What Trump’s money troubles really tell us

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·National Political Columnist
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The candidate speaking at Trump SoHo Hotel in New York City on June 22. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The candidate speaking at Trump SoHo Hotel in New York City on June 22. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

More incredible news for the Donald Trump juggernaut!

After a 10-day stretch in which Trump found himself rebuked by Republican leaders, plummeting in polls and firing his much-maligned campaign manager, news broke that, according to public filings, his campaign now had about $1.3 million in the bank.

This is awesome if you’re running for a House seat in, say, Maine. It’s slightly less awesome if you’re running for president.

How much less awesome? About 40 times less than what Hillary Clinton has at her disposal — not counting outside groups that have been revving up on her behalf for at least a year. So, yeah, a lot less awesome.

This really is something, considering that all through the primaries Trump bragged about how he was so rich you wouldn’t believe and how he was the only guy on stage who didn’t need to ask for money.

I’ll tell you what it looks like when a seriously rich guy gets serious about winning. When Michael Bloomberg won a third term as New York’s mayor in 2009, he spent about $102 million, or $183 per vote. At that rate, had Bloomberg decided to seek the presidency as an independent, he would have had to spend about $12 billion.

And you know what? He would have, too. Because Bloomberg is not a man who plays around. He has cash and uses it.

But if Bloomberg is the John D. Rockefeller of modern politics, then Trump is its P.T. Barnum — a master of spectacle and illusion. His billions are tied up, spread around, whatever other euphemisms for “not real” you want to employ.

This, I’m guessing, is why he doesn’t want you to see his tax returns. Trump would be happy to shout from the top of Trump Tower that he hasn’t paid a dime in taxes — that fits his narrative of being smarter than everyone else and knowing the flaws in the system that need fixing.

What he’s less enthused to have you know, perhaps, is that he really hasn’t earned much, either. His vast wealth exists on paper, his lifestyle sustained by credit. Kind of like the government.

Let’s leave all that aside for now, though, and focus on the more complicated question of whether Trump’s money problems really matter all that much, and why.

I’ve long argued that money is a vastly overrated resource in presidential politics, generally. There’s certainly a threshold a candidate has to cross in order to be competitive, and safe to say it’s higher than $1.3 million. But whatever that threshold is — let’s say it’s $300 million — the return on every dollar you raise after that is probably marginal, compared with other factors in a campaign.

Just look at what happened in the primaries. Bernie Sanders raised more than $200 million and essentially matched Hillary Clinton in spending, and if you’re going strictly by votes cast in primary states, he got crushed anyway.

Meanwhile, while Trump relied largely on the generosity of cable networks, Jeb Bush’s L.A.-based super-PAC blew through more than $100 million and impressed pretty much no one. That had to make the producers of “Tomorrowland” feel better.

Sure, Trump needs to narrow his fundraising gap with Clinton. But money just isn’t as big or as predictable a part of the equation as we make it out to be — and by “we” I mean the journalists who cover campaigns as if they belonged on ESPN and the professionals who profit from campaign payrolls.

That said, if we step back from the fundraising minutiae for a moment, we can derive at least three pretty relevant insights on the state of Trump’s candidacy from his political penury. And none of them is likely to lift Republican insiders out of their growing despondency.

First, Trump is now in something of a box, strategically. Why? Because his campaign, as I noted, has been propelled to this point by free media exposure, and it’s clear he’ll have to rely more on dominating the news cycle and the cable shows this fall than on traditional advertising.

The problem here is that, in order to maintain his title as the Most Talked About Man in America, Trump has to give us something to talk about, as he did last week after the Orlando shootings. He has to keep sending outrageous tweets and hurling reckless insults, because that’s what gets the media machine all ginned up.

Which means Trump couldn’t really “pivot” toward a general election even if he wanted to and had the capacity. As long as he has to rely on free exposure to compete with Clinton, Republican leaders should probably relinquish all hope of ever seeing a more responsible, electable version of their nominee.

Second, Trump has just about wasted the small window he had, after the contested primaries and before the convention, to reassure Republican influencers and consolidate their support. If contributors weren’t moved to invest in Trump before he called the president a terrorist sympathizer and renewed his calls to ostracize Muslims, they’re probably not bursting with enthusiasm now.

Trump’s best hope for building up his bank account rests with small-dollar donors. If I were Trump, I’d use my convention speech to advertise the website or even a toll-free line where people can send him 20 bucks. Sure, it’s absurdly crass, but come on, he’s set a pretty high bar there already.

Of course, the easiest solution for Trump would be to free up some of his own cash and spend it, as he’s already threatened to do. But this leads me to my third takeaway, which is that he still doesn’t seem all that invested in himself.

Saying that Trump moved to “reorganize” his campaign this week, as many news reports did, is like saying NASA has a plan to “recolonize” Mars. You can’t reorganize something that was never really organized to begin with, and Trump’s so-called campaign is really just a small project in his business empire, populated by a handful of junior executives and based entirely on personal celebrity.

I was clearly wrong about Trump’s viability as a candidate deep into the primaries, but I don’t think I was wrong when I said his presidential bid was mostly an exercise in brand promotion that somehow went awry. What the financials are telling us — along with Trump’s reluctance to build any real campaign apparatus or to calibrate his own rhetoric — is that the man still sees this whole enterprise principally as theater.

Trump wants to run for president, all right, but my guess is he still wants to be president about as much as I want to be on “Dancing With the Stars.” (Not that it wouldn’t be nice to be asked.)

And that right there is the real problem for Republicans who hope they never have to refer to the Clintons as “42 and 45.” They’ve allowed their party to become an elaborate prop in a tasteless stunt, used by a man who to this point shows very little seriousness of purpose.

It’s not that Trump can’t win with a lot less money than his opponent. It’s that he’d probably have a lot more money if he were actually running to win.

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