How Money Won Trump the White House

By Thomas Ferguson, Director of Research, Institute for New Economic Thinking and Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, University of Massachusetts; Paul Jorgensen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Texas-Pan American, and Jie Chen, University Statistician, University of Massachusetts. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

It wasn’t Comey or the Russians. Trump prevailed because his campaign carefully targeted key states with late infusions of big money from private equity, casinos, and other far right contributors, a remarkable wave of donations from small donors, and substantial infusions from the candidate himself.

The U.S. presidential election of 2016 featured frontal challenges to the political establishments of both parties and ended in perhaps the most shocking upset in American political history. Neither the U.S. nor the world seems to have gotten over the experience.

All sorts of bizarre claims have been advanced about what happened. The latest is that Donald Trump did not really want to win. But data on political money that we analyze in our new paper are inconsistent with that contention.

The graph displayed  below shows just how far off is the claim that Trump did not contribute to his own campaign.

Trump Total Loans and Contributions to Campaign

Source: Calculated from Data for Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen, INET Working Paper No. 66; FEC Data

As the chart shows, Trump steadily advanced money in the form of both loans and contributions to his campaign, including some very substantial late contributions. Perhaps even more importantly for understanding the future, the Trump campaign (including allied SuperPacs and 527s) raised and spent more than $861 million—within reasonable hailing distance of the Clinton campaign’s $1.4 billion—although its serious fundraising began much later. Our paper analyzes the sources of that late money in detail for the first time.

The study also looks broadly at patterns of industrial structure and party competition in both the major party primaries and the general election. It attempts to identify the genuinely new, historically specific factors that led to the upheavals that shook the entire political system. It points especially to the steady growth of a “dual economy” that locks more and more Americans out of the middle class and into a life of unsteady, low-wage employment and, all too often, steep debts.

The paper draws extensively on a newly-assembled, more comprehensive database of political contributions to identify the specific political forces that coalesced around each candidate. It considers in detail how different investor blocs related to the Republican Party and the Trump campaign as the campaign progressed, as well as the role small contributors played in the various campaigns, especially that of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. It also critically evaluates claims about the final weeks of the election in the light of important overlooked evidence—including not only a huge wave of dark money spent on behalf of the Trump campaign, but a parallel wave of campaign finance that helped turn back the Democrats’ attempt to win the Senate.

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  1. Scott

    The findings are interesting and I hope to be able to read the article when I have time.

    I have an issue with saying that Trump’s campaign was “within reasonable hailing distance” – the number sighted was approximately 60% of what Clinton spent.

      1. Kiers

        delta in Dem Grift started well under Showbama term! (It’s not credible Donna Brazile didn’t know balance of DNC books when she took leadership….they’re disclosed periodically. She knew DNC was strategically bankrupted).

    1. saurabh

      60% of a large number is still a very large number. See this graph showing past campaign spending. Trump outspent McCain in 2008; Democrats have spent far more in recent elections, but Trump is also part of a general sea-change in campaign spending mostly due to Obama.

  2. Lynne

    What happened to that study NC linked to earlier that tracked how much the campaigns ran ads on policy issues vs personal attacks? It was not just the volume of $$, but how the campaigns chose to spend it. Hope we don’t forget that lesson in our revulsion at Trump

      1. jgordon

        The popular vote? The United States enticed states into joining the union by offering up the Electoral College as a guarantee that every state, no matter how small and fly-over, would have a say in how the union is run. There is no practical way to get rid of the Electoral College without breaking up the United States–so only people who are in favor of that should be harping about the popular vote now.

        1. bob

          “There is no practical way to get rid of the *anything* without breaking up the United States”

          jgordon, Democrat

          1. jgordon

            When I was younger I was an angry and resentful progressive Democrat. But the older I get the more concientious and hard-working I become. I no longer wish to see society collapse (even though it still will collapse regardless) and so have reluctantly found myself turning to the right. I’m not in a major poltical party now since they all seem to be pretty corrupt to me, but if I had pick one I’d go with Republican. I’m horrifed that someone accused me of being a Democrat.

            1. Barry Fay

              I agree completely. Corrupt or not, Republican positions on the environment, civil rights, social justice, financial regulation and internet freedom are all pretty much right on the money (if you will).

        2. Scott

          I haven’t read it recently, but IIRC, many of the sparcely-populated plains and mountain states were admitted in the end of the 19th century to give Republicans the electoral votes. I remember reading this about Nevada, Wyoming and splitting Dakota into two states.

