Several key nuances were lost in Donald Trump’s boasts about his fundraising haul on Tuesday, nearly 24 hours after the debate. | AP Photo
WAUKESHA, Wis. — Donald Trump’s campaign was desperate to change the subject after his shaky debate performance on Monday, and it found just the story to do it — a record fundraising surge that Trump says was powered by small donors, proving he actually got a boost from the debate.
But a closer examination of the claims around Trump’s fundraising surge — which the campaign says yielded $18 million in the 24 hours after the debate through online donations and a big-donor phone bank — suggests the haul might not be quite as significant to Trump as he and his campaign have made it out to be.
Based on the information voluntarily released by the campaign, it’s unclear how much of the windfall will go to campaign versus the Republican National Committee, or how much of the total came in pledges as opposed to actual cash. Nor is it clear how much came from the small donors about whom Trump boasts.
Some of those answers won’t be revealed until the middle of October, when the campaign and its joint fundraising committees with the RNC will be required to file financial reports with the Federal Election Commission. But other details — including the amount raised from small donors in the 24 hours after the debate — may never be independently verifiable, thanks to the nuances of campaign finance reporting requirements.
Those nuances were lost in Trump’s boasts about the fundraising haul during a Tuesday evening speech in Melbourne, Fla., nearly 24 hours after the debate.
“Today, we had something where I understand through largely small donors and some others, we had the biggest day we’ve ever had,” Trump told the crowd in a humid airplane hangar. “Because of the success last night of the debate, they raised almost $18 million today. Can you believe it? $18 million. That’s a lot. $18 million in one day, think of that. And that was largely because of last night.”
Trump carried the theme through Wednesday night, boasting to a raucous crowd at the Waukesha County Expo Center about the $54 million he’d put into his campaign, and adding “but we’re being helped by the small donors. And yesterday, because of the tremendous success of the debate, we raised almost $18 million in one day.”
If Trump’s post-debate fundraising haul is anywhere near $18 million, it would be a major boost for a campaign that has lagged behind that of Hillary Clinton in fundraising and advertising. (In fact, Trump’s campaign has said it plans to spend the cash infusion on a planned $140 million ad buy.) And it would stand as the biggest single-day fundraising haul, by far, of Trump’s campaign, though it’s not possible to track such tallies precisely.
But it’s become an increasing political tactic to embellish selective details about fundraising — especially small-donor fundraising — to enhance the appearance of grassroots momentum at critical moments of a campaign. Clinton used the tactic during her unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign and again after her party’s nominating convention in July. Her campaign boasted that in the 24 hours after she accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, it raised $8.7 million — which at the time stood as among the biggest single-day fundraising tallies.
A Trump campaign source said that only $5 million of the $18-million haul came in online donations made directly to the campaign, which tend to be the types of donations driven most by organic grassroots energy. Online donations also usually are smaller and can be more useful in the long-term since the donors who give them can continue to contribute without hitting the cap on donations of $2,700 for the primary election and $2,700 for the general election.
The remaining $13 million came through phone call solicitations made as part of a campaign “call-day” in which about 100 major donors and campaign insiders — including Trump’s children and his vice presidential running mate Mike Pence — made telephone solicitations from the campaign’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Trump Tower.
Those donations would most likely be larger, since they would come from donors who either had a track record of writing big checks or who knew the person making the call.
The campaign source said that the call day donations were about equally split between the campaign and a joint fundraising committee called Trump Victory that includes the Trump campaign, the RNC, as well as about a dozen state party committees.
Trump Victory can accept checks as large as $449,500, making it easier to bring in huge sums of cash quickly. But, no matter how large the check to Trump Victory, only $2,700 can go to the Trump campaign, with the rest going to the RNC and the state parties.
Steve Mnuchin, the Trump campaign’s finance chairman, would not say how much of Tuesday’s haul would end up in the campaign’s coffers, but he pointed out that having a well-funded RNC also helps the campaign.
“From our standpoint, we were raising money for the joint fundraising committee and the campaign, it’s all very important because it’s all going to support either the ground campaign or more media,” said Mnuchin.
He participated in the call day and issued a statement afterward declaring that “with this kind of energy and generous support behind us, we are going to have President Donald J. Trump in the White House.”
Mnuchin would not comment, however, on how much of the money raised during the call day was in the form of pledges versus actual cash donations.
“We have a very high collectability rate on any pledges we get,” he said. “We are at close to 100 percent.”
But a leading Republican fundraiser said that, with call days, there’s often a “difference between pledged and collected” contributions, so finance professionals are “always skeptical when a call day is included in any explanation.”
Additionally, GOP finance professionals have raised concerns about the return on investment from Trump’s small-dollar fundraising operation, which is run largely through a San Antonio-based web-design firm with no previous political experience that has been paid $12.5 million by the Trump campaign.
The online fundraising effort has relied on heavy spending to rent email lists and place digital ads soliciting small donations, sometimes producing duplicative or poorly targeted results.
And on Wednesday, Trump’s campaign sent three very similar emails from his son Eric Trump boasting that the campaign was “on path now to shatter a 48-hour fundraising record, and you could help us do it, Friend.”