When Ted Cruz dropped out of the Republican presidential race on May 3, surrendering the nomination to Donald Trump, he did so from a stage in Indianapolis. Cruz had been in Indiana all week, employing every tactic in the political playbook to try to pull out a win. He crisscrossed the state, blanketed it with ads, and used it as the backdrop for his announcement that Carly Fiorina would be his running mate. In the end, Trump beat him by 16 points and did so by ignoring every rule in that playbook. The presumptive Republican nominee didn’t even bother to fuel up “Trump Force One”—his Boeing 757-200—to join the Hoosiers who had delivered him a landslide. He chose instead to remain in Manhattan and give his victory speech in the lobby of Trump Tower from a lectern that read: “VICTORY IN INDIANA, New York City.”
Trump has gone further than anyone imagined he could by flouting the conventions of national politics. Often this was by choice. As he turns to Hillary Clinton and the $1 billion campaign she’s expected to run against him in the general election, it will also be by necessity. According to multiple people familiar with Trump’s campaign, he has no plan in place to raise a comparable sum—and doesn’t seem particularly inclined to try, anyway. “Do I want to sell a couple of buildings and self-fund?” Trump mused on MSNBC the morning after his Indiana victory. “I don’t know that I want to do that.” Instead, Trump is poised to attempt something radical and never before seen in a general election: a presidential campaign as a one-man show. Says his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski: “This campaign has proven we can achieve things that others can’t.”
The key to Trump’s success so far has been his ability to dominate the news media and shape political coverage without having to rely on paid television ads. “You’re talking about a guy who’s gotten $2 billion in free media,” says Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012. To Gingrich, Trump represents an important “discontinuity” that could render obsolete many of the traditional party methods of winning elections. “He will define more of this than we [Republicans] will,” Gingrich says. “He’s been so creative, and he does things so differently, and he will be so dominant, that we have to figure out how we build around him. This is not a collective where you sit down and have a planning team. This is one, singular person who is the Steve Jobs of modern politics. And he is going to drive the system.”
But Trump is also going to encounter a scale and intensity of attack from Clinton that he never experienced from his Republican primary opponents. “He’s about to walk into a billion-dollar buzz saw,” says Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign manager. Trump has made no secret of his philosophy of how one should respond to political criticism. “Anybody who hits me, we’re going to hit them 10 times harder,” he told Fox News in November. Trump has already telegraphed the personal attacks he’ll use against Clinton, criticizing her paid Wall Street speeches and calling her an “enabler” of her husband’s marital infidelity, charges that advisers in both parties expect will be greatly amplified in the general election climate. “This is going to be Alien vs. Predator,” says one outside adviser with whom Trump has shared his plans.
For Trump, who’s broken with party orthodoxy on everything from trade to foreign policy to tax and entitlement reform, launching a fusillade of personal attacks against Clinton may be his best shot at uniting a fractured Republican Party. “There’s a lot about Donald Trump that I don’t like, but I’ll vote for Trump over Hillary any day,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to George W. Bush, whose administration Trump has criticized mercilessly.
Yet such a strategy, even if it manages to bring wavering Republicans into the fold, won’t guarantee Trump access to anything like the campaign war chests raised by recent GOP nominees. “Four years ago beginning in April,” says Stevens, “Mitt Romney had to start raising $100 million a month for the general election campaign.” While Trump may still be able to dominate the airwaves without that kind of money, he won’t be able to fund the nuts and bolts of a campaign infrastructure—and could therefore wind up at an even greater disadvantage than polls show he faces in a matchup against Clinton. (A May 4 CNN/ORC poll showed Clinton beating Trump by 13 points nationally, 54 percent to 41 percent.) “That money goes not just to the campaign,” says Stevens, “but to the assorted victory committees and all the empty party headquarters waiting to be filled with phone banks. That costs money that has to be raised by the presidential campaign. Trump doesn’t have a finance chairman, and he’s been calling donors crooks—so why would anybody want to give him money?”
Trump will have the backing of the Republican National Committee. He’ll also have at least rudimentary support from a pro-Trump super PAC. But the financial asymmetry of a Clinton-Trump race has begun to register with Republican officials and strategists such as Stevens who don’t share Trump’s blithe confidence that he’ll be able to sell himself to a general electorate in the same way he won over Republican primary voters. “If the guy is such a marketing genius, why is it he’s the most unpopular political figure in modern American history?” says Stevens.
Of course, Trump was also unpopular at the outset of the Republican primaries and still won. “Why would the consensus be that he can’t win?” asks Gingrich. “Sure, he can win.” (Gingrich may have a rooting interest here: He’s been mentioned as a possible vice president to Trump. Given an invitation to end the speculation by issuing a Shermanesque denial, he replies: “Nobody from Georgia issues Shermanesque statements. It goes against the state constitution.”)
The central problem with a media-driven Trump campaign fueled by negative attacks is that it will make it much harder—and likely impossible—for him to broaden his appeal. This dilemma is a reminder that whatever genius disrupters may possess, they often fail. Radical though it may be, Trump’s campaign will have to solve this problem or end up going the way of Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks: into oblivion.
—With assistance from Kevin Cirilli and Jennifer Jacobs.