Donald Trump likes to brag that he can't be influenced by wealthy donors because his vast personal fortune has allowed him to (mostly) self-fund his presidential run. This is in contrast with his craven, nonbillionaire opponents who own neither skyscrapers nor golf courses—mere puppets bankrolled by corporate interests. See, for instance, this tweet Tuesday:
Remember, I am the only one who is self-funding my campaign. All of the other candidates are bought and paid for by special interests!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 8, 2016
It'll be fascinating to watch Trump backtrack on this should he win the Republican primary. His bluster notwithstanding, the billionaire has nowhere near enough money on hand to wage a winning general election campaign—meaning that his only hope of taking the Oval Office involves accepting outside cash. Political cautionary tale and Trump surrogate Chris Christie has already suggested that the Republican front-runner could start fundraising once he wins the nomination. A source has also told CNN the same:
In private conversations, Trump and his aides have acknowledged that the Republican Party will need to be well-funded for the general election, and that Trump will work with the party to ensure that's the case.
Their message is "basically we're going to be a traditional party candidate," as far as fundraising is concerned, the source said.
So far, Trump has managed to avoid fundraising or spending much of his own personal wealth by running a shoe-string campaign operation built on free media. By dropping one outrageous insult or vaguely dictatorial policy idea after another, he's sucked up much of the airtime on television and left little room for his multiple opponents to break through with their messages. As a result, he's gotten away with spending practically nothing on advertising, while collecting little in the way of donor money. So far, Trump has laid out about $23.7 million total, according to ABC News. He’s received about $1.87 million in itemized contributions, which tend to be more than $200, and another $5.6 million in smaller, unitemized contributions, which includes the proceeds from his hat and T-shirt sales.
But that strategy would likely fail in a general election, since networks would probably devote as much time to Trump's opponent as to Trump himself. Thus, he'll finally need a pile of money giant enough to pay for massive ad buys.
Which he doesn't really have. The problem for Trump is that, while he may be a billionaire, much of his fortune is locked into hard-to-sell assets like real estate. His campaign claims he has $600 million in liquid assets, including cash. Both Forbes, which has been tracking Trump's riches for decades, and Bloomberg think the total is closer to $300 million. Either way, it probably wouldn't be enough to pay for a serious general election run.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Trump doesn't spend a single additional dollar until after the Republican National Convention in July, when he can officially claim the nomination. Well, from August through November, Mitt Romney's campaign, his super PAC Restore Our Future, and the Republican National Committee spent roughly $597 million combined, enough to basically wipe out even the $600 million Trump claims to have in the bank. Assuming the man doesn't plan to mortgage his penthouse in order to fund this run, he's going to need donor support.
I can sort of imagine Trump trying to fund his own campaign while claiming that relying on backup from the RNC and super PACs don't count as accepting donations. But even that would be a drain on his wealth. After all, the Romney campaign proper spent about $293 million in the last four months of the 2012 race.
All of this puts the Republican Party in a bind. If donors appalled by Trump's rhetoric stay on the sidelines, the party might not have enough resources to actually put up a fight this election. Yet if it tried to snatch the nomination from Trump at the convention, the mogul still has enough dough to launch a bare-bones third-party campaign designed to exact revenge on the GOP. Mitt Romney only spent about $33 million on payroll in the whole 2012 cycle, which means Trump could easily scale up a field operation just to make the Republican candidate's life hell. And in that case, his free-media strategy might also be a bit more effective, since the field would be split in three.
Donald Trump is too poor to free the Republicans from their donor class. But he's also too rich for the donors to stop worrying about their entire party burning down.