At the Richmond Coliseum, strobe lights flashed and music thumped. While several thousand supporters cheered, Donald J. Trump finally appeared at the podium.
“I’m going to be here a lot,” thundered the presumptive Republican for president. “We love you Richmond! We love you Virginia!”
It's all part of a formula that worked brilliantly through the GOP primaries. Stunning Republican traditionalists, Trump jumped from victory to victory while running a low-budget, off-the-cuff campaign as his June 10 appearance in Richmond showed.
But now, it’s fish-or-cut-bait time for the Donald. After several weeks of chaos, including the termination of his national campaign manager, Trump is struggling to build an organization in the Old Dominion.
“We’re late getting started,” says Corey A. Stewart, Trump’s campaign manager in Virginia. “We weren’t raising money during the primaries and that’s part of showing that Trump can’t be bought.” Stewart is a Prince William County supervisor and candidate for governor in 2017.
Indeed, in pure money sense, Trump is astonishingly behind. The Virginia Public Access Project reports that he's raised only $74,585 in Virginia, compared with $5.2 million raised by his presumptive Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.
Stewart says that’s going to change as the Virginia operation gets cranked up. There's certainly a lot to do. In Virginia, Trump has only a handful of paid staff, but Stewart says the hope is to hire up to 70 people soon.
Nor does the Trump campaign have an actual headquarters yet. Stewart says it is likely to be in Richmond because it’s between the Hampton Roads area and the outer suburbs of Washington such as Loudoun and Prince William counties, where Trump plans to get big votes.
Can he do it? Political analysts have their doubts.
“Compared to Mitt Romney or John McCain, you see the problem that Donald Trump is facing,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “He needs a lot more money and people and he needs them yesterday.”
“The challenge of the campaign is to do better than Romney did in the same areas,” says Bob Holsworth, a Richmond political analyst.
Holsworth says that while Trump’s approach in the primaries was obviously successful, he faces problems in Virginia, an important swing state.
Trump has brought up bad, one-sided trade deals by Democrats for holding America’s economy back. Virginia, however, “is not a state where the vast majority has been impacted by trade,” Holsworth says. It may be the case in the Southside textile belt and the coalfields. “But he has those votes already.”
Another uncertainty is how Trump will reach undecided voters. Stewart says that Trump has initiated a new type of campaign that relies less on the usual television ads and direct mailings. Instead, it makes great use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
“Social media is a lot less expensive and more effective,” Stewart says.
Farnsworth says that “when you don’t have money coming in, social media will always be the smart choice.”
Holsworth notes that social media “might be a declining influence.”
As the Richmond rally showed, many of Trump’s supporters are middle-aged to elderly white people who generally use social media less and may be more influenced by the television ads they’ve seen for years.
The Clinton campaign seems to be getting the message. Clinton has bought blocks of ads worth $10 million in eight swing states, including Virginia to send our her message very soon, according to The Virginian-Pilot. In Hampton Roads alone, viewers may be seeing 1,000 commercials in June and July. Clinton is also targeting Roanoke, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, but, curiously, not so much in Richmond.
Similar ads are showing up in North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Another problem for Trump is that his strong views on immigration, Islam and economics, along with his propensity for personal insults, has made the GOP establishment reluctant to embrace him.
Stewart says that one of the immediate goals of the campaign is to reach out to prominent state Republicans to shore up their support. They have feelers out to former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, who supported Ted Cruz in the primaries. “We are still trying to work things out,” Stewart says.
Ed Gillespie, a prominent GOP fundraiser who's running for governor in 2017, isn't on board. “He’s too focused on himself," Stewart says of Gillespie. “He’s not helping anybody.”
There may be time for Trump to get a professional campaign rolling, but it isn’t infinite.
Stewart says that “we’ve had a rough patch the last 10 says or two weeks.” During that period, Trump has caught criticism for calling for profiling Muslims in the United States, questioned the racial heritage and potential conflict of a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit involving him, and fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
During this period, Clinton has generally maintained a seven point lead in national and state polls. “If the seven to eight point with Clinton stays,” Farnsworth says, “he’ll have a hard time convincing Republicans to campaign for him.”.
Holsworth says that money isn’t everything. “Cuccinelli was outspent by Terry McAuliffe by a seven to one margin and he still came close to winning,” he says.