Donald Trump says he’s finally going to start putting TV advertising money into his presidential campaign, a big shift in what has so far been a brilliantly frugal strategy of relying almost exclusively on free media to fuel his run. Trump, who said on Twitter that his campaign is $35 million under budget, promised to spend at least $2 million per week on a TV campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the first three nominating contests of the GOP primary.
"I don't think I need to spend anything. And I'm very proud of the fact that I've spent the least and achieved the best result," Trump told reporters in Iowa. "I feel I should spend. And honestly I don't want to take any chances."
His claim that he is that far underbudget does not actually sound all that much like typical Trumpian bluster. Trump has claimed he would spend $100 million to win the Republican nomination, but his advertising buys so far have only included $300,000 on radio ads. He has repeatedly said that he didn’t feel the need to spend because he was getting so much free media. In October, Trump’s told the Washington Post that his campaign had originally intended to spend $20 million on television ads by mid-September, but it ended up not being necessary. “It’s been all Trump, all the time,” he said at the time. “If you had an ad, people would OD.”
That same month he boasted to Fox News that he had only spent a couple million on his campaign and zero on advertising to consistently maintain the top spot in national Republican polls as well as in polls in the early nominating contests. “I’ve spent the least money and I’ve got the best poll numbers. This is a tribute to business,” he said.
Slate’s Jim Newell noted around that time that Trump would eventually have to start spending money because his free media would eventually wane unless he kept saying more and more newsworthy (e.g., outlandish) things.
Since then, though, he has managed to stay near the top of most news cycles, doing (awful) attention-grabbing things like calling for Muslims to be banned from immigrating to the United States and saying that Hillary Clinton was “schlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 primary.
The New York Times noted that a $2 million per week ad buy spread across all three states would actually be a fairly “moderate-level advertising buy,” and still nothing compared with what some of his opponents have spent. With Sen. Ted Cruz now leading Trump in the nomination-opening Iowa caucuses according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Trump might be feeling some pressure to finally let loose the cash spigot.
But by waiting this long, Trump has not only conserved his own personal resources—which are funding his campaign—he has also ensured that he will be getting maximum bang for his minimal buck. Whenever Trump did finally decide to spend money on TV advertising, it was going to have a follow-on effect of giving him additional free media. The cable networks are certain to re-air whatever opening ads he runs for free over and over again. Holding out until right before the start of the first contests—the Iowa caucuses are less than five weeks away—he ensures that his first TV ads will get maximum exposure at the exact moment he would want it.
Additionally, the ads themselves have a chance to achieve the sort of novelty that could produce virality on their own. While his radio ads were essentially boring repetitions of his stump speech, Trump has promised that his TV ads would be “nontraditional” and has said he would play a role in crafting them. Trump is nothing if not a showman, so even if his ad buys do end up being relatively modest, their reach could be huge.