        3. William

          Hard to take this seriously. You really think ND, SD, Nev. et al are going to give up the enormous benefit of being bound up with Cal., NY., NJ., for the preservation of a hopelessly antique electoral gimmick. They already get two senators, same as Cal., w/40 times the population as many of these highly subsidized small pop. states. Just sayin’.

        4. William

          Hard to take this seriously. You really think ND, SD, Nev. et al are going to give up the enormous benefit of being bound up with Cal., NY., NJ., for the preservation of a hopelessly antique electoral gimmick. They already get two senators, same as Cal., w/40 times the population as many of these highly subsidized small pop. states. Just sayin’. Directed respectfully to j Gordon’s comment

        5. Karl Kolchak

          And the problem with that would be?

          Seriously, it would mean the end of the empire, and that could only be a good thing for humanity.

        6. Whiteylockmandoubled

          Not true. National popular vote compact is now more than half way to the 270 vote threshold.

          Its practical effect is to ensure election of the popular vote winner, without requiring either a constitutional amendment or federal legislation.

        7. DHG

          I have been for splitting this country in 2 for decades. The peoples are no longer compatible with each other and those on the sides are not interested in working with the other.

    1. jgordon

      A ham sandwich could have won against Trump. It was Democrats who decided to cheat Bernie Sanders out of the nomination and run a candidate who was much less popular than a ham sandwich. If not for the Democrats being so in love with the idea of cheating and defrauding their base Trump wouldn’t be president today. If only…

      1. Bill

        Trump is more of a win for current crop of Dems than Sanders would have been, absolutely. keeping the power you have is much more important than serving your non-donor-class constituency.

      2. lmc

        All that ham sandwich had to say was two things: “peace” and “national health care.”
        The Democrats didn’t say it cause they don’t stand for it.

  3. jgordon

    Trump’s oponent spent almost twice what Trump spent and still managed lose, and brushing off a half billion dollar difference as in “hailing distance” seems a bit disengenuous. A better title might have been “How Money Won Trump the White House (Against an Incompetent Opponent Who Spent a Half Billion more and Still Managed to Lose)”.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      It matters who the candidate is. Also, absolute spending matters more than relative spending. It’s not like Trump was some underfunded unknown.

  4. Berial

    No matter which ‘side’ you want to win, these campaigns are tremendously expensive. How can ‘the ultra-rich’ NOT have the biggest say in how our laws get set up when getting elected cost this much?

  5. perpetualWAR


    The commenters claiming “APATHY” to those of us who choose to opt-out of the vote should read this article.

    He who has the most money, wins.

  6. Larry

    I don’t think that just because Trump loaned or donated money to his campaign it means he really wanted to win. It makes me wonder how involved he was with those very decisions, beyond signing off on something somebody on the campaign put before him. I do think it’s very realistic that people high up on his campaign staff and inner circle were trying very hard to win and could have pushed those personal contributions into happening.

    1. Oligarchs just wanna have fun?

      Very interesting article.

      is the total personal contribution of Trump’s own money (pacs and other doesnt count since it is other people’s money) a lot in comparison to his personal fortune or did he have this money just to entertain himself? Contributing, e.g., MUSD 10 out of of fortune of MUSD 500 is really entertainment money.

  7. chuck roast

    Amherst strikes again!
    First Reinhart and Rogoff and now the lazy-slug opinionators.
    They must be getting really annoyed in Boston. Maybe they will get annoyed enough to begin doing actual real world research.

    1. John

      Pretty sure both the authors for the OP are both UMass Boston professors. Rogoff teaches at Harvard (was at MIT at one point), and Reinhart doesn’t have a connection to Massachusetts.

      Interestingly though David Kotz is a UMass Amherst professor and is one of about two Marxists that were ever posted on here.

  8. Kim Kaufman

    I thought I remembered reading that loans that Trump made to his campaign were somehow structured so some or most of it came back to him – or benefitted one of his businesses.

  9. Kiers

    re “Trump dint want to win”…..Trump is a formidable propaganda psy-op operation! In reality, it is doubtful Trump can tweet, or type on a keyboard at all, much less a tiny phone keyboard. A simple public challenge would reveal it. Our compliant media will never reveal truth. The psy ops team shenanigans continue.

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