WASHINGTON -- Never before has a presidential candidate spent so little to win so much. According to Federal Election Commission records, billionaire eccentric Donald Trump has spent less than any other presidential primary front-runner in the past 16 years.
Through the end of February, Trump spent $33 million while winning 19 contests and racking up 680 delegates, the most of any candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. After adjusting for inflation, Trump’s total spending is lower than every other major party front-runner since leading candidates refused public financing during the primary elections in 2000.
The next lowest spender was the Democratic Party’s 2000 presidential nominee, Al Gore, when he spent $46 million at the same point in the election. Then the sitting vice president, Gore’s primary campaign was far less competitive than the current race for the Republican nomination. He won each of the first 20 primaries and caucuses and his opponent, Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.), dropped out of the race on March 10 of that year.
President Barack Obama holds the record for the most spent in a contested primary through February with $174 million in 2008. George W. Bush’s 2000 run was second with $88 million spent through February.
Presidential Primary Front-Runner Spending Through February Election Year
Trump has been able to get away with spending so little money thanks to the obsessive coverage his bid has received from cable and network news and his broad following on social media. According to The New York Times, Trump has received $1.9 billion worth of earned media, which includes coverage of the candidate on television and social media, and in newspapers and magazines. That is more than twice the amount of earned media Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton has received and more than six times the amount received by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the second-biggest earner of free media among Republicans.
In October, Trump told Fox News that he wasn't spending money on ads because of all the free airtime they gave him.
"I had earmarked till this point in a budget about $20 million," Trump told Fox host Neil Cavuto. "I've spent zero on advertising because you and Fox and all of the others, I won't mention names, but every other network, I mean they cover me a lot, to put it mildly. And in covering me, it's almost like if I put ads in on top of the program, it would be too much. It would be too much Trump."
His campaign has begun paying for ads in recent months. He spent $11 million on placed media through February, his top campaign expense. That is still remarkably lower than his top competitors for the nomination, especially considering their support from allied super PACs.
Trump’s successful frugality, however, may not transfer to the general election, where he will need to mobilize far more than just 35 percent of Republican primary voters.
So far, he has mostly self-funded his campaign with $25 million in personal loans. It is unlikely that he can personally contribute or loan his campaign hundreds of millions of dollars to match likely Democratic nominee Clinton (or even Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont).