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Are Donald Trump's Pockets Deep Enough To Fund His Campaign?

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump in front of his campaign plane in Laredo, Texas, last week.
LM Otero
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump in front of his campaign plane in Laredo, Texas, last week.

In the weeks since Donald Trump launched his self-financed bid for president, the multibillionaire's hard-edged rhetoric has gotten far more attention than the potential impact of his massive wealth.

Trump has several times said his net worth is or exceeds $10 billion, providing all the money he needs to run.

"I don't need anybody's money," he said as he announced his candidacy in June. "I'm using my own money. I'm not using the lobbyists. I'm not using donors. I don't care. I'm really rich."

But some outside analysts challenge Trump's number. Forbes magazine has calculated his net worth at $4 billion. Bloomberg News this week put it at $2.9 billion.

Trump dismissed Bloomberg's estimate on CNN, scoffing, "They don't know what I have. I'm a private company. They have no idea what I have."

But how many billions Trump has might have real significance, given what presidential campaigns cost these days. In 2012, Mitt Romney's team spent $391 million to win the Republican nomination. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics put a price tag of $1.2 billion on Romney's spring and fall campaigns. President Obama's team spent $1.2 billion on his re-election, the center said.

Political scientist John Green, at the University of Akron, analyzed spending in the 2012 primaries, and said that even if the Forbes and Bloomberg figures are accurate, Trump "could probably spend as much money as all of the candidates combined."

But Green said even that much cash wouldn't necessarily make Trump a shoo-in.

"In the past, that gave a self-financed candidate great advantages. That's not so true anymore because of the rise of the superPACs," he said. SuperPACs are working alongside nearly all of the presidential campaigns. While donors cannot give more than $2,700 to a presidential primary campaign, they can give unlimited amounts to a superPAC backing the candidate.

"Many of Trump's rivals for the Republican nomination are not as wealthy as him, but have friends who are as wealthy and can help those candidates stay in the race, perhaps going dollar for dollar, toe to toe with Donald Trump's personal wealth," Green said.

Still, federal law makes Trump's personal money more valuable than superPAC money, especially for TV advertising. Trump, as the candidate, gets discounted rates for ad time, while superPACs pay market price.

Stamina is another factor in the presidential marathon. Historically, self-financed candidates have usually been successful businessmen, who often end up handling a long, drawn-out campaign like an investment gone bad: They pull the plug. Right now, it seems that next year's Republican primaries could drag out well into the spring.

Elizabeth Wilner, vice president for political advertising at the media-tracking firm Kantar Media, says it's possible that Trump, like earlier self-financing hopefuls, would grow weary of shoveling more and more cash into TV. "For someone like him who's used to seeing results quickly, and being able to sort of compel results by sheer force of will and business techniques, this could be an unusually long process," she said.

The Trump campaign didn't respond to interview requests for this story.

For now, the Trump campaign is actually generating a little revenue for the Trump business empire. The campaign's first disclosure to the Federal Election Commission lists a $37,993 payment to the Trump Organization for the campaign kickoff event. The campaign also paid for rent and lodging in Trump properties, and travel on Trump-owned airplanes — in all, more than $569,000 over three months.

Trump's personal wealth notwithstanding, a Trump superPAC has been set up to solicit his wealthy backers. It's called Make America Great Again. The name is trademarked by Donald Trump.

The upcoming FEC report from Make America Great Again should reveal whether the superPAC is paying Trump royalties to use its name.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.