Donald J. Trump would like to sincerely wish you a very scary new year.
The first advertisement from the billionaire’s front-running Republican campaign is certainly on message, repeating the outrageous claims Trump has turned to each time his poll numbers dip: The US should ban Muslim immigrants because of terror attacks, Trump can defeat ISIS and “take their oil,” and as president he will build a huge wall on the Mexican border, paid for by Mexico.
Trump told the Washington Post that the ad is intended to remind voters that the US has become ”a dumping ground,” and we think he’s achieved his goal, though probably not as he intended.
But consider Trump’s decision to ditch his successful strategy of riding earned media coverage in favor of a more traditional political playbook. There are two plausible interpretations:
Trump thinks he can win this thing.
Last week’s look at Trump’s campaign finances suggested that he might be in a position to actually profit from running for president: The bulk of his support came from a $1.8 million loan from himself, which the campaign can easily pay back, and he has already directed $1.4 million in spending back to companies he controls.
If Trump starts spending $2 million a week on advertising in New Hampshire and Iowa, as he says he will, he will need to either put a more of his own cash into the campaign, or execute fundraising operation like all the traditional politicians. The $3.9 million he garnered from donors as of October 1 exceeds his own contributions, it’s far less than what third-string candidates in his own party like Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul have pulled in. If Trump is going to open his own wallet or start groveling for dollars, it suggests Trump thinks he can go all the way. (Another datapoint in favor of this argument: Trump recently obtained access to the GOP voter file data that is crucial for actually winning elections.)
Trump is petrified he’s about to lose.
A front-running candidate suddenly changes his strategy to double-down on negative TV ads a month before the Iowa caucuses: There was a time when this would have been a clear sign of desperation. A front-running candidate typically deploys positive advertising to bring their voters to the polls and burnish their image; candidates that are lagging behind have more incentive to harp on fear and negativity, in an effort to shrink voter turnout and tear down the front-runner.
Trump, of course, isn’t just any candidate, and this isn’t a typical presidential primary, so it’s no surprise that his ad didn’t come out of the traditional political playbook. But consider the uphill battle he faces in Iowa, where he lags behind Senator Ted Cruz, due largely to the prevalence of evangelical Christian voters. If you look at his ad blitz in that light, it suggests a much more pessimistic outlook from the man who promises to Make America Great Again.