook and Google, although much of that spending is for fundraising outside the key swing states.
The Biden campaign, by contrast, said 183,000 volunteers have joined the campaign since the start of August, with about 2,000 more coming on every day since.