Trump's Ground Campaign Spending in Early States Could Signal Seriousness

Real Estate Tycoon Spent Over 12% of Budget on Boots-on-the-Ground Tactics

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Donald Trump
Donald Trump Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
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Any number of pundits have dismissed the notion that Donald Trump is serious about his presidential run. But a perusal of his campaign's latest filing with the Federal Elections Commission might change their minds. Why would the real estate tycoon spend more than 12% of his campaign budget, as reported thus far, on old-school, boots-on-the-ground campaign tactics if he really only wants media attention?

The campaign spent around $170,000 between April and June 2015 to pay field consultants including around $10,000 to Brad Nagel, an Iowa field rep who was fired by the campaign early this month because of his racist posts on Facebook.

That may seem like chump change for Mr. Trump, but considering the campaign spent only $1.4 million in that period -- a sliver of the $18 million spent by Hillary Clinton's campaign through June -- it's worth taking a second look at spending that comprises more than 10% of his budget.

Mr. Trump, like some of his Republican rivals, was early to nab field organizing consultants in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Way back in February, before he announced his intentions to run for president, Mr. Trump hired a big-name GOP operative in Iowa, Chuck Laudner, a move Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, called "a major coup" in a Breitbart story that broke the news. He was paid $11,600 by the campaign through the end of June.

"Everybody starts very early trying to snap up the best field reps," said Vinny Minchillo, principal of Republican political consultancy Glass House Strategy and media consultant for the Opportunity and Freedom PAC, which backs former Texas Governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry. "The folks with money went in early and got their reps," he said, adding the Trump camp's field consulting expenditures are an indication of his seriousness about his presidential aspirations.

The campaign also spent on strategy and communications consulting, polling, event-related expenses, fundraising consulting and a small amount of direct mail and t-shirt printing. More than one-third of expenditures went towards travel. The Donald J. Trump for President campaign didn't respond to a request to comment about its field work.

The Trump campaign paid 10 individuals and two firms to handle field consulting during the spring reporting period. Right now, those people should be out in the field along with paid canvassers, establishing and strengthening connections with voters they believe might caucus for Mr. Trump in Iowa, or vote for him in early primary states like New Hampshire.

"They will definitely hire paid, trained teams that go out and talk to people; they spend a lot of time talking to folks," said Mr. Minchillo.

People considered top field reps earned that reputation because of who they know. They have relationships with voting precinct captains, county chairs and other key party officials. While the door-to-door stuff is considered grassroots, getting local political rainmakers on board with a campaign -- "the grass-tops" is also important.

"In states like Iowa and New Hampshire, these guys are going to know everybody who's been active or prominent in Republican politics in the past," said Colin Delany, a digital strategy consultant serving advocacy and political clients on the left. "They can help connect the campaign with local power broker types." Field consultants might also be doing advance work for events in these early states.

Before unleashing campaign operatives armed with tablets loaded with issue-specific videos -- now de rigueur for all campaigns according to Mr. Minchillo -- the Trump campaign most likely used statewide GOP party voter data and, if possible, matched it against its own data to cull a targeted list of likely supporters. Those people might be visited six or seven times by field consultants and their staff and volunteers asking them about issues that are important to them and feeding that information back into the campaign database via their tablets.

There are no direct payments for voter data shown in the Trump campaign's early FEC filing; however, those purchases may have been made by consultants.

Of course, many political observers are waiting to see TV spots from the candidate before they take him seriously. The FEC filing shows only one media buy with the New Hampshire Union Leader for $16,762.26.

So, will Mr. Trump, a near-constant subject of cable TV news coverage, invest in television? Mr. Minchillo doesn't think he needs to. "As long as he's getting his message out via earned media, he doesn't need to buy TV. And when he does buy TV, it needs to be as shocking and outlandish as he is."

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